Shark Week Presents: Kayleigh Burns

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Hey Kayleigh! Introduce yourself.

Aloha fellow bad ass Girls in Ocean Science! My name is Kayleigh Grant and I am a shark naturalist, shark safety diver, and shark conservationist with One Ocean Diving in Haleiwa, Hawaii. I am blessed to work in the water with sharks every day taking people from all around the world diving with these amazing creatures and facilitating a safe and life changing interaction with sharks. I also enjoy traveling to new and fascinating dive locations around the globe to discover more about the marine life in our oceans. 

Where/how did the love affair with sharks begin?

Growing up in an era of The Little Mermaid and Free Willy, I have always been extremely fascinated by the ocean. When you’re a kid your imagination is so significant & intense. I distinctly remember my dad taking me on a whale watching trip to Massachusetts and seeing Humpbacks for the first time. Their dancing and spinning on the surface was so awe-inspiring to me. After moving to Hawaii many years later, I was suddenly in the most isolated land mass in the entire world surrounded by water. At this point my dream of the water was undeniable. I began to take up scuba diving and was back in school at University of Hawaii in the Marine Options Program. The water healed my heart and ignited my soul. I was hooked. I had made the decision that this would be my career choice and I wouldn’t settle to do anything that didn’t make me feel alive and happy. The universe had brought me to meet my now boss and one of my best friends, Ocean Ramsey, and she saw the passion for the ocean we both shared. She had started an amazing organization called One Ocean Diving and took me shark diving for my first time. The moment my mask hit the water everything became silent and peaceful. The sharks were entirely engulfed by the deep royal blue pelagic water, swimming effortlessly and gracefully. The experience wasn’t at all what most would think about swimming with sharks (scary and intense). From that moment on, I knew sharks would be in my life forever.

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Could you tell us about your work with One Ocean Diving?

At One Ocean we strive to show the true beauty of sharks and teach respect of nature and these animals. We take guests diving each day with Sandbar, Galapagos, Tiger sharks and more in deep blue pelagic waters of Hawaii. While out there we analyze the shark behavior in an effort to learn more, while monitoring the shark populations off Oahu. We teach kids about sharks and marine life at local schools and clean local beaches each month. We support global campaigns and efforts in conservation. Juan and Ocean have a shark conservation documentary called Saving Jaws that is out now on amazon prime & expeditions to Guadalupe with Great Whites! We take interns from all over the world. No catch tagging is in our future here on Oahu. We have so much going on and its really exciting. Everything we do is with conservation in mind. Learning shark behavior has been my favorite aspect as you can see what polite predators they are and how they communicate with one another and biting is always a last resort. Understanding the sharks more, we can educate the public and promote a safe and healthy interaction. 

What does a day on the shark research boat look like for you?

Each day we prepare the boats and set out with a small group of 6 guests, a safety diver (me), a captain, possibly a trainee and/or intern. We explain the biology & behavior of the animals as well as safety guidelines for them to follow on the way out to our site. We have about an hour interacting with mainly sandbar and galapagos sharks and whatever other species decides to come by like tigers or scalloped hammerheads. On the way back to the harbor we fill out a data set which covers weather patterns for the day, shark population counts, species, sex, behavior, other marine life etc. Our citizen scientists get to help. Then I’ll inform people of the plight of sharks, what’s causing populations to drop, and how they can help save sharks. 

Touching sharks, and marine life in general, is an incredibly controversial topic. What is your opinion and personal experience of this?

I don’t like to encourage people to touch any marine life. Rarely there are times when an animal is approaching you and you need to gently guide it away. I’ve had to redirect large tiger sharks which when they approach you for safety reasons, you need to guide them away. My most aggressive animal I have guided away was a whip ray in Moorea, French Polynesia. Haha. Even sting rays are way more assertive and scary than sharks. All that being said, I have been wrapped up in the moment and experienced desires to touch wildlife. As humans, we are tactile beings and its often how we show love. But this is something I now make a huge effort to keep my hands to myself whenever possible. 

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Social media has played a key role in changing perceptions of sharks in recent years. How do you use social media as a tool in science communication?

Social media can be a very powerful tool used for good or for evil. I think in the conservation world it is a crucial tool in sharing the state of our planet and the wildlife that live on it. For example, with Paul Nicklen’s work with polar bears, he is allowing us to see the state of an animal that is so remote the public wouldn’t otherwise see. With sharks, social media has greatly assisted us in changing perceptions of these animals. In the wildlife, science, and diving circles on social media, it’s so obvious that sharks aren’t monsters, just predators, but the rest of the world is still very far behind. I think it’s vital for us to use these platforms in benefit of the natural world instead of just selling each other products, being influencers, or showing off our bodies. There is nothing wrong with those things but I would love to see people’s priorities set on saving the planet first and foremost. With science, it’s the same thing. That information needs to be shared freely and it goes hand in hand with conservation. All too often I see pride and ego get in the way of making a difference. I think if conservationists, researchers, divers, citizen scientists, journalists, and people in the trenches all worked together and shared their experience and work freely we could come along a lot farther in our goals instead of wanting to have that recognition. 

Could you tell us a little about the shark populations around Hawaii and their greatest threats?

In Hawaii, most have respect for sharks. Here they are considered to some an ʻaumākuaor reincarnated ancestor. Unfortunately, I do see a lack of protection, misinformation, and lack of education among the general public which can keep some people really scared or cause them to not care about the wellbeing of the animals. On occasion, we find that fishermen will kill the sharks if they are hooked on their line thinking that they will be able to catch more fish. What they don’t know is they are poorly affecting the fragile ecosystem and causing a decline in fish populations as a result. Again, it’s not all fishermen, and most have a great love and respect for the ocean. But in the past 5 years we have seen large schools of baby hammerheads left to die, tigers with their jaws removed, baby tigers killed with fishing line and buoys attached to them, and even an illegal shark fining ring caught at our airport in Honolulu with over 1,000 oceanic whitetip shark fins stuffed in suitcases. We are constantly trying to educate via social media and even going to schools to teach the next generation about sharks to combat this lack of knowledge surrounding sharks. For the last 3 years, our organization has strived to get proper protection for sharks in Hawaiian waters, and each year our bill gets dropped. We hope with continued effort on our part and changed perceptions we can finally get sharks the protection they deserve just as dolphins and whales so easily have been given. 

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Favourite shark?!

I have swam with many shark species now but my favorite after all these years remains the tiger shark. There is something unexplainable about their unique personalities, slow cautious approaches, and captivating stripes. I will never tire of tigers and anyone that knows me can vouch for that!

And finally… some words of wisdom?

Conservation should be important to everyone to ensure the next generation is able to inhabit this planet. There is no planet B. It’s important for us all to be conscious in our everyday choices to avoid leaving a negative impact on the environment. Anyone can be a conservationist and speak up for our earth and it inhabitants. Some tips I recommend to make a more positive impact:

-Say NO to eating shark fin soup & shark fishing

-Only eat local caught fish or no fish at all to avoid contributing to bycatch (unintended catch that’s often killed) *you can download an app by Monterey Bay Aquarium called Sea Food Watch to help you make more sustainable seafood choices. Go out and fish or spearfish is the most sustainable option to eat seafood.

-Reduce your use of single use plastic like plastic water bottles, plastic bags, straws, and plastic utensils. I recommend buying a hydro flask, reusable totes and straws.

-Avoid harmful chemicals like oxybenzone. Even if you don’t live near an ocean, anything we put on our skin goes into our waterways and into the ocean. I highly recommend All Good Brand reef safe sunscreen as an alternative to harmful sunscreens. The only ingredient that is safe for corals is non-nano zinc oxide. 

-Become a vegan, vegetarian, or choose one meatless meal per day or one meatless day per week. Whatever choices here you can commit to are very important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

-Use your voice! Every voice counts so speak up! Utilize social media to spread a positive message for conservation. 

Want to see more from Kayleigh? You can find her here: @mermaid_kayleigh