Get Your Nerd on With Bimini Shark Girl
Jillian Morris, more commonly known as Bimini Shark Girl, is a shark advocate. She’s a queen of marine biology, ocean conservation and videography!
She started her journey in marine conservation behind the lens. Using photography and videography to message about the importance of sharks and to help people understand them. Her beautiful work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC. A testament to her talent.
Jillian’s work evolved into her founding an education system called Sharks4Kids. The goal is to help kids understand sharks and become global ocean advocate citizens.
Get your nerd on with Bimini Shark Girl and start learning about how you can pursue a career in marine conservation. Dive into a whole new world, where anything is possible.
How does your conservation story start?
My love for the ocean started when I was a kid. My parents always used to take me to the water. I swam with my first shark when I was eight years old in Florida.
I used to go to the coast and explore tide pools. I developed this fascination with the ocean and the animals. Everything from the tiniest little crab or snail. I was so interested in all the animals. I guess that kind of launched me into my career. My parents were always very supportive.
My mom was always very eco-minded and green before it became a trendy thing. I grew up with that as the norm.
The older I got, I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. When you’re that young, you don’t know exactly what that might look like. But I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I set out to try and figure out how someone from Maine, a small town of about 400 people, does that. I didn’t know anybody that did it.
I started reading, exploring and doing my own research and figuring it all out. Asking myself, how can I do this? How can I get into marine biology?
As I got more into it, I ended up focussing more on sharks. I was learning more about them and their behaviour. I started to realize how many comments people would say – like “oh, my gosh, you work with sharks, isn’t that scary”?
People who had these responses were acting out of fear. Although they’d never experienced sharks themselves. They had no reason to be afraid of a shark. They had never even seen one.
I realised there was this huge disconnect. Between the things I was learning and what everyone believed to be true about sharks. The older I got, the more time I was actually spending working with sharks and in the water with them. And still, my friends, my family, and definitely my Grandmother, think I’m crazy.
Their reactions were not what I expected. My friends who were also marine scientists or divers thought what I was doing was great. There was no issue for them. It was other people in my life and strangers that I would meet. Their reactions were very different from my reality with sharks.
That’s when it launched big time. These animals that people have never seen – they hate them, and they’re afraid of them. How does that happen?!
I wanted to tell their story. I decided to use a camera to do it. There was a natural progression. From my learning things about an animal that I cared about so much, and the fact that the world didn’t see what I saw. The world didn’t see the reality or the truth that I did.
So I asked myself how I could change it? How do I change the conversation so people understand?
How did you get into conservation photography?
Growing up, my mother always had a nice camera. I remember being in high school and being pretty interested in camera lenses. At that point, I was trying to figure out what I was into and who I was behind the camera.
I got my own when I started travelling for internships and research positions. I was in some pretty remote places. It was amazing to have a camera and to be able to tell these stories of places I’d been. Places that people didn’t have access to. Animals that people hadn’t seen.
I got the first chance to use the camera underwater and had no idea what I was doing! It was very different from how I’d used a camera before.
It’s far more challenging to make a camera do what you want underwater than on land. I decided that, like with anything, the more you do it, you’re going to get better at it.
It got to a point that I could make a little bit of money being in the water sharing shark’s stories.
Nobody ever talks about this. You can be super passionate about something, which is great – but you do have to pay the bills. You have to pay rent. You have to live somewhere. Photography and videography are a way for me to do that.
I don’t do as much now, but I still love telling the story of an animal in a single image! It’s really powerful.
Do you have advice for wanna-be underwater photographers?
My advice is to shoot whatever!
People always ask “What camera should I get? What’s the best camera”? The best camera is the one you have access to – make the most of it.
You may not have the money to buy a $50,000 camera, but I’ve seen some pretty incredible photos taken on an iPhone. Work with what you have. Learn how to use it and get the most out of it and tell the story that you want.
Explore if there are local photography classes where you live, even if you’re starting out.
If you want to be an underwater photographer, then first, make sure you’re comfortable in the water. Spend time in the water. Learn how to dive and get those skills honed before you try and complicate things with a camera.
We live in a digital world, so you don’t have to worry about buying 100 rolls of film and messing a thousand photos up. You delete and start again! We’re super lucky that we can do that. So get out there and shoot.
You don’t have to have traditional training. A lot of conservation photographers didn’t study at art school. They haven’t done a photography or videographer program. They were in the line of fire and used their camera to tell a story and developed that and shared their vision. That’s what’s so powerful.
How did you end up starting Sharks4Kids?
When I left university I started working on shark projects around the world. When I’d go back home, my family and friends were all interested. Those who were teachers asked me to come and talk about sharks to kids at schools.
I enjoyed it. I had started adding more media to my presentations. Back then I was super fresh in my career. I was still trying to figure out what marine biology was going to look like for me and what exactly I wanted to be doing. It was all about working out how I could use my studies in marine biology in the real world.
I had been doing all this photography and videography work so I had all these images and videos. I wondered if I could make it easier for teachers and students to have access to shark education. And teachers used to ask me if there were activities they could do.
I went home and started looking and there weren’t many resources. Education isn’t my background. I’m not a trained teacher or anything. But I started Sharks4Kids up 12 years ago to fill the void!
I figured I had the science side of it and all the media. I sat on the idea for it for a while before my husband made me realise I’d been talking about it for years! So we started it up together – he’s a professional videographer too.
I started to make a curriculum alongside my friend from Australia. She’d been out there doing some research work. We decided we were doing it. Because we love sharing about sharks with people.
None of us had any idea what we were going to do. But we brought our skills together and created it. We spent a year figuring it out!
Kids have a lot bigger voices than people realise. If we give them tools and inspire them, then we’re creating global citizens. We’re empowering these kids to speak up and take action. We’re helping them to realise that they’re part of this change and they can do a lot more than they know.
What’s the main thing you do now?
I’m full time for Sharks4Kids. It’s been amazing. We’re gonna be seven in November. It started out as a passion project – a way for us to share our love for sharks and get kids excited. It’s evolved so much so fast.
We’re a non-profit. So I spend a lot of time finding funding for our programs. The funding gives kids hands-on learning opportunities, materials and helps keep everything free.
I’m always creating new content. Keeping up with new science and research. Science is exciting because there are always new species. New discoveries. It’s a full-time job to keep up with that!
I still do a bit of photo and video stuff on the side. My husband and I recently wrote a kid’s book too.
I finally combined all my different backgrounds to help create what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. It’s incredible. I love it.
What would you say to people who want to get into marine or shark conservation?
Look local first. Find out what’s happening near you.
There’s a lot of buzz words in the industry. You hear people talking about shark finning which could take you somewhere tropical. But there’s a lot of other things that are happening and threats these animals face which you can fix from home.
There are global issues, but there are also local issues. Start where you are and see what’s available nearby. Is there an NGO that you can volunteer for? An aquarium, a dive shop? Even if you’re not a diver yet.
There’s a lot of citizen science programs you can get involved in with. Reef counts and I.D. surveys. Even if you go on holiday and you’re diving somewhere, find out if you can take part. Can I record what I’m seeing? Can I take photos of animals and submit them to a database? There’s a lot of accessible activities that people don’t know about!
Then there’s doing a degree! You could do general biology, or be more focused on marine policy and affairs. If you want to get more involved in legislation and regulation, study law or fisheries management.
You have to ask yourself what aspect of conservation you’re interested in. What do you want to be doing with your time?
Lots of people walk out the door with a university degree and assume there’s going to be jobs available. There aren’t always. So if any opportunities or internships come up – even if they’re not exactly what you wanted to do – take them. You might learn something. You can learn valuable skills and get your foot in the door with people you network with during the job.
Get experience. Be out there, working in the field. Do hands-on learning. Make connections and hopefully, you’ll have fun doing it!
What have you done to get to where you are today in your conservation career?
I studied behavioural biology and brain science at university. Afterwards, I immediately started doing research projects and internships. Also volunteering.
I had all this book knowledge, but I wanted to have more real-life experience. I started working as a naturalist out in the field and doing tagging projects. For three years after uni, I was collecting experience – diving as much as possible.
That time for me was the most valuable because it was a real hands-on experience. It helped me understand how we’re actually studying these animals and putting everything into practice.
I learnt how to translate fieldwork to the general public. Explaining why it’s important and how it works.
Then I started pursuing specific avenues in my career and set goals. What did I want to learn next? What did I want to do? I had quite a bit of experience and knowledge to move forward with.
What would you say to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
You may not see a lot of women in this field. It’s definitely getting better. There’s more. But diving media science, in general, is still male-dominated.
No matter where you’re from, you’re going to hear “Oh, isn’t that what guys do? Isn’t that more a man’s job? You’re not strong enough.” It’s getting better, though. Don’t let it stop you.
If you are passionate about this, you’ll find a way to make it work. Don’t let somebody else determine what you should be doing if you’re passionate. Find a way.
Don’t be afraid to try different things or create your own career if there isn’t a specific job. I didn’t. If you told me 10 years ago that I’d be running a nonprofit designed for kids, I would have said, oh, that sounds cool. But it didn’t sound like me! That wasn’t what I set out to do.
But combining all these passions and skills that I wanted to bring together, it just kind of worked. There wasn’t something that existed like that. So I created it. It’s a lot of hard work. And I’ve learned a ton. I’m not a business person but I’ve started one.
I love it, I feel connected to it, and I know it’s important!
Teach the World about Marine Conservation and Sharks
Get behind the lens, and share your passion about what you see under the surface of the ocean.
Or take what you learn under the waves into the classroom. Help others understand the importance of marine life, and what they can do to help save it. Breed a world of ocean advocates and spread the love!
Main image credit: @BiminiSharkGirl / Jillian Morris.