"Everything happens as you see it"

Ever wondered what it takes to become a TV presenter in the wildlife sector? In this interview, Lauren Arthur, wildlife biologist and naturalist TV presenter for WildEarth, discusses the hardships of presenting underwater, and more.

An interview with and photographs by Lauren Arthur
Additional photographs by Vincent Kneefel, Kimberly Jeffries, Grant Thomas, Simon Hilbourne and Toby Matthews

Oceanographic (OM): How did your fascination with the ocean develop? Why did you decide to become a marine biologist?

Lauren Arthur: “I grew up on the east coast of Scotland and spent most weekends and summers by the chilly North sea, body-boarding, rock-pooling, and swimming. I was obsessed with the ocean. I did believe at one point becoming a mermaid was a real career path but soon realised that wasn’t going to happen. I witnessed many dolphins and whales beach themselves on the shore and at a very young age, I decided I wanted to study those animals. I never waivered or changed my mind and went on to study marine biology at university.”

OM: You’ve worked as a live TV presenter on land and in the water. How did that come about?

Lauren Arthur: “I worked as a resident marine biologist in the Maldives for almost eight years and after deciding I needed a new challenge, I got a job offer to work for WildEarth TV on the pilot for their first ever live TV show underwater. This involved presenting live broadcasts with headphones and a microphone built into the full-face mask and answering questions in real time, creating engaging and educational live conversations with a global audience, ultimately striving to connect people to nature.”

OM: What are the challenges of presenting underwater?

Lauren Arthur: “I am a Divemaster and have been diving since 2008 all over the world but I never had verbal conversations underwater. Little did I realise, once I started talking underwater, my near-perfect air consumption would deplete rapidly. And not only that, you have to present to camera, listen to your director whilst narrating what you see, as well as all the other responsibilities that come with diving such as, looking out for your buddy who is your cameraman, be aware of your surroundings, search for things to talk about, monitor your depth and air consumption. It’s a whole different ball game and naturally, the broadcast ends when you run out of air so could be 1 hour or 20 minutes.”

OM: In what way do wildlife shows can shape public opinion, and why is this important?

Lauren Arthur: “There are different types of wildlife shows available but live wildlife, for me, is the most authentic and ‘real’ experience you can have from your sofa. WildEarth TV for example, takes the audience along for the ride and nothing you see is manipulated or edited, everything happens as you see it. Humans relate to humans and having the human element narrating authentic wildlife can be really powerful, especially underwater which is a realm many struggle to relate to. As visual beings, we process visuals 60,000 times faster than content in our brains and the art of visual storytelling helps us communicate messages, emotions, narratives and information in a way which reaches viewers at a deep and lasting level. Therefore storytelling about our natural world has a huge impact on one’s connection to nature and it is important these stories are accurate and relatable.”

OM: Tell us about your favourite underwater encounter to date. 

Lauren Arthur: “That is a really tough question to answer as I have dived with over 12 tiger sharks together in Fuvahmulah in the Maldives, was in the middle of a huge whale shark aggregation in Mexico, and joined the epic Sardine run in South Africa. But if I really had to choose, it would be living next door to Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives for eight years. Hanifaru Bay is a small, natural bay the size of a football pitch and when the southwest monsoon kicks in, the bay fills with rich, delicious planktonic soup. Swimming in the bay with over 180 manta rays gracefully barrel-rolling and cyclone feeding all around you is the experience of a lifetime. Hanifaru Bay is the only place in the world where cyclone feeding has been recorded in manta rays and it is phenomenal to witness.”

OM: What else is planned for this year? Any exciting plans or trips?

Lauren Arthur: “This year, we are planning to visit St Lucia in South Africa to quench our thirst for both land and sea adventure. Here you can spot hippos casually strolling down the road and leopards walking on the beach next to the ocean. In October, we are off to China in October to film their snow leopards which will be extremely adventurous. And we also offer a unique expedition to Maldives where anyone can join us to swim with sharks and rays including manta rays of Hanifaru Bay, whale sharks and tiger sharks.”

OM: You worked as a marine biologist in the Maldives. What was life like out there?

Lauren Arthur: “I spent the best years of my life in Baa Atoll in the Maldives and it is still to date my favourite place in the world. However, you are living on a small island which you can walk around in 20 minutes, it’s very remote and you live and work with your colleagues all year round. I loved it and was able to jump in the water to visit the local coral reef whenever I wanted. The southwest monsoon can be really tough as the weather conditions are treacherous, but on the other hand, this monsoon means the arrival of the manta rays.”

OM: What did you research in the Maldives? Are you able to share interesting research findings you helped bring to life?

Lauren Arthur: “I worked closely with the Olive Ridley Project, MantaMatcher and Mantra Trust on larger-scale projects; however, I managed lots of smaller projects on the island, including a seabird monitoring program for the protected white-tailed tropicbird which nest on the ground of the island. I also implemented a coral rehabilitation program which involved salvaging naturally broken fragments of coral from the sea floor and tying them to recycled monofilament fishing line and hanging them underneath the jetty. not only did this upcycle the fishing line but it was also a huge success for the corals. Many studies since show that Acropora coral fragments suspended in the nutrient-and-sunlight-rich water column recovered and grew immensely fast whilst attached to the line. Although more in-depth studies are needed with regards to the coral genetics of the reef and the long-term implications of replanting coral, this experiment showed remarkable recovery to Acropora species when provided optimum conditions.”

OM: Your most memorable manta ray moment in the Maldives?

Lauren Arthur: “Using MantaMatcher, I would ID individual manta rays and I slowly began to recognise some of the individuals by sight. When I saw one of our regular females wrapped in a monofilament fishing line, I knew I had to help her. What could potentially have been a stupid decision in hindsight, I grabbed a knife from the boat and free-dived down to depths way beyond my capabilities to cut the female free from the line. I don’t quite know how I managed it, but I freed her from the line and raced back to the surface worrying I was going to have a shallow water blackout. Luckily I didn’t and when I finally caught my breath again, she was underneath me and swam belly-up with me for ages. I truly believe in that moment she was thanking me, but I know to some people that may sound crazy.”

OM: What are the challenges these majestic animals face in the region?

Lauren Arthur: “In the Maldives, manta rays are nationally protected and respected due to the huge contribution they bring to wildlife tourism. However, there is no denying the world’s climate is changing. The current warming trend is happening at a rate that is unprecedented in recent millennia. Warming oceans are causing changes to ocean acidity, oxygen content, current circulation, and primary production, which will all ultimately affect the wider food web including a reduction in the manta’s food, zooplankton. As sea temperatures rise, coral reefs worldwide are experiencing longer, more severe, and more frequent bleaching events which could wipe out the manta’s cleaning stations, which are crucial to their survival. This has been seen explicitly in the Maldives in 1997 and more recently in 2016. In addition to climate change, there are huge anthropogenic threats to manta rays across the world, mostly from targeted and bycatch fisheries.”

OM: What needs to change to help them?

Lauren Arthur: “In the Maldives, the biggest threats from humans are unsustainable tourism, boat strikes and mooring line entanglement. There are organisations such as the Manta Trust who are working hard at educating resorts and local communities about how to minimise these threats. Since the traditional Maldivian ‘dhoni’ has been superseded by the speedboat, it is crucial to implement speed restrictions in areas of importance, especially in areas where there are large surface feeding aggregations of whale sharks and manta rays who are highly vulnerable to boat strikes. ‘Babaganoush’ is a really famous manta ray who I got to know quite intimately from my days at Hanifaru Bay. He or she (the sex is unknown due to the extent of the injuries) survived a boat collision but has the worst injuries from propeller blades recorded to date. Although we are struggling to win the race against climate change, we can implement changes like the one mentioned above immediately and can continue to monitor and educate people on the importance of these majestic animals, especially in the Maldives.”

OM: You’ve also worked with the Olive Ridley Project in the past. How were you involved there? 

Lauren Arthur: “The Olive Ridley Project (ORP) started in Baa atoll in the Maldives in 2013 whilst I was working in the atoll. I partnered with them to start collecting baseline data from the area using photo-ID which is a non-invasive and cost-free technique used to identify individual turtles from the unique pattern of scales (or scutes) on their face. I collected thousands of photos which allowed us to make accurate estimates on the population size and this then allows for statistical modelling to reveal patterns of residency and movement of turtles between reefs. Overall this data contributed to the implementation of effective conservation strategies. Seeing the same individuals at the same reefs day in and day out, meant I really started to learn the population dynamics and knew many individuals by face or the way they swam.”

OM: What does the project try to achieve?

Lauren Arthur: “The ORPs mission is to protect sea turtles and their habitats through rescue and rehabilitation, scientific research, education and outreach. They started in the Maldives but have since expanded into Seychelles, India, Pakistan, Oman and Kenya. Ultimately, you can’t protect and conserve a species until you understand more about it and its movements.”

OM: How does it help to protect these turtles? What methods are used?

Lauren Arthur: “Everyone loves to swim with turtles but when it comes to the ‘panda effect’, they definitely get less attention than the majestic, regal manta rays and ferocious sharks. However, in places like the Maldives, green turtles are still illegally fished for their meat and turtle eggs are a delicacy. By hunting the larger females for meat and eggs, you are removing the sexually mature individuals who help stabilise a population. Understanding more about the importance of turtles and their movements help fill in data gaps for sea turtle conservation. In the Maldives, community outreach programs for the younger generation is key.”

OM: Why do ghost nets harm these animals? What needs to happen to better protect the turtles from these?

Lauren Arthur: “Ghost nets are extremely prevalent in Maldives and in the eight years I spent there, I rescued a countless number of sea turtles who were entangled in abandoned, lost or discarded fishing nets. Olive ridley turtles especially get stuck between January and March when thousands of female of them converge on the shores of Gahirmatha and Rushikulya beaches in Odisha to lay their eggs.These abandoned fishing nets are not from the Maldives but arrive with the currents as the Maldives predominantly uses pole and line fishing techniques.

These nets are responsible for killing many marine animals from dolphins to whales and sea birds however, turtles are extremely susceptible since they are reptiles and although living underwater, they must surface regularly to breathe air. This puts them at risk of ghost nets who are mostly floating on the surface, once they get entangled in the agglomerate of net, it is almost impossible for them to escape. As long as they can breathe air, they will float with the net and many are found with flippers missing and deep lacerations around their neck and life threatening injuries. Otherwise they are found dead having died from exhaustion, starvation or predation. Due to its cryptic and transboundary nature, it is extremely difficult to assess the impact of ghost gear on species and the environment but it is widely recognised as a major source of mortality for marine animals.

Ghost nets are a global issue and the problem will only be resolved if started at the source. The ORP not only retrieves ghost nets but also educates fisheries at a local level and try to influence policy makers at an international level. Since the project started in 2013, they have actively removed 14 tonnes of ghost gear. Giving a hawksbill turtle CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation after pulling it out from a huge conglomerate of ghost gear was definitely a moment that I will never forget. Their breath is exactly what you think it would be!”


Additional photographs by Vincent Kneefel, Kimberly Jeffries, Grant Thomas, Simon Hilbourne and Toby Matthews

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