Quarantine Q&A Part 2: Cat Cushenan
Introducing our second speaker for our Quarantine Q&A series: Catherine Cushenan. Cat is a shark ecologist, drone pilot and 50m freediving instructor from England. She studied her Marine Biology Undergraduate degree at the University of Portsmouth, with fieldwork in Cuba, Honduras and Indonesia. She then moved to Portugal to complete her Masters in Marine Ecology at the University of Algarve.
Q: What initially got you interested in working with sharks? They aren’t people’s first choice of things to work with!
A: I know this to be true now, but it never actually occurred to be that they were dangerous before. I never watched Jaws growing up which I know is a massive thing of why people are scared of sharks! I don’t ever remember thinking sharks were dangerous and the first time I saw one I was doing research in Cuba for a company called Operation Wallacea, where we were tagging them to look at their movements around the marine protected area. I’ve always had positive reinforcement that they are friendly creatures, that they need saving and that the media is mean to them, which I never really knew until I started doing research. So I’ve always had a positive mindset about sharks, which is quite lucky I guess.
Q: Which is your favourite shark?
A: I have to admit this is not my favourite question! I feel like I am picking a favourite child, because I love all sharks. Hammerheads are a shark that I’ve always been really really interested in, but I’ve only seen them twice; once was a hammerhead and a whale shark at the same time and the second time was really far away and there were only five of them, so I feel like I’m cheating if I say they are my favourite. I absolutely love whale sharks, they were the first species that I worked in the water with, so I really like those. The same with blue sharks, they were the first species that I felt like a proper scientist when I was working with them. There’s also tiger sharks who are absolutely beautiful, but I also love the way that other species respond when a tiger shark arrives to a dive site, or the scene of the crime. The tiger shark isn’t the first thing you see, you see all the other sharks scattering because they respect this apex predator so much that they are like ‘give her space, give her space!’ So you just know there’s a shark nearby. I absolutely love that experience, so for that reason maybe tiger sharks? But there’s also cat sharks, which are also amazing and that is my Instagram username (@catsharks) and my name is Cat. Pajama cat sharks are absolutely adorable… but in summary I don’t have a favourite shark, they are all incredible and that is okay!
Q: What did you find most challenging during your master’s degree?
A: So I did my Masters at the University of Algarve, in Portugal, so there was a bit of a language barrier. This was fine in lectures, but it was challenging getting accustomed to a new language as well as a new campus, way of life and all of the materials. But to be honest, on top of that, on top of anything that I have ever found challenging in my whole life… statistics. I am just not good at statistics, I really struggle. Everything I have done in life has been because I am passionate about the ocean and not because I am naturally intelligent at all. In my thesis, which I enjoyed so much, I studied how drones can be used to study sharks in shallow, tropical water where it is really clear. I enjoyed the data collection so much and I enjoyed writing my thesis so much, but when it came to the statistics, it was just such a struggle. I kept putting it off and procrastinating. I am just not made to do maths and that is a massive challenge for me.
Q: What did most of your classmates do after graduating?
A: A lot of my classmates did a lot of different things. There are 200 of us… or 196 I think. As many of us as there are countries in the world! So people often did different things. A lot of people carried on into research whatever they had been researching, and it was my Masters, so a lot of them stayed on to do PHDs over there. Some of my friends got really into phography and have gone down the conservation path. I also have a lot of friends working in tourism, so I have friends working currently (well, not currently because well… the world!) but working in The Bahamas, The Maldives, Australia, Cambodia, New Zealand, all over. If you’re willing to move and relocate your life a little bit then there is a lot of work everywhere. I also know quite a few people from my Undergraduate degree working in England, in aquaculture, fisheries and policy writing. It’s very interesting to see how many different people can do so many different things, but if you are looking for career options, there are so many out there. If there is something that you are particularly passionate about, there will be something that you are able to form into a career.
Q: How long can you freedive for at any one time? How did you train to get to this time?
A: So with freediving, with actual training, we have what’s called a ‘static breath hold’, which is not diving underwater and using energy. Literally the goal is to hold your breath for as long as possible. So you are lying face-down in a swimming pool or the smoothest, calmest water that you can find, we have woggles and you are just trying to stay as calm as possible. For that, I can hold my breath for 5 minutes and 34 seconds (don’t forget the 4 seconds!), which I’m really happy with. That is just doing it quite often, it’s really easy. I like to do two warm-ups, one where I hold my breath for about 2 minutes and then one where I try holding my breath as long as possible. Then the third is where I’m really trying to go for a record. So maximum it’s all going to take about 15 minutes. In the Philippines, we had a pool where we could train every day and keeping up the practice. It’s also good to get really comfortable with your buddy because they often can tell how you’re doing better than you can. So in my case, I had a girl called Sara, who could see that I wanted to come up – you have little signals, so I had my hand up ready to bring my head up – and she was essentially delivering death threats and saying if I started to go up, she would hold my head down because she could see that I was actually more comfortable than on some of the other dives! So learning to trust the confidence that your partner has in you if really useful. Then on top of that, just practicing in the water and having a lot of fun. I know that when I’m just diving around for fun, and staying in the water for as long as I can around coral reefs, I can usually hold my breath for about 3-4 minutes and that is basically just distraction techniques. So if I have my camera and I want to take a really good photo, or if I have to do tagging sharks, then usually I can stay down really long. Whereas if I’m just trying to hold my breath and just thinking about it, all I’m thinking about is wanting to breathe, so distraction techniques are really useful.
Q: Were you ever scared of travelling to all those places on your own?
A: No, I never have been. I’m really lucky in that respect, I don’t get nervous about exploring and making new friends. I’m a very bubbly person, so I know that I’ll be able to make friends and approach people when I get to places. But on top of that, I think it’s really helpful that a lot of places I have been going to for work, so I know that I’m going to go in a conservation setting, or it’s tourism so my co-workers are going to probably be equally as enthusiastic as I am. I know that I can join beach clean-ups and I know that wherever I go, because I’m near the ocean, there will be people who care about the ocean as much as I do. So I know I will be able to make friends, and as soon as you have a friend when you’re living abroad, you have a family. I really enjoy it and I hope that the travel ban is lifted soon so that we can all carry on and keep travelling!