Snappy snaps: From zoology degree to shark photographer

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He started his zoology degree in rainy Manchester, but now CJ Crooks is head of media at the world-renowned Sharklab in the Bahamas

As a young boy I always envisioned myself disappearing to some far-off corner of the world to explore and live an exciting life. I would daydream about possible careers, trying to find a way in which I could combine travel and new experiences with an enjoyable occupation.

I coasted through education, keeping my options as open as possible, never really able to picture where my life was headed. I was eventually coerced into making some sort of a decision as I crept closer to further education. I had a curiosity about animals, a love of the ocean, and a passion for the environment, which compelled me in the direction of zoology - with a hope of heading abroad in the future to study or research.

Click here to launch a gallery of CJ's incredible shark photography

So, where would I go to advance my knowledge and pursue my ocean-based aspirations? Clearly a landlocked, rainy university in Manchester... It’s not the most likely candidate you might think, but it boasted a program which allowed me to travel as part of my degree, along with a potential sandwich year to gain ‘Industrial Experience’, which was a real clincher.

The first few semesters of university certainly didn’t help my occupational uncertainty. I drifted from lecture to lecture, and had little drive to excel while I had no clear prospects. Field trips to South Africa and France would spark my interest, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to start looking for a placement abroad that I really began to feel excited about Zoology.

As I searched through the most exotic marine internships I could find, there was one that truly captured my imagination, a shark research station in the Bahamas. Now as much as I am sure you won’t believe me, considering my self-indulgent ambitions to see the world, embark on adventures and have fun, I chose this internship not because of the location or the fantastically charismatic study species, but down to the scientific prowess of the station.

Adventures at Sharklab

The Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation, or ‘Sharklab’ as it is affectionately known, is a non-profit research station founded by the grandfather of shark biology, Samuel Gruber. With 80 scientific publications in the past 20 years, the station has launched countless alumni into the scientific community, many of whom are now experts and leaders in their fields.

While carrying out an 11-month research project examining predator-prey relationships of juvenile Lemon Sharks and other larger shark species, I realised that maybe a career in academia was for me after all. With this new resolve I returned to Manchester to complete my degree with increased vigour.

On a typical dreary February morning, having just finished the exams from my penultimate semester, I received an email from the station Director, enquiring as to my plans for the coming year. There was very little hesitation to my decision – and I was soon back in the Bahamas as the assistant manager of the world-renowned Sharklab.

No Mr Bond, I expect you to film…

A typical work week on this island paradise is very varied and consists of all sorts of activity. I could be repairing boats, vehicles and anything else that might fall apart, or catching, tagging and tracking a variety of shark species. In the meantime I also began to explore an interest in photography and invested in a DSLR and underwater camera housing.

This marked the start of a new direction to my life. The thought of postgraduate study hastily vanished from my mind and was replaced with a world of media opportunities and excitement. My job description began to change and I was soon given the title of media manager for the station. I had found the route and drive that I had been looking for and with it I quickly began an obsessive process of self-education.

The thing that advanced me the most was experience. I am in an unparalleled position to learn: with the bluest Bahamian waters you can imagine, a plethora of incredible subjects and all of our research at my disposal, I would be on or in the water a few times every week taking photographs and video, spending the evenings editing and evaluating the day’s work. Day by day, new tasks were added to my position and far from being solely the station’s photographer or filmmaker, I was also made responsible for developing a new website, marketing our research, public relations, interacting with production companies and printed media, tour guide/teacher, and fundraising.

Aside from the media aspects of my job, I also work closely with the scientists and am intimately involved in their research. With three PhD students, two Masters students and a number of long-running studies, there is never a shortage of work to be done and research to occupy us and our 10 volunteers. From behaviour to genetics, ecology to life history we study all aspects of these animals and are learning and educating every day. This has led to countless highlights over the past year and I never know what a new week can bring.

Whether it is free-diving with and pole tagging endangered Great Hammerheads, catching and birthing a 10ft Lemon Shark, trying to rescue a beached Beaked Whale, or swimming in 1,000ft of water with Tiger, Bull And Silky Sharks, no two days are ever the same. I am truly living a dream right now, learning and seeing new things every day whilst living on an idyllic Caribbean island... a graduate job that I could not ask more of.

To find out more about shark research and the Bimini Sharklab, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter. See more of CJ's photography here, on Facebook or on Twitter.

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