Shark Guardian’s Women in Science: Mareike Dornhege
Mareike is a shark researcher based in Japan who gained her PhD in shark ecology. She was featured on Shark Week 2020 as the host for “Alien Sharks 5” and is co-author of a paper which is the largest study of coral reef sharks and rays in the world done to date.
Q1. Do you think that growing up by the water influenced your decision to be a shark scientist? Absolutely! I grew up in a sailing family and was around the water since I was a kid. The sea was never foreign to me but always home.
Q2. What brought you to Japan? Curiosity! I always liked the natural beauty and sense of aesthetics in Japan, and came on a long trip 15 years ago. But I’d have never dreamt to stay there for over a decade.
Q3. You’re working with fishermen in Japan on your “The Old Men and the Sea” project, can you tell us about your findings there? How have the shark trends changed over the years? The research project was looking at the data before collected data. Fisheries data is only a few decades old at best, but these old fishermen have anecdotal knowledge of what the oceans looked like before then. Sadly many told me they found fish stocks have halved or been reduced up to 80% by their estimates for the Pacific.
Mareike with fisherman
Q4. On the paper that you contributed to in 2020 about Global status and conservation potential of reef sharks can you tell us where you did your research? My research was conducted in Okinawa, the tropical islands of Japan. We set BRUV - baited remote underwater video cameras - to observe the biodiversity and biomass of sharks and rays.
Q5. What has been one of the best experiences you have had that was directly due to your career?
Definitely hosting a show for shark week which has always been one of my dreams! When I was a little girl, I always said I want to be David Attenborough when I grow up. As I became a marine ecologist, shark week was the goal for me. Women are underrepresented on the program, and it is often more sensational than scientific. My show was one contribution to change that.
Q6. Tell us about your favorite shark encounter.
My favorite sharks are grey reef sharks, and there’s a lot of them around the big Island of Hawaii. One day I was diving and observing a few juveniles circling in a big natural underwater theatre, picture a stadium created by coral. I was peeking in through a crack and feeling really sneaky thinking they hadn’t noticed me yet. After a few min, I turned around to swim back and about 5 of them, stacked on top of each other had been watching me from behind the whole time! Can’t outwit their smarts and super keen senses.
Q7. We have to ask; do you have a favorite shark?
Grey reef shark
Q8. Have you had any unexpected experiences thanks to your career path?
Besides shark week, definitely working with old Japanese fishermen. I’d never thought I’d do that! They were the enemy for me before, but working with them I learnt that many of them have deep knowledge of the ocean and respect for its wildlife. What really needs to change is the system.
I also was a visiting scientist at a private girls school in upstate NY and it was a great experience teaching these girls. The head science teacher who brought me on said "they need to see scientists aren’t just middle aged men in lab coats"
Q9. Do you recall any other women in your specific field before entering it? If so, how was your relationship with them?
Yes I do and I also had several famous advisers on my project like Dr Shelley Clarke. I admired them a lot and also had the honor to meet Dr Sylvia Earle at a conference.
Q10. Have you ever encountered any experiences of blatant sexism in the workplace?
Yes, absolutely, especially working with people in the fishing industry. Once a shark buyer asked me on the dock at 5am if I came to Japan to find a husband, another time I went out to dinner with other researchers and fishermen and someone suggested I should pour drinks for the captains.
Q11. Have you had any experience with issues regarding the gender pay gap?
Luckily not that I know of, everyone gets paid poorly in academia
Q12. Do you have any advice for other women who are considering a career in marine science?
Do it. Science is a big field, you will be able to carve out and find your niche. Be bold. Many people thought I was crazy to study sharks, but I did it, I was on TV, I published in nature. I remember our high school career advisor laughed when I said I wanted to be a marine biologist and asked me in a sarcastic tone if I liked whales and that’s why. Don’t listen to the cynics. Don’t let them drag you down into their tomb.
You can study marine sciences and have many careers: academia, NGOs, education, tourism, government, media. I work in science media now and still have my own project oceaneye.io on the side which is giving back to local communities through eco tourism.
Join us on Saturday, May 28th for an instagram live chat with Mareike!
Follow Mareike on Instagram @mareike_and_the_sharks