Kate Dawson: Marine scientist, researcher, traveller, shark lover, photographer, videographer, surfer.
Interview by Caitlin Creeper
The girl who got her scuba diving licence at thirteen, pulled a new passion out of a brutal surfing encounter at fifteen and at twenty-two has already contributed to important marine research here and around the world. She also takes insane pictures.
Salty’s- meet Australia’s Kate Dawson. Here, she talks life in and around the sea, chasing waves and marine life across the globe and why we should actually fear a shark attack about as much as our morning toast.
Where was Kate born? What was she like growing up? Was your family as ocean-orientated as you are?
I was born in Perth [Australia] and I grew up in a mixture of Perth and Broome [a coastal town in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia]. Growing up I was always an outdoorsy kid – having two older brothers ensured I was never inside playing dolls and the like. We lived on a ten-acre property so there was plenty of room to run around and cause havoc! Growing up we always had a boat; so being on the water and in the ocean has always been a big part of my life. My mum used to always laugh as she could never understand how I would stay in the water all day and not get cold! My dad and both of my brothers surf so I started surfing at a young age on the front of my dad’s longboard. My dad and brothers have always scuba dived as well so I got my open water dive ticket in 2007 at age 13 in Fiji on a family holiday.
If your Instagram is anything to go by, you’re literally living the ocean-lovers dream. What does Kate’s life consist of on a daily level?
I graduated university last year with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Science. Recently I’ve gone back to university to complete my Masters, with my research project centred on tracking Bull Sharks in the Kimberley to assess the effects of climate change. I work as a marine scientist at the WA Museum collections and research centre.
In my spare time I like to go down south to [WA’s South West region] for a surf, or out on the boat to Rottnest (an island off the coast of WA) and go for a dive or a surf. Over the last couple of years I have dived right into my photography, generally underwater photography and videography and surf photography.
Where have you been in the world? What did you do there? What made you go there?
I was quite well travelled as a child and that passion for travel has definitely continued as I’ve become more independent. Our family holidays generally revolved around good surf, good diving or even snowboarding, including the Gold Coast, Fiji, the Maldives, Hawaii, Japan, Indonesia etc.
In 2014, I did a solo trip to the Bahamas where I worked at a place called the Bimini Shark Lab. Days were spent catching and tagging Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks, diving with and observing Hammerhead Sharks and processing data in the lab. In March 2015, I did another solo trip to South Africa for three months, where I worked for a company called White Shark Africa in Mossel Bay. Tasks included going out on the White Shark cage diving boat and giving a conservation talk to passengers about White Sharks, the threats faced by them and how they can help, as well as going out on a smaller research vessel to find and observe white sharks, catch and tag smaller species of sharks. Days off were spent diving around Mossel Bay and South Africa. This was a truly unreal and rewarding experience for me as it taught me so much and I got to contribute to meaningful research.
If you could be anywhere, doing anything, what is an absolutely perfect day for Kate?
An absolutely perfect day for me would be spent on a boat in the Rowley Shoals (off the coast of Broome) with no land in sight and where the hardest decision I would have to make all day was whether I wanted to go fishing or diving.
Many would see your life both in and around the surf and studying sharks on such a close-up level as dangerous. Have you had any particularly scary encounters in the sea?
When I was around 15, I was surfing down at Smiths beach in Yallingup [in the South West Region of Western Australia] and it took a turn for the worst. Next thing I knew I was being held under and dragged across the reef. This has happened to me plenty of times before but this particular time was a lot more brutal than usual. I was held under for a little longer than I would have liked. I ended up in the mid section as a big set came through and wore about four waves on the head and a fair bit of skin off my leg. It wasn’t pretty.
How did this affect your relationship with surfing?
I’m not as fearless on a surfboard as I used to be. I tend to stay on the beach if the swell gets too big. But… is actually how I got into doing surf photography! So not all a negative experience!
What pushes you to keep seeking adventures, travelling, surfing, photographing? Where does that fire come from and what does it feel like?
Ever since I was little I have had a huge passion for the ocean and the marine environment. This passion only grows stronger the more time I spend exploring. It is the most exciting feeling surfing a new break or diving in a new spot and I feel like with my photography I can really capture that feeling and share it with others. In doing this, I hope they will have as much drive as me to conserve it. It would be a shame if it weren’t as healthy and beautiful as it is now for generations to come.
How would you describe your relationship with the ocean now?
I’m not an overly ‘mooshy’ person so this question is quite hard for me to answer. But my best description would be ‘unbreakable’.
What’s the best thing you’ve done in the last year?
While I was working on the White Shark boats in South Africa, we had about 8 or 9 sharks surrounding the boat, trying to get size data and distinguishing marks from them. I was just totally in my element!
Why the passion for sharks?
I just think that sharks are a magnificent animal! and very misunderstood! I had dived with a few before my intense interest started just on dives and ever since then I’ve been fascinated! I wish that people knew how vital sharks were to our marine ecosystems and that culling them is not the key! I wish they knew that they were at more risk of dying getting out of bed in the morning, eating their breakfast and driving to work than going for a swim in the ocean!
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt this year?
The biggest thing that I have learnt this year is that even though life is short, I am still young and I still have time to do all the things that I want to do. Going back to university this semester has been hard for me as there is still so much I want to do and so many places I want to see, and having to cancel a trip I had planned back to Africa in 2016. However at least studying does not seem like a chore for me as I love what I am studying and I know that it will take me to bigger and better things in the future.
Want more? Follow @katedawson___