Chasing stingrays and sharks up to 450m underwater around the world and delving into the extraordinary is just part of the everyday for one adventurous Far North Queenslander.
After a year of meeting global conservation crusaders she will take on the Antarctic marine world, going under the ice with Google Ocean.
Imagine filming more than 200 hammerhead sharks circling above you, while battling breaking waves and strong underwater currents in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, near the uninhabited Cocos Island, off the shore of Costa Rica.
For James Cook University graduate, Yoland Bosiger, diving off this volcanic sea-mountain at a dive site named Avalon in November last year was a dream come true – it being one of the most unique, isolated and untamed places on earth.
For the past 10 months the 25 year old has toured the world diving with international research, fishing, diving and conservation crews, after she was granted the 2012 Australasian Our World Underwater Scholarship, along with international scholars Megan Cook and Oscar Svennson.
The fully funded program allowed her to volunteer for the ECOCEAN whale shark photo-identification library in Ningaloo, 1200km north of Perth; dive with white sharks in South Australia; complete a closed circuit rebreather course in New Zealand; participate in a community based marine science project in Papua New Guinea; and take part in shark research in the Red Sea from a university in Saudi Arabia.
Now the thrill-seeking diving photographer is planning a 20-day trip to Antarctica with Google Ocean and Oceanwide Expeditions in March, to learn about polar diving operations, including diving under the ice and taking pictures of the Antarctic marine environment.
Yoland applied for the Australasian Our World Underwater scholarship last year after hearing about a friend’s (Josh Stewart) experience and the incredible opportunities he was given the previous year.
Born one year into her parent’s eight-year sailing circumnavigation around the world and growing up in Mossman, the ocean has always been part of her life but it wasn’t until she volunteered on a dive boat called Calypso Reef Charters in high school that she knew she wanted a career out of it.
After finishing her honours in marine fish behaviour and a dual bachelor degree in law and science, where she studied predator-prey interaction with James Cook University marine ecology Professor Mark McCormick, she decided to apply.
“The thing that appealed to me was it was all about getting people to have an interest in marine science and to broaden their education. It gave people an opportunity to figure out what they’d like to do. I had two different areas of interest, law and marine science. I feel like the year has helped me to combine the two,” she says.
“I had to submit a written application and went for an interview in Sydney. The scholarship has existed for about 40 years in the US and in Europe but only about six years in Australia. Visiting the Australian locations and feeding whale sharks was pretty cool to begin with. They had whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef where they get the annual migration of whale sharks from April to June/July. While I was there, we found a whole lot of whale sharks to feed at dusk.”
Outside of Australia, the scholarship took her to exotic and remote locations such as Palau and Guam in the western Pacific Ocean, New York, Sweden, Switzerland, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and San Diego and Las Vegas after returning to the US.
During one dive off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California, they encountered a bunch of bright orange garibaldi fish and surfaced to find hundreds of dolphins and sea lions, followed by snorkeling with large cownose rays and leopard sharks.
The Los Angeles County Bay Watch Lifeguards showed them around the island, before diving inside the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Tropical Pacific Gallery, built to resemble the marine waters of Palau.
“Because I’d been there myself earlier in the year, I thought it was very convincing with heaps of tropical fish, eagle rays and sharks,” Yoland says.
The 10-day trip to the Cocos islands, Costa Rica, where she encountered hundreds of schooling hammerheads with dive operator Undersea Hunter Group, also led her to spot silvertip sharks, silky sharks and galapagos sharks, as well as the chance to take part in a rare night dive, with more than 50 schools of feeding whitetip sharks that had learned to forage using diver’s torch lights.
Going inside the DeepSee Submersible, a piece of remarkable technology, which allowed her to explore 300m below sea level, was one of the best experiences, allowing her to spot deep sea jellynose fish up to 2m long and deep-water coral, some of the only marine life, which exists that deep.
“It was just insane seeing that many hammerheads. I don’t think it can get any better than that. It was just spectacular to see in those numbers,” she says.
Another highlight was touring Papua New Guinea, diving at Kimbe Bay and learning from JCU human geographer and social scientist, Dr Joshua Cinner, who was researching the way locals used their natural resources.
“His projects incorporate social science and marine ecology, socioeconomic conditions, development and income,” Yoland says.
“Interviewing everyday fishermen about how much fish they caught, what type and the fishing gear they’d use in relation to what customary fishery management was in place was the most interesting part.”
Yoland says they found that in some communities at Manus Island and Karkar Island off Madang, certain fishing areas were closed for up to five years at a time, so the area could rebuild an abundance of fish, to reopen the area for two weeks of fishing, where a feast or ceremony would be held afterwards.
“Rather than have strictly protected areas, they might put a restriction in place and instead of using nets they will just spearfish. It’s a form of traditional marine management. We were aiming to work out which type of socioeconomic indicators were related to marine management systems. The communities that don’t have anything in place, we looked at their reliance on fishing and suggested a system,” she says.
“We don’t know the outcome for sure but it was good to witness different types of research being done, learning the logistics and practicalities of collecting data was a lot to do with people and communication. Not just marine ecology. Communities were very different on Karkar Island, the people were mainly agricultural. Those on Manus Island and nearby were very reliant on fishing.’’
While exploring the world’s first shark sanctuary which protects an area of about 600,000sq km in Palau, she learnt new photography and video skills from Richard Brooks, one of Australasia’s best videographers.
She was invited by the University of Western Australia’s Gabriel Vianna to join his fieldwork trip, studying the value of reef sharks for ecotourism in Palau.
One of the most unique visits was to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia, with Professor Michael Berumen at The Red Sea Research Centre after helping a friend at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns.
“A friend, Julia Spat, suggested I go there to help her with her PhD. She is the first person to have studied sharks off the coast of Saudi. She’s found there are a lot less sharks than there used to be due to a huge amount of over-fishing. It was a really interesting inter-cultural experience. I wore western clothing inside the university and an abaya (a robe worn by women covering the whole body except the face, feet and hands) to go outside into the city or to the markets. It was a fascinating experience to see all the different fish caught in The Red Sea and from all over the world,” Yoland says.
“Julia studied the milk shark, grey, reef and spinner sharks, the great hammerhead. She doesn’t find them in the sea, she finds them in the market. They use all sorts of techniques to catch them – long drift nets which they leave out for weeks. Julia used a mix of baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVS), long-line sampling, market survey data and ongoing shark tagging and genetic studies for her research.”
In 2009 Yoland went to South Africa on an internship with research group OCEANS on a shark-tagging project, to help protect them from shark-finning, to track their movement and numbers, as well as taking tissue samples from great white sharks.
“Fishermen catch sharks, remove their fin and let the rest of the shark perish and fall off the side of the boat,” she says.
“It allows them to bring a lot of fins back and not bring the shark’s body back. Shark fin is a major Asian delicacy and unfortunately shark fins are still imported and allowed to be eaten.
“People in Asia may not know what goes on and how the fin ends up on their plate. But now with modern media more people know about finning and how wrong it is. It’s a traditional thing and it’s a custom that’s been entrenched for a long period of time.”
Yoland is now in San Francisco, volunteering for the Centre for Ocean Awareness Education and Science, working to reduce plastic and pollution through recycling, as well as anti-shark finning legislation, before she travels to Antarctica.
Although the 2013/14 scholarship application period has closed, she recommends people interested in applying for the following year should contact the Underwater Scholarship Society in Australasia or visit www.owuscholarship.org for more information.
“The scholarship was an incredible privilege to receive. The people I met and the skills I developed were amazing.
“It is one of the most unbelievable, remarkable and wild experiences one could ever imagine. In one year you are offered the most unreachable and unthinkable opportunities,” she says.
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Adventure time: Yoland diving off Cocos Island, Costa Rica.