Image credits: Photographs featuring Sydney were taken by Candice Parkes and Beto Garcia Baciero. All other photographs by Sydney Walker.
Sydney Walker is a current final year BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Oceanography student who has a passion for everything beneath the sea.
“I don’t know whether it was because I was a lucky enough to grow up beside the sea, or because my family always encouraged me to love it, but for as long as I can remember I have been in love with the ocean.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Sydney talks about where her passion for the ocean and interest in whale sharks came from, her exciting placement year opportunities in South Africa and Mexico, why she chose Plymouth and what the future may hold after graduating.
Sydney swimming alongside a whale shark
A passion for the ocean
What inspires you?
The ocean inspires me. I love the ocean and I constantly have this need to work harder and to be better, so I can help protect it.
Since going on my placement year and seeing how so many people treat our oceans, I have become inspired to be a person who is listened to when trying to protect our oceans.
Have you always had a fascination with the ocean?
I have loved the ocean since I was little and always wanted to go to the beach to look for sharks and dolphins, even though they aren’t commonly found where I am from.
As I got older, my parents would take me on dolphin watching trips to see if we could spot any, because as a little girl I was desperate to see a dolphin – sadly we never found any.
Where did your passion for sharks come from?
I have been obsessed with sharks for so long, but I initially had put to bed the idea of becoming a marine biologist because I had been told my maths wasn’t good enough, or I’d never find a job. But then I came across an Instagram account by Madison Stewart – a technical driver, filmmaker and founder of Project Hiu.
Madison's account was about saving sharks from fishermen by learning to work alongside them. I then fell down a rabbit hole of researching everything about shark fishing.
Before that point, I didn’t know sharks were facing such a threat. Seeing and reading about what was happening to them really ignited something deep inside me. I just knew at that point that working with sharks was something I needed to do.
The love I had for the ocean as a child came back ten times stronger. I decided to ignore anybody who told me I couldn’t be a marine biologist and used my rekindled passion to pursue it.
What is it about whale sharks that particularly interests you?
My love of whale sharks developed during the first year at Plymouth. We had to do a presentation on any marine topic and I knew I really wanted to do one on sharks. But I wanted it to be different, not recycling standard shark facts. A lecturer pointed me towards tiger sharks and the whale shark.
I didn’t know much about whale sharks, so for the next three months I read nearly every paper on whale sharks I could find and did my presentation on their genetics, because they are the only shark in their family – they are so unique.
I spent most of my free time in the first year researching whale sharks. They inspired me to learn more about plankton, which led to learning more about other filter feeders, then falling in love with manta rays.
I became so passionate about whale sharks after seeing how little we know about the biggest species of shark. I felt researching their genetics, and uncovering their mysteries, was what I was meant to do.
Can you describe what it is like swimming alongside whale sharks?
Swimming alongside whale sharks is hard. They look like they swim so slowly on social media and in documentaries, but they go so fast. The first time I saw one, I was in awe and trying not to cry behind my mask. Once he had swam past me, I couldn’t keep up – I managed to stay with his tail and that was it!
But once you can keep up with the whale shark and you’re swimming alongside them looking into their eye, it’s a breathtaking feeling. It’s genuinely emotional because this huge animal is letting you be in their presence.
It is common knowledge how big whale sharks are, but you cannot comprehend quite how big until you see one. A lot of times, I used to just stare at them in awe, so much so that I would forget to turn my GoPro on and capture the moment.
How does swimming with other species, such as manta rays, compare to swimming with whale sharks?
Swimming with manta rays is a completely different experience – it isn’t like you are swimming with them. If you are very still and gentle in the water, they will feed around you.
The mantas I worked with were in a protected sanctuary zone and hadn’t encountered humans often, so they were very shy. If you are lucky enough to have these animals stick around, it is both beautiful and chaotic. This did make it harder to collect data with them – the whale sharks were easier to work with, as when they wanted to leave we had already gotten all the data.
How long have you been diving and developing your water and boat-based skills?
I learnt to free dive and snorkel on my first placement, but with freediving I can only go to about 10m, which isn’t very deep.
Before then I had never gone into the ocean where I couldn’t stand. I was really scared of deep water before my placements, but that is now no longer the case.
I learnt a lot about boat safety during my first two years at Plymouth. I took these skills with me on my placements and developed them even further by working with different types of boats and equipment.
My water-based skills have really developed due to my placement year and this makes me feel more confident about life after university.
Placement year experiences
Can you tell us where you went for your placement year?
I went to South Africa with Sharklife Conservation and also to Mexico. The focus of my placement was shark conservation, with extra projects involving turtles and manta rays in South Africa. The main aim of both placements was outreach and citizen science and to encourage the public to engage with shark conservation.
What type of research were you involved with at Sharklife Conservation?
Researching ragged-tooth sharks aggregation sites was the focus of my internship. We took identification photos of each shark we came across at two main aggregation sites, to establish these reef sites as important shark areas – especially as they were observed to be pregnant.
One site was in a sanctuary zone and we found higher numbers of aggregating sharks there. We believed this was because diving was not permitted in the sanctuary zone and we were the only boat allowed in for research purposes.
At the second reef site, it was open to dive centres and we found that the ragged-tooth sharks numbers would drop dramatically after divers were allowed in the area. This data would be used to try and work with dive centres to make the reef a quieter area. Unfortunately dive centres would often not cooperate as the large groups of sharks brought in money for them with tourism.
Can you share an experience working with whale shark in Mexico?
My first boat day was a mix of anxiety and excitement. Sometimes it was quite defeating being stuck at the tail, but once I got stronger and could keep up with them, it was so satisfying. Uploading my first ID and finding a match was such a nice feeling.
I swam with one whale shark for 45 minutes and she turned out to be a resight – it is incredibly rare to have a resight for adult whale sharks. She was seen less than three years ago and the working theory was that the sharks only reappeared after 7-13 years. To identify one that was seen again so soon was incredibly worth the exhaustion.
You got to work with manta rays in South Africa. How did this come about and what was this experience like?
There was a researcher working with mantas at Sharklife. I would regularly ask questions and talk to her due to my love of the species and was asked to be her assistant.
As well as manta ray identification, I created a plankton net to use to sample at four reef sites the mantas were known to feed at. The samples were used to identify the zooplankton species and a data spreadsheet was created to see if there was a correlation between where the mantas feed and what food is found there. I also helped to establish a database that could be used to determine if there were resights or new sightings of the mantas seen.
You also got the chance to assist with the measuring of nesting leatherback and loggerhead turtles in Sodwana Bay.
I was a Research Assistant for Ufudu Turtle Tours and it was a truly amazing experience to work with such a large and endangered animal. Turtles nest multiple times a season, so the data we collected allowed us to see if we had the same turtle nesting again. Seeing how small turtles start off and how big they can become was so beautiful.
Why was this research an important thing for you to do?
Learning about what the hatchlings go through to become adults was eye opening. It was sad to see the amount of plastic the hatchlings had to go through to make it to the ocean.
In Sodwana, cars are allowed to drive on the beach. This compacts the sand above nests and creates deep tracks that both nesting turtles and hatchlings struggle to get over. We recorded data on where the turtles avoided nesting and where the hatchlings suffered the most difficulties reaching the sea.
The main goal was to create a management plan to prevent cars driving on the beach during nesting and hatching season. However, the owner scrapped the idea after receiving personal threats and ended up leaving Sodwana.
I want to work with sharks, but as soon as I heard there was no one looking after the turtles anymore I wanted to head straight back to Sodwana.
Studying at Plymouth
Why did you choose to study BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Oceanography?
I knew I wanted to study marine biology, but the choice to choose oceanography as well, came from the recommendation of my college biology lecturer. I told him about how I wanted to work with sharks and he suggested that I go with a marine biology and oceanography course. This gave me a wider skill set to investigate how our oceans affect sharks and other marine species.
I researched what oceanography involved and it really captured my attention. It just felt like it was the right course to achieve my future goal of working with sharks.
What made you decide to study at Plymouth?
I came to an open day and something just felt right about studying here. Compared to the other university open days I had been to for marine biology courses, Plymouth felt like the best option. There are so many opportunities here, and with how close it was to the sea, it just made me feel like this was the right place to study at.
How has the course helped develop your interests and skills?
It has developed my interest for how the ocean works in general. I had never comprehended how complex the ocean is before this course. It has also really developed my interest in how oceanography affects plankton and, in turn, how that could affect the distribution of various filter feeders.
I had a good level of lab work during my biomedical BTEC at college, but the lab experience I have had at Plymouth has really taken my skills to another level. My writing skills have also considerably developed compared to my first year.
What have been some of highlights from your time at Plymouth so far?
The Sweden field trip was such an amazing experience. From working on the boat in the fjords, taking sediment and animal samples, to using various equipment such as CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) sensors and Van Veen grab sediment samplers. I learnt how to identify various marine species and developed the skills to memorise them from looking at them and their key features.
The boat work we do with the University is also a highlight. The other universities I visited did not offer as much boat experience as Plymouth, so getting the experience to gain those skills is amazing.
What are your current ambitions?
My biggest ambition is to research some of the mysteries of whale sharks. This includes looking into their genetics and why they are so distantly related to other sharks.
I would really like to go to Ningaloo in Australia to work with the whale sharks there. Ningaloo also has manta rays, so I would maybe get the opportunity to work with both species. Getting there would be the ultimate dream – maybe once I am studying for my PhD.
What do you hope to achieve within the next five years?
I want to graduate from Plymouth with a good grade and then maybe progress onto a masters. After that, I would like to try and move to Australia and see if I can find employment with either manta rays or whale sharks.
At the start of my career, I would like to work with any filter feeding elasmobranch, and with more experience then specialise in whale sharks.
Do you have a dream job in mind?
My dream job would be a whale shark geneticist, because I want to find out answers to so many unresolved questions about them. I want to work with whale sharks in the field and in a lab with their DNA.
Alternatively, I would like to work with deep sea oceanographers to try and see if we can locate where whale sharks give birth; how many pups they give birth to; and where female juveniles go, as most aggregations are male juveniles, where the adult males are.
I have so many questions and I would love to be the one to answer them.
Around 70% of our planet is ocean with an average depth of 3000m. To understand the biology of this vast area, we must also understand the oceans themselves. Marine biology and oceanography covers topics such as how animals can thrive in extreme environments such as the deep sea, how currents influence animal migrations, and how climate impacts marine life. Teaching uses both small and large research vessels, providing you with an unrivalled experience of open ocean marine biology.
Develop a host of practical skills that will prepare you for your chosen career and make you attractive to employers. Take the opportunity to gain the HSE PRO SCUBA qualification, for those with a suitable background in diving. Gain invaluable experience on a six or 12-month international placement during your third year, or working in a local host organisation alongside your studies.