Rachel Graham

Biologist, M/V Spree

Expedition Role: Rachel Graham will use scuba gear to complete several dives in the coral reef zone of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. She will help to change the batteries and gather data from the three acoustic receivers in the sanctuary. She will also help to set up more receivers and tag more manta rays. 

On Your Career…

What is your educational background?
I have an undergraduate degree in zoology, a Master’s degree in environmental protection and management, and a doctorate in reef fish spawning and whale shark biology and behavior.

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
A long and tortuous path speckled with luck, kindness of key people along the way, frustrations, more luck, hard work, and serendipity.

Who or what inspired you to pursue this career?
My mother reminded me recently that I was destined for this line of work. She says that I once came home from kindergarten (a few years ago now) in tears. When asked why I was so sad and upset, I answered, “Nobody wants to talk about piranhas and sharks.” I pursued many other fascinating avenues in life before coming back to my zoology roots. I love being able to work in the sea and attempting to answer scientific questions that have never been answered before. I hope that my work helps to protect the species and sites I work with.

How and where do you conduct your work?
I work in or on the sea and behind a computer. I have been lucky to work in many countries and on several species of ocean giants. I focus on whale sharks, manta rays, and Goliath grouper.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work?
You need a range of tools to study large, highly migratory marine animals. You need to be able to gather information on the animals when you see them and even when you are not around. When I see manta rays or whale sharks, I estimate their size, check which sex they are, and take photographs of their unique spot patterns (on the belly of the manta ray and the side of the whale shark). I put all of the photographs in a catalogue. I use them to estimate the size of the population and to assess whether individual animals return to specific sites year after year. I also try to tag the animals with acoustic tags or satellite tags. The acoustic tags help to gather information on when animals visit a specific site. The satellite tags help to gather information on how the animals dive and where they go after they have been tagged.

How does math factor into your work?
A decent understanding of math is important for analyzing the data that come back from the acoustic and satellite tags. Math is also helpful in preparing project budgets.

What research projects are you currently involved in?
I am studying the movements and visiting populations of manta rays and whale sharks at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS). In Belize, where I have conducted most of my whale shark research, I now also work on Goliath grouper and reef-associated shark populations. I study their movements between the different habitats that are essential to complete their life cycles. In Honduras I will shortly be starting a whale shark project looking at the population and movements of this species in relation to the increasing tourism. In Madagascar I am also researching whale shark populations and patterns of movements in relation to environmental factors and tourism.

What have you learned so far?
In the whale shark research, I have found that although the animals are highly migratory, they show great site fidelity (they come back to the same site time after time). They can dive very deep—over 4,500 ft (1,370 m)—to very cold waters, and their diving is very rhythmic. It follows specific patterns that take place every 24 hours and 8 hours. The manta research is new, but we have already identified at least 26 individuals frequenting the FGBNMS. We also recently determined—at least in the case of one individual that was acoustically tagged—that they can move from one of the submerged banks to another. In effect, this connects two parts of the marine sanctuary (the East and West Flower Garden Banks).

What do you like the best about your job?
Being able to propose and answer some key scientific questions that will help in the conservation of ocean giants. It means that I get to work flexible (although often long) hours with large and awe-inspiring animals in the sea.

What do you like the least about your job?
Raising money to finance the research and working with people whose motivations are not true or pure.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about what you do?
That the work is very easy, that I am perpetually on vacation, and that I dive every day of the year.

What is the most incredible thing that has happened to you while conducting your work?
Close encounters with Mr. Facey. “Facey” is a Belizean Creole word that means “someone with an attitude.” Mr. Facey is a young, 20-ft-long (6-m-long) male whale shark that visits Gladden Spit in Belize on a yearly basis. I was diving at 70 ft (21 m) when he swam up to me, parked his snout in my stomach, and just hung in the water horizontally. I had to climb on top of his head and push away using his large dorsal fin. There is a “no-touch” policy with ocean creatures, but I had to touch him in order to get away. Mr. Facey would swim around and come back again and again for no apparent reason. And each time I would have to climb on top of his head to move away. Eventually he got tired of the game and I was able to swim slowly to the surface.

Where have you traveled for your work?
Fortunately, I’ve worked on all five continents. But I am currently focusing on research projects in the Gulf of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Cuba, and Madagascar.

Where’s your favorite place that you’ve been to so far?
I have a hard time deciding which is my favorite. There are so many and each is very special.

What are some of the different career opportunities that are associated with the work that you do?
There are many: biologist, project manager, population modeler, conservation advocate, research diver, and more.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Cultivate your curiosity and interest in nature. Become interested in your own backyard or a local park—these provide an excellent start for the budding scientist. Also, if you know that this is truly the field for you, then persevere.

On the Expedition…

What is your role on this expedition?
Dan Castellanos and I will continue our study on the populations and movements of manta rays and whale sharks (should these appear). We will be trying to tag animals. We will also be downloading information from the acoustic receivers to check for data on the visitation of previously tagged animals.

What about the expedition is most exciting to you?
Revisiting the Flower Garden Banks, a site I am getting to know and thoroughly enjoy. I also always look forward to working with the staff of the FGBNMS—especially Emma Hickerson—and the staff of the M/V Fling.

Why do research in the ocean in general and in the Flower Garden Banks region specifically?
The ocean is the last frontier—there’s so much still to discover about it. The Flower Garden Banks is an exceptional site. There is so much coral there, and it is in excellent condition. This is important, because most coral reefs are in serious trouble. Also, the Flower Garden Banks attract many large animals such as sharks and manta rays—it’s the perfect place to study these species.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from this expedition or science in general?
Expeditions and science are like life: you have your ups and your downs, your successes and failures. Work collaboratively, treat your partners well, and maintain a hopeful outlook. This will help you make discoveries that will not only advance knowledge but also put everything you are doing into perspective.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I have always loved to know how and why things worked the way they do—I still do. As a result, my parents gave me many books that explained natural, geological, and mechanical mysteries. I still remember when they gave me a multi-volume set of the Junior World Encyclopedia. It was my pride and joy and I read every single volume through and through.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
At first I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. Then I wanted to be a vet. This morphed into the broader study of zoology.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
My parents never forced me into any one subject or voiced any goals for me. They just wanted to make sure I was happy. So if I were to provide advice to a kid (for example, my little boy Xavi), I would say, “Find something to do that makes you happy because you may be doing it for a very long time.”

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
My mother Christine MacCallum, my husband Dan Castellanos, my FGBNMS collaborator Emma Hickerson, and another incredible woman named Heidi Dewar who also works on mantas and ocean giants. These are some of the people whom I greatly admire and respect for their attitude toward life, their dedication and love of their work, and their kindness and generosity of spirit.

When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Since I love what I do, I never really consider it work, but I guess that when I am not diving, in a boat, or behind a computer, I love to spend time with my family. I especially love to play with my son. I also like to garden, cook, read, visit with friends, and take photographs.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
My mother has a short yet wonderful saying about life that I wish to share with you: “This is not a dress rehearsal.” You have one shot at this life and every 24 hours is a new gift of time. Use it wisely and kindly and you will be happy.

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic