an interview with Katie Watson

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with Katie about all things marine biology, seagrass, scuba diving and marine conservation. Katie's enthusiasm is contagious and grounded perspective so refreshing, you can't help but feel inspired (#fangirl). I hope you enjoy this read as much as I did our chat!

Can you tell me a little about yourself and what you do?

I am a PhD student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, currently researching seagrass restoration. Due to Covid I've been at home during the last year, so I've been involved with the Manx Wildlife Trust and Seasearch. 

It worked out well as I've wanted to do the Seasearch programme and was able to do training online. They give you guidance on how to identify marine species found in the UK and then you go out, record what you see, its abundance and describe the habitat. That feeds into the NBN (National Biodiversity Network) Atlas which is this huge portal for biological data. It helps track if populations are expanding or shrinking. It's really important in terms of looking at if populations are moving further north with climate change, or if we're starting to see more invasive species.

What inspired you into Marine Biology?

I'm from the Isle of Man which is a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea, I've always had that interest in nature and ecology, my Grandad is a farmer, and the other side owns a horticultural business, so I was always outside as a kid. I knew I wanted to do something nature based as a career.

Watching David Attenborough documentaries, you think it would be amazing to do but I just didn't think that was realistic, that it was just a handful of really clever, talented people that got to do Marine Biology.

I did a terrestrial ecology and habitat management degree for my Undergraduate at Nottingham Trent and then I worked as an ecologist for a couple of years. I had some incredible experiences, and during my placement year I got to do some travelling to Madagascar where I learnt to dive with PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). I completely fell in love with it. My first couple of dives were a bit freaky because I went in the rainy season, so the visibility was terrible. But then as I relaxed into it, it was the most amazing trip. I got back and joined BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) at Nottingham Trent and continued to love it. That's when we went on trips to the Isle of Mull and I got more and more into it. It became less of the impossible dream and more realistic. I did my Research Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Leeds, where I researched coral habitat management and looking at how climate change is affecting coral communities. I knew I wanted to do a PhD and I was super lucky to get one. 

I feel really lucky. Ten years ago I never thought I'd be doing this. This is the dream I didn't think was possible for ‘ordinary’ people. It's so great to be able to work in conservation and research and share it with other people. 

@underwaterwithkatie science comms

@manxwt ‘Festival of the Sea’ | @underwaterwithkatie

Your social media posts about Marine Biology are informative, educational and visually engaging. Tell me about your motivation to inspire others.

We had a really great lecturer at the University of Leeds called Dr Chris Hassall. He was super passionate about science communication and was doing some really cool engaging outreach work. He was the first person who had spoken to us about why engaging the public about what we're doing is important. That probably planted the seed, but I didn't feel like it was something I could do, or that I had something to contribute to that space.

Then a PhD student in my lab gave me loads of advice on marine photography that I used when I did fieldwork in Japan for 4 weeks. I got to see loads of amazing things and photograph them. Last year (My PhD) was meant to be this big adventure inSouth Africa and it didn't happen (due to Covid). I wanted something full-on and engaging to do with my time and that's how it started. It takes a lot of time but I really enjoy it. I learn so much myself. 

Can you tell me a little about seagrass restoration?

Seagrass is incredible, but under-researched in comparison to more charismatic ecosystems like mangroves or coral reefs. Not many people know about them or realise how important they are. Seagrass meadows are one of the most threateed habitats in the world and is under threat. Seagrass meadows provide a habitat for other species, improve water quality, protect coastlines from erosion and flooding, supporting fish stock and recently it’s been found they also trap ocean plastic. For me, their key benefit is offsetting climate change by absorbing and burying greenhouse gases, which they can do up to 40 times faster than rainforests. Seagrass is under threat and in decline and we have a responsibility to restore this really important habitats. I’m using a number of different approaches to improve our success in restoring this humble but really beautiful habitat. It's a really exciting area of research to be in as it's expanding so much.

Seagrass and The Big 5 🐆🐃🐘🦁🦏 @underwaterwithkatie

Seagrass and The Big 5 🐆🐃🐘🦁🦏 | @underwaterwithkatie

What's your most memorable underwater experience?

I've been really lucky with diving. My most memorable was my 100th dive in Japan. That was incredible as it nearly didn't happen. We had a really amazing boat captain who let us do a cheeky 15 minute dive number 99 so the very last dive of the trip was my 100th. It was one of my favourite dive sites we were researching, with beautiful corals, diverse fish, it was stunning. You have so much expectation about your 100th dive, it's quite a big deal in the dive community, there's a lot of expectation to do something crazy or fun... or naked.

I didn't want to put too much pressure on it, but we got in and there was rays of sunlight shining through the water that was dancing on the corals, it looked like the reef was sparkling. There were these tiny little silver schooling fish so it looked like the water itself was sparkling too. We saw so many cool things, loads of sea snakes, and nudibranchs, loads of cool fish and just had a fun dive. It was the most beautiful dive I have ever done. I was there with the two girls I went with, and our boat captain went in. We had so much fun it was such a perfect way to end the trip. That was the happiest I've ever been underwater, it was incredible, and you just don't get that ever, that perfect experience. That's the dive to beat, but I have been pretty jammy with my diving. 

That sounds beautiful, it's when you're with friends, you can fully relax, and you're bumbling along, there's no rush, there's no expectation on the dive.

You're really peaceful but exhilarated at the same time. Everything slowed down but you're aware of how 4D it is. I don't know if that will ever happen again but I'm so glad I had that.

Japan diving is so underrated, I don't know if I have seen it in the top 10 diving places to go, it was crazy good. We'd spent two weeks diving the subtropics, that was more coral communities, and then we did the tropics in Okinawa. That was large coral reef systems, like the Great Barrier Reef. I'd never dived a proper reef before, I'd mostly been coral communities, even in Madagascar. That was really special, and reefs are insane to dive. I'm so glad that's when I started getting into photography, to capture it. That's the biggest thing I regret about Madagascar, I spend all this money on this trip and then I didn't have a good camera. 

Okinawa, Japan | @underwaterwithkatie

If you could be any underwater creature what you would be?

I love nudibranchs, they are my favourite thing to spot but I wouldn't necessarily want to be one. You'd look funky, they have cool adaptations but maybe it's not the most exciting lifestyle other than looking incredible and fun. I'd probably want to be a flamboyant cuttlefish. They can change shape, colour and texture and they have amazing mimicry. They're more fun and jazzy, it seems like they have a good time.  

Can you share any tips for the everyday person to help our seas?

There's loads we can do as individuals, such as educating ourselves on marine conservation issues to become advocates for ocean conservation. Younger people have the ability to impact their parents and older generations. There's a lot of science to say daughters especially have a huge impact on their dads, a group which is typically least likely to be ocean advocates. If you can engage those people on the issues the ocean is facing, then you're going a long way to spread awareness.

Whenever I go to the beach, I grab 3 pieces of plastic before I leave, and then it becomes competitive with my family about who can collect the most plastic and then it becomes a whole beach clean. As well as beach cleans, you can volunteer with your local wildlife trusts. Even if you don’t live near the coast, you can get involved in things like tree planting schemes, which has a huge impact in helping stabilise the climate, which helps to protect our oceans.

I always have my little water bottle, my transportable coffee mug and I don't use plastic straws, because I don't really like them anyway. I'm not going to buy teabags anymore. I love tea but will use loose leaf and a strainer. We've got to a point now where we are unknowingly ingesting plastic which is scary when you look at species of whale that have become sterile and can no longer reproduce because they have so much plastic in their systems, that has accumulated in the ecosystem (read here). 

There is a lot we can do as individuals, but it needs to come from the top down. We have to be enforcing our governments to make more responsible choices. The UK has  left the EU and instead of looking at the opportunities of this, the UK is going to continue to transport our plastic waste to developing countries (read here). Charities like Shark Guardian are trying to tighten UK regulations on landing sharks that support the shark finning trade,  and the government aren’t looking to strengthen that legislation either. There are real opportunities to make huge changes locally that have an important ripple effect as part of the international community. The UK Government should be leading that and setting the example. We're a supposedly developed country, if we're not doing it, what's the incentive for other countries. We have to be supporting them, we have some of the world’s leading scientists. It can make you apathetic. You can carry around your reusable water bottle your whole life but if you're not getting that advocacy at that top tier of government it seems a bit tokenist, which is frustrating because a lot of people are really concerned and passionate about protecting our oceans and the impacts of climate change.

Not everyone wants to be campaigning government and you don't have to be doing that to be making a contribution. Educate yourself, engage with conservation work and make small changes. 


A huge thanks to Katie for coming on our blog series! Follow Katie on Instagram & Facebook@underwaterwithkatie