Megan McCubbin adjusted her headlamp as the powerboat raced East. It was her first night as a volunteer at Bimini Shark Lab, and the crew was working through the night to monitor the tiger shark long-lines.
“The silence was almost deafening as we made our way through the bioluminescent waves. And there she was, a two-meter tiger shark. I leaned over the side of the boat to hold her dorsal fin whilst my colleagues gave her a work-up to collect valuable scientific data. As I was holding her, I couldn’t help but think of the life she leads and the dangers she faces,” McCubbin described.
As a documentarian of the illegal wildlife trade, Megan is faced with emotionally shocking and disturbing sights of animals that have been killed for their commercially valuable appendages. However, she hopes that by creating films about the brutal trade in wildlife flesh, she will be able to turn the tide, and aid in their survival.
“The illegal wildlife trade is something that comes to the forefront of our attention when we think about specific species decline. We have lost 90% of sharks in the last 30 years, and risk losing them entirely by 2048 due to the demand for their fins and meat. It is very difficult to comprehend why someone would wish to remove a horn from a rhino or a fin from a shark, so we often feel emotionally disturbed and shocked by these type of actions. Often we find it easier to turn away and pretend it doesn’t happen,” McCubbin said.
“We are at a critical point in time where we can’t afford to turn a blind eye any longer, we are losing species and losing them fast. My motivation has been to make hard-hitting films about wildlife persecution and illegal trading to raise awareness and hope that our audience will allow themselves to really feel – because its those emotions, like being sad, shocked, and hopeful, that are the fuel to making significant change,” she said.
Megan started working within the conservation realm at a young age. She has a long-term relationship with the United Kingdom’s Isle of Wight Zoo, where she began volunteering at age 12. The zoo acted as a sanctuary for big cats rescued from the circus and illegal pet trade. Observing and working with tigers motivated Megan to pursue a career in conservation. Eventually earning a Bachelors in Zoology and Animal Biology from The University of Liverpool, Megan has spent the last several years working as a wildlife researcher and presenter for LUSH cosmetics, BBC and most recently Al Jazeera.
“I have spent a lot of time working with big cats in the wild and in captivity, and by working with these large felines I became particularly fascinated with predators; how they behave, how their physiology functions and how they shape their ecosystems. But you can’t really study predatory behavior without looking at the apex – the shark,” McCubbin said.
Captivated by the work of late shark advocate and filmmaker Rob Stewart, Megan searched for shark research internships and volunteering opportunities that would allow her to observe sharks in their element.
“Rob was always a hero of mine for courageously exposing the shark-finning industry and for challenging the public perception of these predators. In the last 30 years, we have lost 90% of sharks globally from direct and indirect persecution. Rob’s documentaries, SharkWater and SharkWater Extinction, reveals the extent of the issue and encourages audiences to rethink the reputation of sharks. Whilst Rob may be gone, his legacy will live on for generations to come,” McCubbin said.
Inspired by Stewart’s tenacity, McCubbin accepted an eco-volunteering position with Bimini Biological Field Station (Shark Lab) in The Bahamas.
“Since my first encounter, I have taken every opportunity to be in the water with sharks and each time I learn something new; they have personalities, they choose to socialize with specific individuals, they’re incredibly sensitive and curious,” McCubbin said. “Sometimes you have to experience something to fall in love with it. And that’s what I urge you to do, and if not for sharks then for the health and future of our oceans,” she said.
In discussing the impact of film and photography in achieving conservation awareness, Megan believes that photography can be more powerful than facts and figures because this medium is not constrained by the boundaries of language.
“Photographs themselves act as conservation ambassadors by engaging audiences and raising awareness of campaigns and key issues. It’s an invaluable tool for conservation. We are inundated with facts and figures about declines and rising temperatures, but these have quickly become just figures on a screen and it’s hard to envision what they really mean,” McCubbin said. “It’s about getting people invested in nature so that they have a personal connection with it. I think you begin to care about the ocean when you realize how important it is not just for the species within it, but for our own physical and mental wellbeing too,” she said.
Reflecting on this year’s World Ocean’s Day theme—“Gender and the Ocean”—Megan said that although less than 30% of science researchers around the world are women, she believes there are many exceptional female role models in science who are leading the charge for future generations.
“I feel very proud to be a women working in conservation and am very grateful to the pioneers who fought their way into a system that was primarily made for and by men,” McCubbin said. “We have a long way to go to ensure gender equality, but things have and will continue to evolve for women and all other minority groups. I think we are making huge steps towards equality for women in marine conservation, as we should be in every industry and profession. We are celebrating women in science like never before and their work is shining new light onto the mysteries of our oceans,” she said.