Meet Jillian Morris: a Shark Lady for a new Generation

Our June box celebrated the life and work of "Shark Lady" Dr. Eugenie Clark. Genie, as she was known, was amazing! Her love affair with sharks and life under the waves began in her childhood. Most Saturdays found Genie in a New York aquarium while her mom worked nearby. There she discovered her love for sharks and the ocean. What came later was a life dedicated to studying fish and sharks. She was also a pioneer in using scuba in marine biology. So it was only natural, then that we would reach out to marine biologist Jillian Morris, founder of Sharks4Kids, to talk sharks, scuba, and empowering girls. 

 Sharks4Kids is dedicated to promoting shark conservation through education. Jillian and her team meet with classrooms all over the world in person and through Skype. "Our team brings together scientists, educators, conservationists and professional videographers to create a unique opportunity for the next generation to learn why sharks need kids and kids need sharks," says their website. It's a site rich with all sorts of 'jaw-some' information, sharky games, and more. Be sure to check it out HERE. Until then, meet Jillian Morris....a shark lady in her own right.
 GCC: How did you get your start in marine biology and diving with sharks?
Jillian Morris: I grew up in Maine and went to the ocean a lot. I loved every ocean animal I could find. I saw my first shark, a nurse shark, while snorkeling when I was 8. Thus started my lifelong love of nurse sharks.

Photo credit: Jillian Morris

Photo credit: Jillian Morris

GCC: What’s your favorite shark?  
JM: Great hammerhead. You look at that animal with their eyes on the side of their head, that great head and well, there’s nothing like them under the water. They’re also an endangered to be able to work with them and share their story is really important. Hammerheads are a great ambassador for sharks.  I’ve had some incredible moments with them in the water.

GCC: Who has influenced you the most?
JM: Eugenie Clark was one of my role models. Only Eugenie Clark and Sylvia Earle were doing what I wanted to do. It’s really important to highlight women in STEM. I really, really think it’s important for girls and women to know that sharks are for girls.

GCC: How did you come to form Sharks4Kids?
JM: I think that sharks are awesome, but they’re in trouble. So I thought, how can I combine my background to teach a new generation about these animals or elicit empathy to help them appreciate that sharks are important and they really need our help? We created Sharks4Kids in 2012. It was a passion project of mine, my husband, who’s also a marine biologist, and our partner Derek. We love sharks and we love kids. I love every minute of it. It’s really a special connection to be able to see the change in kids and want to do something to help these animals. We have 200-300 Skype calls a year. We’re in 42 countries.

GCC: For kids who don’t live by the ocean, why should they care about sharks and their conservation?
JM: I get asked this all the time. It’s important for kids to understand that we’re all connected to the ocean; most rivers, streams, eventually flow to the ocean. Even if kids have never seen the ocean, they’re connected to the ocean. We’re teaching them to be globally-focused and that our actions have an impact; they can be positive or negative. From a young age we have a choice to make the connection to the world around us, it’s important for all of us. 

GCC: Should kids be afraid of swimming in the ocean?
JM: Absolutely not. People go in the ocean every day. On average only 5 people die from shark attacks a year. That’s a very, very small number. Pretty much anything else you do is more dangerous than going to the beach. But there are all these descriptors for sharks: killer, rogue, man-eaters, etc. It’s a mentality that we have, the Jaws effect, so that’s one of the first things. They’re not man-eating monsters. Let’s talk about how awesome they are.

GCC: How do you suggest kids and adults “get over fear” of sharks?
JM: If they can see a shark in an aquarium that helps, see that they’re not killing everything. They’re strong and deserve respect. Seeing something makes it easier to connect with and makes you want to help that animal. If they had that opportunity to see one in the wild, that’s the strongest kind of tool that we have for getting people to change their ideas about sharks.

Jillian Morris. Photo credit: Sharks4Kids site

Jillian Morris. Photo credit: Sharks4Kids site

GCC: Favorite thing about scuba diving?
JM: It’s like you’re exploring a new world. You never know what you’re going to see. It’s just really special. Even if you don’t want to work in the ocean, if you can dive for fun, it’s so incredible. Diving allows us to be in this really beautiful world…even for only a few minutes.

GCC: How many species of sharks have you dived with?
JM:  I’ve seen and swam with about  40-50 different species.

GCC: What specie of shark would you most like to see?
JM: I would love to see a Greenland shark. They’re cold-water deep-water sharks in Greenland, Iceland, Norway. They’re big and slow moving.

GCC: Favorite fun shark fact?
JM: I love that while baby lemon sharks do not have a true belly button, they’re born with an umbilical cord like humans. It’s something that we have that’s similar to sharks. It connects us. It’s great to see kids go “oh, that’s cool”! There’s so much more to these animals than just their teeth.

GCC: Each of the women we feature in our crates have a trait. Eugenie Clark’s trait is adventurous. So we encourage kiddos, particularly girls, to be risk-taking and to know the difference between a good risk and one that’s just dangerous. What do you recommend to encourage risk-taking in girls?
JM: It’s really important from a young age to remind women to be less concerned whether something is for boys or girls. If they want to do it, they can do it. Connecting them with people who are doing whatever that thing is and helping them understand they can do it, too. Whether it’s a sport or a job, we need to encourage girls to do it and go for it, to live their dreams, work hard, and do it. For me, I hope this generation gets to see a lot more women as role models and understand that we didn’t get where we are without people like Genie Clark. She paved the way. She didn’t care that women weren’t doing it, that didn’t stop her.  Girls need to see those people and understand they exist and it’s possible.

GCC: What’s the biggest adventure you’ve been on?
JM: I’ve been lucky I’ve done some pretty cool trips. I think probably one of my faves would be tagging tiger sharks in a remote part of Western Australia. Seeing the connection of the system and the sheer size of the tiger sharks.

 GCC: Anything else you want our GCC community should know?
JM: Sharks are for girls, too.

Be sure to take a look at Sharks4Kids to learn more about sharks and what you and your littles can do to get involved in shark conservation.