GoAbroad Interview

Lindsay Graff - Fiji Shark Studies Instructor

Lindsay Graff - Fiji Shark Studies Instructor

Lindsay has undergrad and graduate degrees in marine and shark biology and has had the opportunity to work with sharks all over the world; from the Bahamas to South Africa to Fiji. She has been working in Fiji since 2012, teaching Shark Studies courses and working on shark research (while shark diving all the time). She grew up in Vermont and loves going back there to ski, read, and play with her potcake dog, Sage, who is from the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Your passion for travel started at a young age as a result of a family trip to New Zealand. Since then, you’ve traveled, lived, and worked in seven countries in the last six years, how did you get connected with Broadreach?

When I was working in South Africa, a close friend of mine sent me a link to the Fiji Shark Studies program and said that I should apply for the Academic Leader position; she thought it would be a perfect fit for me. My friend had just spent the summer teaching for Broadreach in Belize and had just loved her experience working for them. When I was home the next year, I immediately contacted them about the position, and have loved every minute of working for and with Broadreach for the last four years!

Diving with bull sharks on Shark Reef Marine Reserve in Fiji

Diving with bull sharks on Shark Reef Marine Reserve in Fiji.

During college you traveled to Turks and Caicos and spent time with a shark biologist. How did this experience translate into the career you have today?

I knew that I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was very young, and was always fascinated by sharks, but I was unaware that this was a possible career option for me due to the lack of females within the field. Shows about sharks on tv were always dominated by a male presence; so it wasn’t until I was studying abroad in the Turks and Caicos and met Marta, a PhD student focusing on shark biology, that I actually realized that shark biologist was a viable career option for me as a female. Due to my experience with Marta, I’ve focused part of my career on outreach and education, specifically towards females, in the hopes of helping girls know from a young age that they can be shark biologists and have role models and mentors within the field.

Your academic background is in Marine Biology, what has been the most important piece of knowledge or skill you use from your Master’s program to educate your students today?

Although I focused my Master’s degree on shark biology, my program covered all aspects of Marine Biology and took us around the world to study every major ocean system. Marine environments are intrinsically interconnected, and in order to understand the biological importance of sharks and how they function, you need to have an understanding of the marine environment surrounding them. Our Shark Studies program incorporates this by spending time studying varying tropical marine habitats, important ocean mechanisms, and exploring coral reefs and their (non-shark) creatures during soft coral dives. 

Bull shark pup in the Navua River in Fiji

Holding a bull shark pup captured in the Navua River in Fiji.

What type of participants are a good fit for this program? 

I’ve been lucky enough to have the most amazing students in my three seasons of teaching the Shark Studies program; they are the reasons that I keep coming back year after year. The program really attracts students that are outgoing, love to travel and experience new cultures, and ones that are truly passionate about marine biology and sharks. For many of these students, it’s really the first time that they’ve been able to focus on a topic that they’ve always loved--sharks, but have had limited ability to focus on academically within their own schools. It’s also the first time that most of these students have been able to take their studies from the classroom into the field (or 100 feet underwater), every single day.

From your own experience, what is a typical day like for a student on the Fiji Shark Studies program?

Our days are jam-packed on Shark Studies; we usually wake up at 7 a.m. for breakfast and head to the Beqa Adventure Dive shop to prepare for our morning shark dives. We then head out to Shark Reef Marine Reserve and go on two amazing shark dives, with a nice long cookie and tea-filled surface interval between the dives. Our first dive brings us face to face with bull sharks, grey reef sharks, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, and the occasional tawny nurse shark. Our second dive is with just the bull sharks, while resident fish, turtles, and moray eels keep us company on every dive.

After the dives, we have lunch back at our villa, take a little break in the sun or the pool, and then have our afternoon lecture, with topics ranging from internal shark biology, to shark behavior, to shark conservation. The rest of the afternoon is spent doing homework, journals, playing, relaxing, and then cooking dinner for the whole group. Our evenings are for homework, studying, and usually end with everyone watching a movie to end the day.

Other days on our trip are spent doing community service in a local Fijian village, enjoying a village-stay on Beqa Island with hiking and lovo ceremonies, and white-water kayaking in the mountains of Viti Levu. 

You’re a shark biologist, and have even had a shark named after you in Fiji, what is the most important thing about sharks you hope students take away from their time in Fiji?

Tiger Shark in the water in Bimini, the Bahamas

Holding the bite stick for a tiger shark in Bimini, the Bahamas.

To me, the most important thing that my students can take away from their time on program, is a life-long passion, love, and respect for sharks. I believe that my love for sharks is very clear to my students through my work and my teaching. I know that not every single student is going to become a shark biologist in the future, but as long as they carry that passion with them throughout life, and hopefully pass on what they learned to their family, friends, and classmates, then I feel that I’ve done my job. The best way to conserve sharks is to create future generations that are educated about their ecological importance and passionate about them as a species.

You’ve worked with many different kinds of sharks, from the tigers, to the great white, to bulls and lemons, what kind of shark is your favorite? 

Although I love every single kind of shark out there, the Great White shark is my absolute favorite. I fell in love with them while I was researching white sharks in South Africa and got to spend every single day (and some nights) out on the water studying them. You cannot fully appreciate their size and presence until you see them in person next to your boat, or breaching out of the water after a sea lion. It was amazing to see that each white shark had a unique personality, much like the bull sharks in Fiji on Shark Reef Marine Reserve, and while some were shy and nervous, others were confident and assertive. 

What is the best advice you can give to students who are interested in applying to an this program?

Broadreach offers so many amazing programs, that it’s important to find one that addresses your specific interests, whether they are diving and sharks, or marine mammals and ocean kayaking. For all of these trips, it’s important to be open and excited about new experiences and meeting new people. You are going to be academically and personally challenged during your program, learn so much more than you thought possible in one summer, and come away with memories and friendships to last a lifetime.

You’re from Vermont, what are some of the biggest cultural differences students from the US should expect when coming to Fiji?

I love being able to share my favorite country and culture with all of my students as part of this program. Fiji is a beautiful place with incredibly kind and welcoming people. From our village visits and close friendship with Beqa Adventure Divers, the students learn all about culturally appropriate clothing like sulus, kava ceremonies, how to prepare lovo feasts, and how to speak Fijian. Every student that I’ve had on program has left the country knowing that they have “families” in Fiji ready to welcome them back with open arms on Beqa Island and in Pacific Harbor.

Study abroad students on Beqa Island

With Shark Studies students during our village-stay on Beqa Island.

You’ve been dubbed a Shark Hero by the Atlantic White Shark Conservatory, would you consider this your biggest accomplishment in your work with sharks? If not, what is?

I was incredibly honored to be recognized as a Shark Hero this past summer and hold that honor very close to me. However, the honor of having a bull shark named after me in Fiji was a really touching personal distinction. Since the naming was done by the staff of Beqa Adventure Divers and their founder, Mike Neumann, it was a wonderful recognition after working so closely with them and focusing so much of my time and effort in the last four years on their beautiful bull shark population. About 150 of their bull sharks have been named and identified, usually after distinct markings, while only a few have been named after actual people. I hope to be able to dive with “Lindsay the bull shark” for years to come!

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job as an instructor with Broadreach?

Although this job is filled with diving, sharks, adventure, and travel, it’s my amazing students that make this job so fulfilling. There is truly nothing that makes me happier than knowing that my students had one of the best summers of their lives and that I have successfully passed on my love for sharks to them. I keep in touch with almost all of my students and love getting updates about their lives, hearing about cool shark facts they recently learned, and about their future plans within the fields of marine and shark biology. I hope that my passion and work inspires them in the same way that I was inspired years ago in the Turks and Caicos.

Tiger Shark in Bimini, the Bahamas

Next to a 3m tiger shark in Bimini, the Bahamas.