Published: August 21, 2018
Swimming with sharks is often portrayed as high-energy, adrenaline-pumping activity. The reality is much different, said UT marine science-biology major Taylor Cunningham ’19.
“You’re in open water so you can’t see the bottom. It’s open blue, and it’s very peaceful,” said Cunningham, who is the intern coordinator for One Ocean Diving in Hawaii.
One Ocean takes swimmers to a ridge in the open ocean that’s about 400 to 500 feet deep where Galapagos, sandbar, and the occasional scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks congregate to rest.
“People get out into the water with the sharks and realize they’re not what media portrays them to be, and seeing people come back saying, ‘Wow, I was so scared, and now I love them and want to protect them,’ is really rewarding for us.”
Cunningham grew up in Orlando and was always a swimmer, most at home in the water. She came to UT wanting a “Seaworld-esque” job of dolphin training, but after one biology course in her first semester with Daniel Huber, a shark expert, she was hooked.
“He’d always talk about the shark research he was doing, and I found it really fascinating. I emailed him and said, if you’re ever needing help in the lab, I would love to assist you,” said Cunningham, who was successful at securing a spot with Huber working on Hammerhead hydrodynamics. “I’ve always loved sharks and was never afraid of them. Working through Huber’s research solidified that it’s what I wanted to do.”
The challenge of changing perceptions of sharks was another pull for Cunningham, who would like to work in conservation.
“It’s a hard battle to fight for protection for sharks and conservation for sharks, because people don’t like them, and people don’t want to protect something they don’t like,” she said. “Half the battle is convincing people that they’re worth protecting. I think it’s an important field of research for that reason, because if we can understand a little bit more about them, maybe we can change the idea that they are monsters.”
While searching around on social media one day, Cunningham came across posts that looked like what she envisioned as her dream job. One Ocean Diving uses eco-tourism of shark diving to subsidize their research, education and conservation efforts. So she reached out to them and served as an intern in the summer of 2017. She returned this summer to coordinate the intern program, as well as begin a year-long training to be a safety diver.
“They’re the active researchers, they’re the biologists who run the charters, they’re responsible for keeping everyone safe in the water,” she said of the safety divers. “The first year of training is so they can comprehensively understand every behavior sharks have.”
When she’s spending a day on the boat training and shadowing current fulltime divers, she’s at the harbor by 6 a.m. to start setting up and get the boat ready to launch. A full day of charters can run from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“It is definitely a long day, but extremely rewarding. Each charter gives me the opportunity to speak to new people about why sharks are so important and give them the opportunity to see sharks for themselves,” Cunningham said. “I get the opportunity to train and learn from the certified safety divers, which is also an amazing experience.”
Her work with the other interns is fulfilling as well. The year-round position has her reviewing all intern applications and organizing the accepted interns for each semester. Interns are responsible for assisting in data collection, educational outreach through social media and personalized projects depending on their skill set.
“Since taking over the intern program, I have had the ability to get others involved in what One Ocean Diving does through research, education and conservation, and it is extremely rewarding knowing I played a small part in getting people involved.”
After her first summer with One Ocean, Cunningham was encouraged to start a business she had been considering for some time. Watersoul Foundation is a clothing line that gives 70 percent of profits to shark research centers around the world. She’d love a career in doing active research in the field and working with One Ocean and her professors at UT is paving the way.
“I definitely think that my professors, and especially working with Dr. Huber as a mentor for the past three years, has had an influence on my experience and ability to handle a job like working with One Ocean,” Cunningham said. “I've gained a new appreciation for all the tireless, behind-the-scenes work that goes on within the conservation and research fields, and my love for the small part I get to help play in their work grows every day.”
For more information on the internship or the Watersoul Foundation, such as becoming a Watersoul ambassador, email Cunningham at email@example.com.