The Sharkman meets Rachel Powell
Sharkman: The first question is what I always start with. How long have you been interested in sharks?
Rachel: I have been obsessed with learning about sharks since I was about 10 years old.
I always wanted to be a Marine Biologist, so that I could further my understanding of this animal. My interest was only enhanced by the relative lack of knowledge we have about them.
Sharkman: How did this interest start?
Rachel: Even as a small child, my mind was captivated with big predators. My interest in sharks first arose when I was about 10. Some local fishermen in Plymouth pulled a huge Thresher shark up onto the dock and I made my mother drive me down to see it. I was amazed by the reactions of other on-lookers, both the fascination and fear that surrounded this “monster”. From that time on, I sought out every book, article and film concerning sharks, so I could understand more about them. The fact that my family and teachers all thought I was crazy, and would never be able to pull it off, only made me more determined!!
Sharkman: I have heard that “Crazy” comment myself many times. Can you please give us a brief account of your career so far?
Rachel: Having attained an Honours degree in Marine Biology, I am now researching Great White sharks for my PhD. I am working on my study of the Great White sharks of South Australia with Rodney Fox Expeditions. I found that many people on board were interested in the biology of this species, and would have many questions regarding their lifestyle and behaviour. I gradually worked this into formal sessions on board and we found that passengers really appreciated a background account of the research we have done.
Sharkman: How long have you been working with Rodney Fox?
Rachel: I have been working with Rodney for about 18 months now. Having had such an obsessive interest in White sharks, I booked myself on a White shark trip the moment I arrived in Australia two years ago and they have not been able to get rid of me since!!
Sharkman: You are a very lucky woman, but what is it like to work with Rodney and is he an easy person to work with?
Rachel: It is an honour to be able to work with Rodney and I consider myself extremely fortunate. His life is inspirational in the adventures and vast knowledge he has accumulated over the years of working with Great Whites, and he has a wealth of both shark and non-shark related tales from his years studying these animals.
But he is also very down to earth and a natural entertainer. He loves watching people's reactions when they emerge from the cage after seeing their first Great White underwater and is always ready in the evenings to share his stories with everyone over a glass of wine. Even after 35 years of doing these special expeditions, Rodney treats each date out at sea as a new expedition with all the excitement built in. Generally when there are a lot of Great Whites around as seems to be the norm in recent years, everybody is very happy and easy to work with.
But, I think the greatest part of working with Rodney is that he challenges me in my thinking. If I have a theory, both Rodney and Andrew Fox will question me on it and make me think of alternatives, and ultimately further help to my work even more!
Sharkman: What does your research involve?
Rachel: My research involves the population dynamics, size and sexual segregation of Great White sharks at the Neptune Islands in South Australia. I am recording environmental data in order to determine the conditions under which white sharks are most prevalent and what factors are acting to affect the behaviour and activity levels of the population around these islands. I am also conducting conditioning studies to ascertain the influence of burleying and human interaction on the behaviour of this species.
Furthermore, I have commenced a photographic identification database for the individuals we encounter throughout the year to enable accurate identification of sharks in the future. In addition to the research I conduct at sea, I consult with the Fox's on the development of their "Fox Shark Research Foundation" and handle a lot of the scientific mail attracted by our web site.
Sharkman: What results has your work given you so far?
Rachel: Between March and September 2001, I was able to positively identify 66 individuals based on tag numbers and dorsal fin shape, with a confirmed 23% rate of shark re-sightings from previous years. Over the past few years, we have managed tag over 200 sharks. Thus far, my data shows that physical factors such as swell height, cloud cover, tidal height and visibility do have an affect on the abundance of Great White sharks at the Neptune Islands.
Furthermore, sexual segregation does appear to exist with females being more prevalent from May until July and males dominating July through to September. The number of potentially mature males frequenting the islands also outweighs the number of mature females. With my ongoing research, the data collected in the future will help to define the patterns observed this year.
Sharkman: Is there a dream that you want to achieve?
Rachel: I am hoping that my research will give us a better insight into the lifestyle and movements of this species to enable more effective management plans, and ultimately aid in the recovery of the populations here in Australia. And, in light of the recent findings in California suggesting that this species migrates thousands of kilometres across the open ocean, I would love be able to match a South African shark with one identified here in Australia by it's dorsal fin, or vice versa, and thus determine whether they move between the two areas.
Sharkman: Rachel, do you feel that working together with Michael C. Scholl from South Africa, will bring your desired results?
Rachel: Collaborating with Michael will definitely be a great advantage in this area. To succeed in matching one of the sharks here with a shark he has identified in South Africa would be a huge breakthrough in terms of our knowledge on the movement patterns of this species. Even if we cannot find a match, it will be great to be able to discuss ideas and theories with Michael and will hopefully be beneficial and rewarding to us both.
Sharkman: Is the Great White Shark your Favourite and if yes, why?
Rachel: Of course! The Great White shark has a unique magnetism, the ultimate predator and, having spent many hours in the water with this animal, you cannot help but admire the raw power and beauty it commands. Each individual seems to have his or her own personality, some are shy and hang back from the action, others exude such confidence that they boldly approach the cages and investigate.
We are able to lower the cage to the sea floor where the experience is incredible, completely different to that on the surface - the sharks are not in a predatory mode, they cruise in a slow, fluid way and really show a calm but curious side to their nature. There is so much more to these animals than the image people have of a "relentless man-eater".
Sharkman: Very true. Which is The Most Memorable moment in your Career so far?
Rachel: There have been so many amazing moments it would be virtually impossible to pick one, even though I am only at the beginning of my career. Apart from the obvious of working with the Fox's, one highlight would definitely have been the first time I tagged a shark as it swam past my feet, I was so determined to get it perfectly positioned! And it always makes my day when "Jonny", a 4.2m male white shark who has been around the Neptunes regularly for a few years now, makes a dramatic appearance, unquestionably a superstar shark!!
Sharkman: Hopefully, you and Rodney will one day introduce me to Jonny (above). I sure would love to meet him. Rachel, what last message would you like to pass on to our readers?
Rachel: This quote, which can easily be applied to the conservation of this most misunderstood animal, says it all – I only wish I’d said it myself!
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
Sharkman: True words. Thank you for your time Rachel, and I wish you all the success that you dream of.
Rachel: Thank you Alex for your interest in my work!!
Sharkman: My pleasure.