Jillian Morris, a marine biologist, photographer, and educator, goes diving with sharks as routinely as people commute to work during rush-hour traffic. Each involves mutual respect. The difference is highway driving can be hard on the nerves.
“I’m really lucky because I live in an incredibly sharky place and actually live there because of the sharks,” said Morris, who has lived in Bimini in the Bahamas for the past five-and-a-half years.
Morris belongs to an increasingly influential cadre of global shark conservationists and travels the world, filming for The Discovery Channel, BBC, National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN, and other media outlets. Her passion includes education. She founded Sharks4Kids, a Florida-based nonprofit, in 2012 with her husband, Duncan Brake, an Emmy-nominated cinematographer.
» Related: The yin and yang about two sharks
Morris, 36, who grew up on a lake in Sebec Village, Maine, took a timeout this week to answer some questions for The Daily Fray.
● TDF: When did you decide sharks were going to be your career path and how did it happen?
My parents always took me to the ocean and I was fascinated. Not sure there was a single moment, but loved the water from an early age. … I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist by the time I was 5, but seeing a nurse shark while snorkeling at the age of 9 ignited a lifelong passion for working with these animals. As time passed and I learned more about sharks, it was inevitable that not only my career, but my life would revolve around these animals.
[Morris transferred to the University of New England to study animal behavior and marine science after a internship at Mote.]
I met some incredible people who remain an inspiration … It was my first experience working with sharks and [Mote] really helped to shape my career path and goals.
● As a photographer and videographer (also an underwater model), your list of professional credits is long. How did that skill set evolve and what came first, your love for sharks or the camera?
My mom always had a camera, so I was exposed to photography from an early age, but it wasn't until I was working as a researcher and naturalist that I really developed a love of cameras and the power of photo and video. I had my first underwater photography experience while working on a research support vessel. The owner had several cameras and encouraged me to try them out. There is something truly remarkable about telling a story with the capture of a single moment. As I worked around the work doing research, teaching scuba and acting as a dive guide, I realized my images were allowing me to share this incredible world with others. The next progression was actually teaching underwater photo and video.
Sharks have always been my favorite animal to photograph, but along the journey I realized just how valuable shark images can be. We can tell their story in a much more realistic light than is often reflected in mainstream media. We have the power to tell their story and help people understand how remarkable they really are. We also have the ability to inspire others to dive in and explore the incredible ocean world.
● Speaking of your camerawork, your recent photo of a hammerhead and a nurse shark forming a yin and yang symbol went fairly viral. What did it take to get that shot and where does it rank among your personal favorites?
This is one of my favorite images because it is unique. Two species of shark, coexisting in a beautiful ballet. I could have never created this shot, but free diving allowed me to get just above the sharks, quietly and peacefully, to get the image. We are so lucky to have these incredible creatures in our backyard and I get to spend a lot of time with them each year.
● And if we throw out Bimini, where is your favorite location to dive with sharks (a favorite species?)
I’m really lucky because I live in an incredibly sharky place and actually live there because of the sharks. A close second would be Beqa Lagoon in Fiji. We had 60 bulls on a dive and not like anywhere else I've dived on the planet.
My favorite species is the great hammerhead shark. There is something absolutely mesmerizing about being in the water with them. It really doesn't compare to anything else I've ever dived with. So lucky to have them so close to home!
● As founder of Shark4Kids and now author of "Norman, the Nurse Shark," children's education is one of your priorities. What are you trying to teach?
I have always loved sharks but I realize that most people don't feel the same way. The world of shark conservation is extremely frustrating and heartbreaking at times, but kids always remind me there is hope. My goal through Sharks4Kids is to empower and inspire them, providing them with the tools to speak up and to take action. Kids have a voice and then can make a difference, so we are just working to help them realize what they are capable of doing.
● The "Jaws" media generation, including Hollywood, TV, and newspaper headlines, takes a big part of the bad rap for perpetuating stereotypes. Is anything different now?
Sharks are definitely getting some better PR as we learn more about them and are able to share this on a global scale, but there is still a lot of fear and misunderstanding. We still see "monster," "killer," "rogue" and "man-eaters" in headlines, so there is still work to do. Sharks are wild animals and deserve our respect, but they are not mindless killing machines. They are intelligent, can be highly social, and are a vital part of healthy reefs and healthy oceans.
» 5=Q&A appears periodically in The Daily Fray, spotlighting people, issues, places, and things. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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