For 'Mother of Sharks' Melissa Cristina Marquez, Her Biggest Fear Is Not Seeing These "Misunderstood Predators" at Sea
Even after suffering a crocodile attack, she's hard at work combatting the misinformation that's rampant in ecological fields — and paving the way for Latina women like her in science.
While most people might fear an encounter with one of the ocean's deadliest predators, marine biologist Melissa Cristina Marquez and member of our February 2021 Badass 50 list, swims towards the adventure and education that studying sharks can provide. "I have always been really drawn to misunderstood predators," she says. As a scientist, public speaker and author, who does everything from ID-tagging great whites to educating the public, Marquez is not easily rattled. Even after making headlines when she suffered from a crocodile attack while on a shark dive in 2018, Marquez continues pushing forward in her work in the water. (Yes, that was a crocodile attack while on a shark dive. And she still went back in the water.)
Marquez's scientific journey began with a simple TV show. Like many of us who are fans of the Discovery program, she says, "I first saw [sharks] on Shark Week when I moved from Mexico to the States. This giant great white shark [was] reaching out of the water and slamming back down. I was like that — that is what I want to study." Marquez started studying sharks in college and never looked back, even earning a badass nickname in the process: Mother of Sharks.
She says she has a friend named Eddie to thank for the very Game of Thrones-esque moniker. "We worked at an aquarium and whenever we would get a shark in, he would say I was acting motherly towards them. He had just watched Game of Thrones and the name just kind of stuck."
While currently settled in Australia working on her Ph.D., Marquez is not just an advocate for sharks, but for others who look like her and may feel underrepresented in the world of science. "I not only focus on diverse sharks, because there are over 500 different species, but I also want people to see the diverse scientists that study them as well. Growing up watching Shark Week I never saw any female scientists, let alone any female Latina scientists," says Marquez. "So with the organization that I have, I want people to see themselves in a lineup of shark scientists and be like, 'Great, I can do this.'" She also focuses on the importance of building a team who share these values. "I work with really inspirational people who help me to be better and to keep pushing through the racism, the sexism and the ageism," she says.
With all of her efforts, Marquez's main goal remains to educate others about the importance of ocean conservation. Through her Fins United Initative and her first young adult book Wild Survival!, an adventure novel based on her crocodile encounter which launched earlier this year, she is doing just that. "I'm an ocean ambassador," she says. "I think we need people to combat misinformation about wildlife, nature, usable energies and the whole 'green movement.' We need science communicators to take the science and digest it in an easy manner for the general public to be able to understand it."
And that's what she does when she's not mothering those sharks. By using social media, "kind of, in a way, it sounds awful but I'm 'humanizing' animals by making them more relatable so people can say, 'Oh, I've seen this animal before. I've seen this shark before. I know more about it so I'm not as afraid.'"
Diving down with sharks still excites Marquez. Even after her incident in 2018, she doesn't have any reservations. For her, it isn't the sharks she's afraid of, but the lack thereof. "What I'm scared of is having an ocean without sharks. Because they are so important economically, ecologically, and culturally, that not having them in this giant ecosystem — and we are already starting to see some effects that can have — but on a widespread scale, it's terrifying to think of." Her other fears are almost hilariously small in scale. "What, funnily enough, I'm not the biggest fan of is spiders or cockroaches," she laughs. "I am still fearful."
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