“Our whole lives we are taught to fear them because they are monsters, but in reality, they are fascinating creatures which are a critical part of keeping oceans healthy.”
Shark conservationist Jillian Morris has dedicated her life and career to these often misunderstood creatures of the deep. Her passion to drive awareness towards the impact that humans have of them has led her to publish her own children’s book titled Norman the Nurse Shark aimed to help kids become more interested in sharks and dispel the fear that is often associated with them. As a marine biologist and videographer, Jillian has filmed for BBC Shark Series, Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, and has assisted with the Shark Bay Ecosystem Research Project. Her main goal is to create the next generation of shark advocates through education, outreach and adventure.
Jillian Morris officially joined the PADI AmbassaDiver team and explains more about where her passion for sharks comes from, upcoming projects, and the challenges and opportunities that face women in diving in the exclusive interview below:
What has influenced you the most to become such an active ambassador for sharks?
I saw a nurse shark while snorkeling in Florida when I was 8 years old and I was fascinated. This fascination has never wavered and has only strengthened as I’ve gotten older and have spent more time with these animals. I’ve been so lucky to have had such incredible encounters with sharks, that I cannot help but want to share that with others. They are not man-eating monsters, but in reality, are remarkable creatures that deserve our respect and our conservation efforts. Sharks are not as cute and cuddly as other animals that garner more attention, but in most cases, are far more threatened and in greater need of protection and better management. There is no way I can spend as much time as I do with these creatures and not be a voice for them. I can’t ignore the devastating impacts humans are having on their populations, much of which is driven by money and fear. If we can change fear to fascination and respect, we can start winning the battle to put better protection in place both locally and globally.
As a marine biologist and photographer, what has been your most memorable moment working with these incredible creatures?
I have been lucky to have had some really incredible moments in the water, but seeing and being able to film a lemon shark give birth, was definitely one of the most amazing. Lemon sharks give birth to live young, which are attached to the mother by an umbilical cord (like us). Seeing a shark start its life, breaking free of the umbilical cord and heading into the mangroves is unlike anything else I have ever witnessed. This particular female had 10 pups and they were so delicate and vulnerable. These are not words people typically associate with sharks, but truly describe these little creatures as their life begins.
What do you wish more people knew about them?
Our whole lives we are taught to fear them because they are monsters, but in reality, they are fascinating creatures which are a critical part of keeping oceans healthy. We are all connected to the ocean, no matter where we live, so any threats to the health of the ocean impact all of us. I think inspiring people to care is important and education is a key component to that. If people are not aware of the impact the ocean has on our daily life, it’s difficult to get them to be ocean advocates and to do their part. Education allows us to share the ocean, the role sharks play and the threats they face, and ways people can get involved. Seeing these animals in the water is another key element in changing perceptions and empowering people to make a difference. Just this week I was able to take 14 high schools students in the water to see sharks for the first time. Many were nervous and some were really scared, but within a few minutes they were excited to watch the sharks and then we couldn’t get them out of the water. I see this evolution of fear to excitement all the time, and it just proves how powerful having your own personal experience with sharks is. Nothing is stronger, in my opinion, for changing the way people feel about sharks.
Tell us about your book, Norman the Nurse Shark. What was your inspiration to create it and your goal with the book?
I have wanted to write a children’s book since high school, so when I started Sharks4Kids, I knew it would be a great platform to do so. The first shark I ever saw was a nurse shark so this seemed to be the perfect character for my first book. I think nurse sharks are wonderful ambassadors as well because they can be less intimidating, but also show kids how diverse sharks can be. The Bahamas is arguably the shark diving capital of the world, and my home, so I knew Norman’s adventure had to take place there. After visiting the Exumas and getting to spend time with the nurse sharks of Compass Cay, I sat and wrote the whole book. The main goal of the book is to get kids interested in sharks through facts and a fun adventure. I see a lot of shark books for kids and the cover has a great white with its mouth agape, which only perpetuates the “monster” stereotypes that saturate our lives. I believe kids can be interested and intrigued by sharks without focusing on their teeth.
Through the Sharks4Kids program, what would you say is the most important part of the program? How can other divers be a part of it?
Our program has a lot of working parts, all of which are really integral in inspiring the next generation of shark advocates. I think one of the most powerful elements though, is getting kids in the field to see sharks up close. Through our partnership with dive operations in Florida and the Bahamas, we’ve been able to take hundreds of students out to see sharks. Giving them the opportunity to snorkel with sharks gets them interested and often times catalyzes a desire to spend more time in the ocean and to learn to scuba dive. We see this a lot in the Bahamas because the local kids see guys from the island who are now shark divers, guides and feeders, and realize they can do this too. It opens the door to possibilities they were not aware of or didn’t think was an option for them. The Bahamas is a Shark Sanctuary and these students are the future, so we must inspire and empower them now.
We are also looking for ambassadors and opportunities to share our program and the oceans with students around the world. We are working to build our field experiences, so if divers or dive shops are interested, we would love to connect. People can also sponsor these field trip for students.
What upcoming projects are your looking forward to?
I have a very busy summer ahead with a lot of amazing dive trips and education projects. We will be in St. Eustatius, Saba, Arizona, and Charleston, and are working on trips to Singapore and South Africa. Our program is evolving and expanding every week and it continues to be an incredible journey. This is my passion and I am so blessed to be able to do this every day! In my world, every week is Shark Week and I am so grateful to be able to share my passion with so many people. We have an incredible team, especially my co-founders Duncan Brake and Dr. Derek Burkholder and our outreach director Michelle Andersen. I could not do this without them. Our ambassadors, supporters, and sponsors make our programs possible and I am forever grateful for their continued support and passion.
As we gear up for PADI Women’s Dive Day, what do you feel are the most important challenges and opportunities facing women in diving? How can we get more women in the water and involved in the dive community?
Whether it is shark science, conservation, or diving, women are always outnumbered. I think there is a stigma that sharks are for boys and men (think of clothing, books, toys..etc with shark designs for males not females). As female divers, we have the wonderful opportunity to be ambassadors for not only for sharks and the oceans, but for diving. Learning to scuba dive changed my life and I hope to share that with as many other women as possible, both young and old. Being able to take my mom diving with great hammerhead sharks is a moment I will always cherish and one the best dives of my life. I want to encourage other women to try diving, but also to connect with the community of women divers around the world. We must support and empower one another. We are strong and we are much stronger together, so we must encourage and each other and work together. No matter how old you are or where you are from, diving brings people together and I love my tribe of water women. They give me strength, courage and inspire me on a daily basis and I hope to do the same for others.
What does it mean to be a PADI AmbassaDiver?
It means being a voice for the dive community, for women, and for our oceans. It means sharing my underwater journey and encouraging others to slip beneath the surface and find a world they never imagined possible. I hope it also means inspiring the next generation of shark and ocean advocates.
Still not convinced that sharks are friends not foes? Check out these 18 things that are more dangerous than sharks.