Kathy examines trash left behind on a beach.

It all started with a love for the ocean, a poignant documentary and a serendipitous encounter with a whale shark.

“I was very emotionally moved [while watching Sharkwater], seeing images of sharks being killed or having their fins cruelly cut off before being thrown back into the water still alive,” Kathy recalls.

“I decided I couldn’t be a hypocrite to my students any longer”

In 2011, the avid diver found herself snorkelling alongside a whale shark in the waters of Exmouth, Australia, a chance event which propelled her to quit her job as a teacher of seven years and dive headfirst into marine and shark conservation. “I decided I couldn’t be a hypocrite to my students any longer, just talking about conservation but not doing anything about it,” she says.

Kathy on a trip to Lombok, Indonesia, where she works with local fishermen to end shark fishing.

Her first order of business was building The Dorsal Effect, an ecotourism project that works with fishermen in Lombok, Indonesia, to end shark fishing by providing them with alternative livelihoods. Instead of fishing for sharks, they take tourists on snorkelling trips to see the beautiful creatures up close.

The beauty of Lombok

But it wasn’t all smooth-sailing.

“Contrary to popular belief, talking to the shark fishermen wasn’t the hardest part; in fact, it was the easiest. The hardest part was starting something from scratch without any prior business knowledge, but with a lot of emotions,” Kathy says. “Finding the balance was, and still is, a great challenge, but I’ve met good people along the way who have helped me by sharing their experience and marketing or business expertise!”

Influencing The Future

“I used to get very angry talking to skeptical people who would scoff at me for saving sharks, no thanks to the negative image of sharks they’d cultivated from movies like Jaws,” she says.

Kathy in her natural element – teaching children about shark conservation!

“I believe the future of the world lies in the future generation”

“However, I now channel my attention more towards children and teenagers who are much easier to influence and spread the message to. Giving shark and marine conservation talks to young people in schools and institutions really invigorates and excites me, especially when I see the spark of curiosity for the oceans in their eyes. I believe the future of the world lies in the future generation, and I hope to inspire them to take action in their own ways. I guess you can’t take the teacher out of me after all!”

Kathy’s Ocean-Saving Tips:

Avoid Ordering Shark’s Fin Soup or any other seafood that contain endangered species, for obvious reasons.
Use Less Plastic When plastics end up in the ocean, they never go away. and end up choking and killing marine life. Try bringing your own cutlery, water bottle, food containers and cloth shopping bags when you visit the supermarket.
Volunteer Be part of the solution by participating in the ICCS coastal clean-up project to help rid our beaches and oceans of trash. For more details, visit coastalcleanup.nus.edu.sg.

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Text: Elizabeth Liew
Photos: Caroline Pang