Women in Science: Jenny Waack
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Welcome to Shark Guardian’s Women in Science feature where we highlight the incredible work that women do in shark and ocean conservation around the world. Our next Citizen scientist is Jenny Waack leading conservation efforts in the Galapagos. Without further ado let’s get stuck in!
Q1. Shark and ocean conservation weren’t always your day job. Can you tell us where you started your career, and when was the turning point?
I started my career in Germany as a banker, and whilst I enjoyed the job I sensed there was more to life. I always had the urge to travel, and at 29 I took a three month long sabbatical which turned into me selling everything I owned and going traveling for a year-long sabbatical just before I turned 32. My friends and family thought I’d gone bananas, but many doors opened and I had many experiences, some beautiful and some showing the things we do as humankind that pollute our oceans and earth. Now, four years on life is very different.
Meeting the owner of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project was really the turning point and inspired Galapagos Shark Diving (www.galapagossharkdiving.com). I became, and still am, an active member of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.
Q2. How did you come to be involved with the Galapagos Whale Shark Project (GWSP) project as a team member?
It was on a dive live-aboard when I met my future work colleagues including Jonathan Green, the founder of the GWSP. He had set up the research project ten years earlier and was giving a presentation on whale sharks and how little we know about them. Whilst I had no experience that seemed relevant on the surface, I traded my skills in web design for the opportunity to learn about whale shark research, how to collect data and to support the project even further. Now 5 years later I support the project in web design, reports, fundraising, etc. but also in actual physical work like taking blood and biopsy samples from a whale sharks, photo identification and other tasks done on our yearly field trips.
Q3. Can you tell us about the work that the GWSP do? What data do you collect as part of the project and how has the data been used so far?
When we spot a shark it is in a free-swimming state which means we don’t stop the shark, this gives us about 45 seconds to collect as much information as possible.
The first and most important task is to attach a satellite tags which allow us to follow individuals as they move both on a horizontal and vertical plane. This has proven to be incredibly valuable; we’re trying to track their migration and see where the whale sharks are going after they leave the Galapagos islands. We recently had one piece of data showing a whale shark going directly from the Galapagos islands to the Cocos islands, and we’ve seen that the sharks regularly use the swimway between the Galapagos EEZ and Ecuador.
Photo: Google Maps
More tags are being analyzed all the time and this data is vital for implementing protective legislation. However, there are gaps in tracking data currently as the tags don’t function past a depth of approx. 2000 meters. This becomes a problem when tracking their migration as they typically swim in waters too deep for us to follow. Whilst we believe whale sharks to be more or less annual migrators, we don’t know whether they use specific routes. Using tags could identify these routes which we could then protect, in turn protecting many other species such as rays and turtles. Another example of data collected from these tags is that a whale shark returned to the Galapagos after leaving the marine reserve. Collecting this data is vital for governments to be able to change their protective legislation and create more protected areas. This is where more citizen science such as photo ID’s is useful, so if more and more divers upload their data to an international database, it may show migration routes and result is data for legislative change.
Whale shark populations in the Galapagos are 99.8% adult females so for the first time a couple of years ago we were the first team that took successfully ultrasound of a whale shark in free-swimming state - what was never done before. Sadly for us, their skin is too thick for a typical strength ultrasound used on humans so we’re on a mission to find more powerful technology. However, we were the first team to be able to identify the ovaries and egg follicles so it was still a great success but we hope that as soon as COVID is over we can continue our work. The unique population of whale sharks in the Galapagos raises the question ‘why are so many females coming to the Galapagos’ and the first idea that pops into everyone’s mind is that maybe they are pregnant and here to give birth but in order to prove that, on the one hand we have the ultrasounds but also we can take blood samples. So from taking blood you can assess the health of the whale sharks, look at their lactic acid levels to see in what state the whale sharks are in but we can also analyse hormones. However, we don’t have anything to compare these too. In a human, we can say whether someone is pregnant or not because we have a base hormonal level to compare it too. If we don’t have the normal hormonal levels of a whale shark then there is nothing to compare it too. For this reason, we take constant collections of blood samples so that we have something to compare them to. We take samples in different months because in June we start to see whale sharks coming into the Galapagos and then in October whale sharks leave. We can then see whether the hormonal levels at the beginning of the season are higher, so if the whale sharks were to give birth at the end of the season their hormonal levels would decrease.
They also use non-invasive techniques such as collating photo-ID databases and taking biometric measurements such as overall length for growth rate estimation, and note environmental factors and behavior.
Q4. From this work you were inspired to do more. Tell us how your company Galapagos Shark Diving came to be?
I knew that the collection of visual data such as photo-ID and citizen science were really important, and divers are a captive audience with both the passion and opportunity to provide this vital data. Divers typically love the ocean and want to protect the species they see, so to open a dive tour company with a focus on conservation and environmental awareness seemed to be the next step! Whilst on trips we offer daily educational presentations relating to the Galapagos Islands, Cocos Island, GWSP and Whale Shark Research and show the divers how they can support and collect important data to support conservation worldwide.
Q5. You mentioned giving daily talks about shark conservation. Can you tell us more about this?
Yes, we not only give talks on the various whale shark research projects local to the Galapagos but also talk about the threats shark face globally. They not only increase their knowledge about sharks they also learn about the different citizen science programs locally and worldwide. We show divers that wherever they are in the world there will be a citizen science database where they can upload their photos of the species they have seen and make a real contribution to science with every dive. Governments will only protect what they know - so as more facts we can provide as more likely we will protect what we love. A scientist can only be in one place at the time - hundreds of divers are diving every day everywhere in the world. So joining forces everyone can contribute to research, conservation and in the long term legislation and protection.
Additionally Galapagos Shark Diving is donating USD $300 for every diver diving with GSD plus all their profits directly to the GWSP. So by choosing GSD divers really do contribute to science and help protect whale sharks - by donating plus collecting vital data.
Q7. Do you have any advice for women who are thinking about a career in science?
It is never too late to start a career in science or to help conservation. As more people help to protect certain species, the more likely we are to preserve and guarantee certain species will survive. In a few years time, we want to still see whale sharks and hammerheads etc, and generations after us still to have a healthy planet. We know that the oceans are responsible for a lot of our oxygen and cleaning of the air, and as a friend of mine once said ‘without blue, no green’. As more women leave a positive impact in the world and help conservation and help the oceans, the more success we will have. The more women that engage and raise awareness on what other people can do and how we can change together, the more likely we are to achieve something together.
Lastly, we are never too old to change careers and do something good.