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The Travels of Arzucan Askin, Our World-Underwater Scholar

Author: Arzucan Askin

Arzucan “Zuzu” Askin is an interdisciplinary conservation scientists, sailor and diver who has been awarded the 2021 European Rolex Scholar of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®. The Scholarship sees its recipients embark on a year of advanced scientific dive training, marine research and conservation, skills development underwater, blue thinking and ocean ambassadorship supported by the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and Rolex. Halcyon Dive Systems, Reel Diving, and Fourth Element have provided her the dive equipment required for this journey.

 

I have always strived to be what my colleagues and friends now fondly refer to as “a marine human swiss army knife”. Instead I like to summarise my passions by saying that my current work focuses on human cultures and their multifaceted relationships with the ocean. Powered by the wind, sun and sea, I am committed to documenting and tackling the major socio-environmental challenges our global oceans face in the Anthropocene, such as illegal wildlife trade, extinction risk, marine plastic pollution and the preservation of underwater cultural heritage.

 

With that in mind, I started my year as the OWUSS EU Rolex Scholar while still wrapping up my MSc thesis at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. Analysing a dataset spanning almost a decade of several thousand whale shark encounters, it examined the impact of tourism on the health and behaviour of these endangered gentle giants in the South Ari Atoll, Maldives.

 

Instead of heading to the tropics however, my first scholarship experience took me as far North as physically possible on a sailing vessel: the Arctic circle. I joined Captain Andreas B. Heide and his team onboard sailing vessel Barba for the circumnavigation Svalbard. Our voyage formed a critical part of Captain Andreas B. Heide’s 3000 nautical mile Arctic Sense expedition aiming to research, document and share the challenges faced by marine life in the polar Atlantic. Specifically, our research focused on whales, the sentinels inhibiting these Northern waters. We departed from the world’s northernmost settlement, the port of Longyearbyen, and set sail into uncharted waters towards the North Pole until we could go no further due to the density of sea ice. Along the way we deployed towed hydrophone arrays, collected dorsal and fluke IDs, tested a newly developed acoustic monitoring device built by one of my professors from Oxford University, and measured the body condition of blue whales using MatLab and drone images. Once we hit 80 degrees North Captain Andreas B. Heide and I went for our first dive under the sea ice.

 

My next stop was Red Sea Diving Safari’s Marsa Shagra Village in Egypt where I had the opportunity to become familiar with my underwater camera equipment lent to me by Reef Photo & Video and Nauticam. Under supervision of professional photographer Saeed Rasheed and macrophotographer Sarah O’Gorman I spent two weeks capturing the beautiful marine life in the House Reef and obtaining my certifications as a Self-Reliant Diver and Sidemount Diver.

 

Afterwards, I was invited by Ahmed “Sharky” Mamdouh onboard his Deco Divers vessel for a trip to the Abu Nahas Wrecks and the Deep South of Egypt. Given my academic background in human geography, political ecology and conservation science, both of these locations offered a hands-on opportunity to critically examine a few of the vital issues arising at the intersection between people and oceans in the Red Sea. From the Suez Canal that links it to the Mediterranean, to the straits of the Bab al Mandab that connect it to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea is a vital artery for the world economy, home to some of the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs and witness to complex political tensions. The wrecks of Abu Nahas in particular provide a window not only into the regions colonial past, but also represent the formation of new reef ecosystems in present, bringing with them the challenge of preserving both marine life and underwater cultural heritage in the future. The waters of the Deep South of Egypt on the other hand, border the contested Halaib Triangle, a region in constant motion and of great significance for both Egypt and Sudan. Ultimately issues such as the regulation of tourism, the management of fishing, the conservation of fragile coral reefs, and the extraction of seabed resources all manifest visibly at these two sites, and as such it was nothing short of exciting to be able to spend time there.

 

On my quest to continuously skill-up further, it was then time for me to return to the UK after my adventures in Egypt. Swapping my 3mm wetsuit for my Fourth Element Argonaut Stealth Drysuit, I had the opportunity to spend the months from October until December in Bristol – the UKs hub for wildlife film-making and take the next step in my diving career by becoming an HSE Class IV commercial diver specialised in scientific and media projects underwater. The course was taught be the legendary Neil Brock from Bristol Channel Diving who has taught most of the camerawomen and men, as well as safety divers working for natural history productions by the BBC, Silverback and Offspring Films. Next, I joined Dave Blackham and his team at Esprit Film for a placement as an underwater camera technician to learn the ins and outs of cinematic equipment including RED and Z Cam cameras, Gates and Nauticam Housings, as well as custom-built gear for specialist shoots. I have always been driven by a driven by a passion for innovation and impact, and these experiences showed me the true power of good storytelling through film and photography.

 

Before 2021 came to an end, I also finally had the opportunity to enter the world of technical diving by two of the leading British technical divers and wreck explorers. After learning how to dive twin cylinders with wreck explorer Mark Powell from Dive Tech, it was time for me to take my GUE Fundamentals class with Richard Walker from Wreck and Cave. As my vision is to lead specialized dive and media operations from my own research vessel in remote parts of the world in the future, the GUE philosophy and approach to diving and equipment resonated deeply with me. Through rigorous training both Mark and Rich pushed me to fine-tune my dive skills and ability to maintain perfect buoyancy and trim during both simple and complex tasks underwater. These skills will enable me to be more effective and efficient when handling heavy camera equipment and research tools underwater.

 

Looking back on these experiences in the last year, it seems unimaginable that I ever dived an equipment configuration different to GUE. My Halcyon dive kit now feels like an extension of me and I truly look forward to taking it out in the field in 2022 for a research expedition to collect more data with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program, filming of Fuvahmulah’s tiger sharks with Pelagic Divers, an underwater photography workshop with the award-winning Alex Mustard and a visit to to Deep Dive Dubai for freedive training with world-champion Nataliia Zharkova, as well as to personally thank Jarrod Jablonski for my set-up. I am proud to be wearing Halcyon dive equipment while pursuing science and exploration to develop transformative solutions that help both the protection of marine biodiversity and the livelihoods that depend on it.

 

Follow Arzucan’s transformative journey as the OWUSS EU Rolex Scholar on the official blog here and find out more about her research and exploration on her website here.

 

Photo Credit: Alex Mustard

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