From recollecting the time he watched his friend wrestle with a bobbit worm, to discussing the future of marine ecosystems, we talk to Dave Harasti, a celebrated marine biologist who works in marine conservation, particularly marine protected areas and threatened marine species. Diving for over 20 years, Harasti is an award winning underwater photographer and has a divine passion to search for the unknown.

Dave's first ever seahorse encounter, 1998

Dave’s first ever seahorse encounter, 1998

Taking marine research to the next level, over the years he has been fortunate enough to discover various new species including a nudibranch that was named after him (Okenia harastii).  Harasti’s PhD was focused on the biology, ecology and conservation of seahorses, and these rare unusual fish have remained his lifelong passion to find and photograph.

What got you into marine biology?

I actually went to University to study to become a National Parks Ranger, I thought saving the kangaroo’s and koala’s was a good idea at the time and it was something I had wanted to do since I was a small child. However, whilst at University I took up scuba diving and did some work experience at Fisheries and after that I completely changed my focus and set out to become a marine biologist. The funny thing is that I’ve learnt more about marine life through all my scuba diving than I did from all the text books and lectures I went through at University!

What’s the hardest thing/best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is the diversification. One day I could be working on seahorses or turtles, the next out catching and tagging great white sharks. The downside is the diving is not always glamorous. There are days when we have the pleasure of diving in less than a one metre visibility in 15 degree water to retrieve scientific equipment such as underwater shark listening stations; those are the days where you think being a Marine Scientist isn’t always the perfect job.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen/discovered while on the job?

The coolest thing I have ever discovered was the Nelson Bay anglerfish. I was searching for seahorses as part of my PhD and I would often turn over sponges to see if a seahorse was underneath. One day I turned over a sponge and I happened to see this small cute face looking back at me from a burrow inside the sponge. It turns out that this was an anglerfish that no one had seen alive before, and hence I called it the Nelson Bay anglerfish as this is the only location where it has been found.

The craziest thing I have ever done…. well let’s just say there is a long list. But snorkeling with seals in the middle of a tuna burley slick about 15 years ago at the Neptune Islands was probably the silliest thing I have done.

The funniest moment I can ever recall was having to collect a new species of bobbit worm (Eunice sp) that I found in Nelson Bay. These worms live in burrows in the sand, so to get it out I dangled a piece of fish in front of the hole to entice it out whilst my colleague had his fingers ready to grab it. Man, those worms are quick! After about 50 attempts of trying to grab it, finally my colleague got hold of the worm and he started pulling it out. Little did we know was that these worms are really long and stretch a lot. He was pulling the worm out and it was at least 2 m stretched from it’s hole when all of a sudden it was like a giant elastic band had been shot at him. The worm hit him in the face and got tangled up in his regs and gear whilst he was madly fighting to put it in a container. I couldn’t help because I was too busy laughing uncontrollably.

The bobbit worm has light and chemical receptors that cause it to lunge at fish when it thinks they are nearby. It has 5 antennae that house these sensory receptors.

The bobbit worm has light and chemical receptors that cause it to lunge at fish when it thinks they are nearby. It has 5 antennae that house these sensory receptors.

What do you help to achieve through your work?

Dave&seahorseI work as a marine biologist but my focus is on marine conservation. So I do a lot of work on threatened marine species such as turtles, sharks, seahorses and on particular threatened fish such as the black cod (Epinephelus daemelii). I also do considerable work on marine protected areas (MPAs) and a lot of the work I’m currently doing is assessing the effectiveness of MPAs and how research can contribute to improving them. My other main focus is marine education. If we get the young ones to learn about and appreciate our marine environment, then as they grow up they are going to be in a much better position to help us look after it.

Who is your marine biology role model?

I never really had a marine biology role model as when I was growing up I was more interested in the cute and cuddly animals. However, someone that I have great respect for is the late Ron Taylor. He was a pioneer of his time with his amazing underwater video footage and was one of the best divers ever to grace this planet. When I first met Ron and had dinner with him it was such a humbling experience, he’s one the nicest people I have ever met and the things he has witnessed underwater is incredible. The other great thing about Ron is that he became such a champion for marine conservation and our oceans, especially for threatened species such as the grey nurse and great white sharks.

What do you think lies ahead for marine ecosystems?

I think the next decade or so will be troubling for various elements of our marine environment. Climate change has already been shown to have significant impacts on our ecosystems and our coral reefs are greatly threatened from both ocean warming and acidification. One of my biggest personal concerns is the loss of important marine habitats such as mangroves and seagrasses that are being destroyed because of land reclamation, boating impacts and sedimentation. These habitats are vitally important to various species, particularly seahorses, so if you lose the habitats ultimately we are going to start losing species. But, on the positive side there are many great things being done in the marine environment such as implementation of MPAs and habitat restoration projects for degraded habitats, so hopefully these works will continue to provide benefit to all marine species.

An image of the great okenia harastii.

An image of the great okenia harastii.

What can the average person do to help protect life in the oceans?

It’s the simple things that can go along way. See that plastic bag blowing down the street? Well pick it up and stick it in the bin, you’ve just saved the life of a turtle. There is a great initiative in Australia called Take3. Basically, every time you head down to the beach or coast, try to take home 3 pieces of rubbish with you. The more people we have doing the right thing, the less plastic and rubbish we have entering the ocean.

Catch Dave at ADEX Singapore 2016 as a Marine Conservation Speaker.