Staff Q&A with Sam Hope, Expedition and Dive Manager, Belize

In the tenth instalment in our series of Q&As with Blue Ventures staff, we ask Sam Hope, our Expedition and Dive Manager in Belize, some searching questions about science, conservation and superpowers…

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What is your scientific background?
I have a BSc in Marine and Fresh Water Biology and a Masters in Applied Marine Science. I have worked as a Marine Biologist in Malaysia, Science Officer in Mexico and as a Project Scientist in Cambodia.

Why do you do what you do?
It is still generally considered that we know more about space than we do about the world’s oceans and as the earth’s population continues to increase further pressures will be placed on the marine environment. It should not be forgotten the important role that water plays in the survival of all living beings and how rare a resource it is, just look at our own galaxy and count how many planets have water. In some regions of the world whole economies are dependent on marine resources providing some communities with its only source of protein. Currently most marine resources are exploited in one way or another leading to the degradation of key habitats and the loss of species, with little information circulating in public domains and even less interest in changing current trends. I see education and outreach programmes being amongst the most important tools that conservation has. Within host communities it is about building capacity to manage the resources for future generations and with volunteers it is an opportunity to pass on information and experiences, which will allow them to make informed decisions and choices to prevent the continued exploitation of marine resources.

What is the best/worst thing about being a conservation scientist?
I am going to start with the worst part which is probably frustration, with funding, governments, corruption, mosquitos or even a colleague that just never picks up their dirty socks. Living and working in the field has trials and some days it is frustrating that you are just not able to do more for your particular cause or project. However the best thing is being afforded the opportunity; the opportunity to try, to live in some of the most beautiful places in the world, to meet, collaborate and work with some amazing passionate individuals, to teach and attempt to alter someone’s outlook, experience cultures that are vastly different to my own and to have a goal, which is so important, that is to conserve natural wonders of the world for the future not only so that they can be enjoyed by others but also just so they can exist in their own right, which after x of thousands or even millions of years of evolution is their right.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy being able teach others, when you see the enthusiasm in young Belizeans who when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up they say a marine biologist or when you surface from a dive and volunteers eyes pop. It just demonstrates to me that where conservation organisations work for and with local communities, whilst maintaining connections with other areas of the world through ecotourism, changes can start to happen. The sphere of influence can increase awareness of the issues facing marine resources and stake holder communities and I feel lucky to be part of that.

What is your favourite species or group of species and why?
This is a really tricky question and changes depending on where I am, and has included nudibranchs, rays, groupers even wrasse (mainly due to the bird wrasse and napoleon wrasse) but I think it has to be sharks. From the tiny blacktip reef shark in Malaysia to the bull sharks in Mexico, every time I have seen one it has been a special experience -primarily because they are beautiful animals but also because I know how rare sharks have become. My favourite sighting was the first time I saw a whale shark, it was after an amazing drift dive in the Philippines where we saw napoleon wrasse, turtles, giant trevally and much more. On the way back from the dive site a 10m whale shark swam past our boat at the surface it was stunning, I grabbed my mask and fins and wanted to jump in, however the captain did not want to stop and told me if I jumped I would have to swim back to the island. Unfortunately that was about 2.5 km away which after a full days diving was just a little bit too far. I had to wait another two years before I saw my next whale shark but it was definitely worth the wait.

What would your science superpower be?
I think I will have to draw upon comic book mythology for this one and steel Aquaman’s abilities (and his orange and green suit) which include the following;

Marine telepathy: This would allow me to be able answer many of the questions currently be asked during behavioural studies.

Aquatic adaptation: This would allow me to be able to dive without SCUBA gear, exploring the endless depths of the world’s oceans.

Aquaman’s left hand was originally made out of enchanted water which is pretty cool, however it did also possess healing powers. Having witnessed first-hand the results of shark finning and accidental boat strikes, possessing the ability to heal propeller scars and regrow fins would be the best power of all.

What is one of the strangest things that has happened to you while working on conservation?
While attending lobsterfest in Placencia, Belize, Blue Ventures staff took part in a mass lionfish dissection. Lionfish are an invasive species within the Caribbean, they eat anything they can get in their mouths. With no natural predators and the capability to produce two million eggs a year they are seriously bad news for the region. Before the competition the local dive shops went out and caught as many as possible with a prize for the team which caught the most, they caught about 1000 lionfish and the mass dissection started with organising them and weighing them. During this portion of the event and through no fault of my own I can assure you, I got a venomous lionfish spine stuck in my hand. This was not a problem, I removed the spine and asked for hot water – lionfish venom is protein based and so breaks down in hot water.  Unfortunately there was no water and there was a bit of uncertainty about what to do next…

I followed the most obvious course of action and went to the bar. Once at the bar I asked for hot water and a cold beer and settled down to wait, at which point the venom started to take effect and my hand was hurting! It also happened to coincide with England playing Italy in the European Cup – extra time was over and penalties were next. The result, as all England fans could have predicted was that we were knocked out of the European Cup. The beer took my mind off the venom, the hot water made it feel better and then football hurt worse than the spine ever had.