In Pursuit of the Blue: My Journey to Know, to Love and to Save the Marine Realm
Author: Dr. Shaili Johri
I grew up in Ahmedabad, a city in northwestern India, which is landlocked, with hot and dry summers. My parents loved to travel, which meant we traversed through the length and breadth of the country, but always on land or visiting shores in the west and south India. During summer or winter holidays, you could find me often glued to the television watching every documentary of David Attenborough’s, every episode of crocodile Dundee, and the biopics of Jane Goodall. The terrestrial escapades were fascinating, but the underwater world was so stunning and awe-inspiring to me, more so, ironically, because of how inaccessible it seemed! Perhaps, the reason why the marine realm seemed so unreachable was that no one on-screen looked like me or belonged to where I hailed from. It thus seemed that wildlife biology and marine sciences were not meant for people like me!
Grissly crossing in Denali National Park, Alaska.
My love for biology and its inner workings stayed alive through the years and traversing through academia I pursued my passion to understand the genetic code and how it made the world tick through millennia of evolution!
Since, in my mind, I could not even dream of researching the underwater realm, I went all the way to the US to work on the neurogenetics of flies and worms instead of grad school! At some point in grad school, while ‘fly pushing’ as a Drosophila biologist, having watched many Sundance documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish, having enjoyed and been inspired by nature in its glorious grandeur in the mountains of Utah. I also learned about the catastrophic impacts of climate change, habitat destruction and species extinctions around the world.
Preparing to climb Volcan Concepcion in Nicaragua.
I stopped to ask myself - why am I not part of the solution to conserve nature? Who will, if not me, break the glass ceiling and lead the life I want to lead, the one where I serve nature by preserving it? I was past the point of looking for people who look like me and belong where I do, in the field of wildlife conservation research and practice. Despite the lack of representation, I was driven to chart my path and do what I would be the happiest and most content doing with respect to research.
That winter, during the Christmas holidays, I went back to India. I volunteered with a tiger conservation non-profit in the forests of central India. I lived in the village bordering the forest and worked closely with forest guards who were well-versed in every turn, tree, and tiger in our study area. My work involved surveying forests to understand each tigers’ habitat use and surveying humans to identify ways to mitigate conflicts arising from human encroachment in the area. It was the most exhilarating and eye-opening experience of my life. Listening to the stories of every villager whom I surveyed, I realized how dependent on the forest they were for generations for sustenance. Everyone lived in harmony until habitat destruction occurred in other parts of the tiger range. Then, the human population increased everywhere, putting increased pressure on the forests. After working on many species conservation projects, I soon realized that mitigating human-wildlife conflicts is the key to sustainable conservation. This is a recurring theme and human rehabilitation for wildlife conservation remains the most critical and enduring lesson in my career. Importantly, I did see a tiger towards the very end of my stay! Nothing could have prepared me for that first encounter looking into the eye of the tiger, in all its majesty after its conquest of a sloth bear! Something was now brewing inside me stronger than before, and the urge to switch to a conservation career took form.
Two years after my encounter with the tigers, I found myself on a solo trip to Nicaragua. After having survived a rough ride on a panga boat, I was glad to make it to one of the Corn islands, a tiny two km speck in the Caribbean. While staying at a hippie resort on the island, which was made with only reclaimed materials such as drift wood and fishing gear, I discovered their resident dive instructor! Since there was no one else in the dive class, I was to have the undivided attention of this free spirited dive instructor, which was a huge blessing for someone as terrified yet intrigued by water as I was. After a few failed attempts at learning basic dive techniques in choppy waters at the shore, the dive instructor decided learning would be most effective if we ventured offshore! And, boy, she was right! I got in the swing of things soon after we anchored, and just as I was about to commence my first ever dive with unabated excitement and terror, all at once, I was informed I was diving over a nurse shark habitat! Well, I had come too far and endured much fear, to now, not dive! Low and behold, the dive was exhilarating, gorgeously other-worldly with fan and brain corals in iridescent colors, sea creatures of all shapes sizes and colors and of course, I was inspected and circled by a curious nurse shark, as we hovered over her nesting area! I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that I was a different person that dive onwards!
Diving with whale sharks at Ningaloo reef, western Australia.
I finished graduate school. After talking with some ecologists about a career in conservation and dogged pursuit of many emails and phone calls to one of the then famous conservation biologists, I secured a postdoctoral fellowship in wolf conservation. This fellowship was a big step forward and allowed me a nuanced understanding of the many remaining questions and new threats faced in wildlife conservation. Next, I attended the marine conservation congress organized by the Society for Conservation Biology, Marine section. Here, I experienced for the very first time the inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds, races, and cultures, as keynote speakers, and all of their stories were incredible to hear. Listening to these speakers was the first time I felt that I belonged in conservation and that I could make a difference someday!
Mom, with me on a research trip.
From here on, I ventured to new frontiers in my home country India, which happens to be the second-largest shark landing nation in the world. I was supported by a seed grant by the Society for Conservation Biology marine section to study shark and ray biodiversity in a region of India where they face immense fishing pressure but remain understudied. In an exciting turn of events, my mother and a dear aunt could find a network of people through their former colleagues in the most remote parts of the country. This network of people became my support system. It enabled my students and me to research areas that would have been otherwise unsafe and impenetrable. I have since built on this work and applied my genetic skills to investigate biodiversity and trade of sharks and rays across the Indian Ocean. Being at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine station among the ‘giants’ of marine conservation such as Drs. Fiorenza Micheli and Barbara Block have been genuinely inspiring. They have provided me many opportunities to grow as a researcher and steer the organization towards inclusion, diversity, and equity in marine sciences. Outside of Hopkins, my work with Drs Elizabeth Dinsdale (Flinders University, Australia), Kathryn Matthews (Oceana), and Rod Fujita (Environmental Defense Fund) have been some of the most rewarding experiences with regards to lessons in genomics research, ocean advocacy, science policy, and inclusion. Today, through Hopkins and the DEI committee at the Society for Conservation Biology Marine section, I attempt to make marine science and conservation as accessible as possible. Inclusion and equity are the keys to effective and sustainable conservation. My mom and my partner, Anand, have been a constant pillar of support through the ups and downs of this, sometimes arduous and sometimes beautiful, journey, despite their extreme fear of the ocean, and I can never thank them enough!
With Anand, my pillar of support.
Unfortunately, though, the television scenes from my childhood are still true, diversity and inclusion are far from the norm in marine conservation. As rewarding as my career is, everyday seems like an uphill battle, where I know that I and people like me, have to work harder and longer and stronger, to reach the same goals, to get the same grants, to publish the same papers,
and to get a spot on the field trip, all of which may appear to be a piece of cake for non-minorities. It was India’s independence day yesterday, and as is the tradition in our home, we sang the national anthem to honor the many sacrifices made by our freedom fighters and martyrs. This reminded me once again, as to the resounding words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—success is slow and requires many sacrifices and perseverance. If I can make the smallest difference in saving the many marine species teetering on the verge of extinction today, it will all be worth it! So, I must keep walking and in the process, chart the path for my fellow men and women, towards a better, equitable, just, inclusive and sustainable future!
How to cite this page:
Johri, S. (2021). In Pursuit of the Blue: My Journey to Know, to Love and to Save the Marine Realm. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/in-pursuit-of-the-blue. https://doi.org/10.54823/4v8o0w2k