Shark Week Presents: Liz Parkinson
Shark diver. Stunt woman. Environmentalist. Today on Shark Week Presents, we chat to Liz Parkinson (if you’re not already following her shark filled instagram then go. do. it. now.) Keep reading to find out how her love affair with sharks began and what it’s like to be an advocate for some of the ocean’s top predators…
Hey Liz! Tell us a little about you.
My story starts the same way every time. I was born in England but grew up in South Africa. I was a competitive swimmer and on finishing high school was recruited to the US where I went to the University of Hawaii on a scholarship, followed by Florida State University. Swimming was my life and for that period of time, took me all over the world shaping me into the person I am today. I always gravitated towards athletics as a kid, I hated being indoors and generally was always on the move doing something. I guess this fed into my adult life, because I have never worked in an office, I can’t imagine not wearing flip-flops and shorts to work and I love being in water. Inevitably one thing led to another and I began my working career taking people scuba diving and free diving. My involvement with sharks and the specific work I did with them did not come into full fruition until I landed in the Bahamas and began working with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. It was here that I turned my focus more towards sharks. I have worked with people who understand the value of sharks, not only from an educational standpoint but from an environmentally sustainable one to.
Where and how did the love affair with Sharks begin?
I was a little kid on our annual family trip to Southern Ireland visiting my grandparents during our summer holidays. My grandfather was a geologist, and he had had a long career working for the British Government all over the world. Throughout his many travels and adventures he had collected an array of rocks and fossils from mountaintops to the ocean floor. One fossil I always remembered, which sat on his desk as a paperweight, was a Megalodon tooth that he found in Greenland on the top of a glacier. I was never allowed to touch it but I always asked him about it and loved hearing the stories of these huge animals that once lived in the ocean. Everyone has a memory or two of certain people that never goes away, he is one of my memories. His stories and descriptions sparked my own imagination and while I did not realize it at the time, it paved a path for me in a way I never would have imagined. I have that paperweight now, and it is one of my most cherished possessions.
Could you tell us about your work in shark conservation?
There has been a tremendous growth in ocean and shark conversation over the past several years. Huge topics including Plastics, Shark Finning, and over fishing are now built into day to day conversations and not just something that is being kept ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This word ‘Conservation’, carries with it a tremendous amount of weight and responsibility, it is becoming a defining movement to many, and the focal point for businesses, non-profits and organizations worldwide.
This being said, so much can be done in day-to-day life, simply living mindfully, is to help. Shark Conservation is not just about sharks, it is about the environment they live in, the communities that depend on their habitat to survive and the education of the people in these areas. There is no hiding the fact that I love sharks and share this passion with an incredible group of people. Everyone does their part in their own way be it through social media, community work, education, art, science, research, it is all important it is all relevant.
I work closely with several non profits ‘Project Aware’ and ‘Shark Angels’ to name a couple, groups like these go out into the community and raise money to help educate and act through schools, diving communities and organizations helping to spread knowledge by acting and being present to physically help. Every year a team of people run both the New York and the Chicago Marathons to raise money for shark awareness (Project Aware, ‘Run for Sharks’). The ‘Shark Angels’, run fundraising campaigns to supply financing to their volunteers to travel and visit school teaching kids, (some of which have never seen the ocean) about sharks and why they are important. I have spoken to kids, helped in PhD studies, taken people diving, lead beach clean ups, helped replant coral, worked on documentaries, on TV and in films to passionately share with others experiences with these amazing animals. There are some real champion humans out there, all doing what they think is right. That’s the magical part there is no right or wrong, it all helps, it is all important, it all counts.
Social media has played a key role in changing perceptions of sharks in recent years. How do you use social media as a tool in shark advocacy?
Social media is indeed a powerful tool. The media in general has always been the publics main source of information concerning sharks, including being responsible for creating the stereotype that surrounds them today. Sharks undeniably fascinate us. There is definitely a love hate relationship that exists, which has been proven time and time again on feedback from social media users. In a world, where you are for the most part classified depending on how many likes and followers you have, the viewing audience for still and video photography is at the highest is has ever been. So for me, similar to many others, it is a great platform to help portray and advocate for sharks in a positive way. I love still photography (the way a photo can transport your imagination) and I feel that through the images taken of me with sharks or ones I take myself, if I can make them as relatable to the viewer as possible, maybe then the animal will be seen in a different light.
Through questions and curiosity comes education and knowledge. I get criticized all the time and bashed for being reckless, but that just comes from people with fear and a deep misguided understanding of an animal so vital to the health and sustainability of our oceans. Great images also make people excited and inquisitive. I get asked everyday about sharks, what it is like diving with them and being so close. I love it, it engages conversation about the environment, learning to scuba dive, studying science and biology, inevitably ending with someone I don’t know, who lives on the other side of the world, thinking about sharks wanting to do more to help – all coming from a moment in time captured by a friend of me doing what I love.
What have you learned from being a shark diver?
The great thing about being in the ocean, is that you could dive the same spot everyday and it is a new experience each time. The diversity of animal life and the every changing environment add this incredible diversity to the mix. Then on top of this you have sharks. Spending time in the ocean with sharks is a wonderful experience. When you become a part of their world and are swimming around everything happens slowly and much quieter then you might think. They are in their natural environment. It is no secret that sharks are predators, but so are many other creatures in the ocean, as too are may things on land which we would encounter most days. Most people that I dive with who see a shark are amazed at how unthreatened and pretty mellow the experience is. Sharks are fish not mammals, they do not have the same way of thinking that we do, so you have to look at them more as an instinctual animal and take that human emotion that all they want to do is eat you, out of the equation. The cliché ‘they are more afraid of you then you are of them,’ really is true. If you swim towards a shark quickly they will turn and swim away.
Go into the water with an open mind. Forget what you have been told and taught throughout you life. Enjoy seeing an animal in the habitat it is suppose to be. Look how well adapted they are to survive in this incredibly hard environment and just float there. Enjoy watching Mother Nature at her finest!
We’re always trying to encourage more women to participate in marine science and conservation careers. What has your experience been, as a women in this field?
Times are changing. Those who have a voice and want to be heard can be. There are so many incredible women out there who have a passion and are determined to make it in their field. The world and change within that world is such a huge undertaking that it really is going to take all of us to make a difference.
And finally – favorite shark?
I get asked this question a lot and it is a hard one. I know so many wonderful Caribbean Reef Sharks, Hammerheads and Nurse Sharks, but for me there is nothing quite like scuba diving or free diving with Tiger Sharks. They are the most perfect example of their species, swimming with grace and power, yet they are undeniably curious.