Meet Valerie, a photographer, divemaster, and remote sensing scientist from the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. Val has embarked on a journey of self-acceptance over 23 years, experimenting with different creative outlets.
Val completed her Masters in 2020. She obtained a high distinction in her research component, awarding her the four year PhD AIMS@JCU scholarship. Val has embraced and combined all of her creative outlets to design her own research project. Her current PhD is in the field of Remote Sensing in coral reef monitoring.
Val first fell in love with the ocean while growing up, as she would go snorkelling with her family at her favourite reef: Coral Island in Thailand.
“It was a beautiful vibrant, lively reef. We went every single year. It made me fall in love with the ocean.”
This was also where Val first realised that our oceans needed our help.
“One year, half the reef was gone … The next year it was gone. No live coral, no fish; the reef was a graveyard. We haven’t been back since.”
Val described watching something she loved slowly die, “It had disintegrated in front of my eyes year after year, and then it was just gone. It was heartbreaking.”
This particular reef had no regulations. Many tourists would touch, step on and break the corals. With the additional stress from heat waves and recurrent bleaching events, the ecosystem had collapsed.
“I felt as though I had watched climate change occur in front of my own eyes. Since then, I realised I needed to do something.”
To leave her mark on the earth, Val started experimenting with underwater photography a year after beginning diving at 15.
Photography opened up a whole new avenue of diving for Val, forcing her to look at the underwater world with fresh, new eyes.
“Diving gave me the opportunity to photograph things that people don’t often get to see and show them to others.”
She began a diving portfolio, @Valgoesdeep on Instagram, which has now gained a following of over 10,000!
Val’s intimate experience with the ocean is what drove her towards the field of marine science. For her, it was an obvious path –she couldn’t see herself doing anything else. However, she has been concentrating more on her studies in the past couple of years and has not had the time to go diving. Instead, she has been exploring the ocean in new ways through her Remote Sensing research.
In October last year, Valerie went on a research expedition to Cape York with Schmitt Ocean Institute. Here, Val took charge of the deep freezing on the Research Vessel Falkor, preserving samples of corals, sediments, jellies, inverts and sponges in liquid nitrogen, at -60°C!
The trip was an exciting one. The team of scientists used multi-beam sonar to create 3D maps of the underwater topography. They could create enormous maps at once, in areas that hadn’t been mapped before.
In fact, the Falkor made a new discovery –a massive detached reef, taller than the Empire State Building!
The reef is over 500m tall with its peak at 40m, and is the first to be discovered in over 120 years.
Val worked in the Falkor control room behind the ROV SuBastian, a 4500m remotely operated vehicle with two robotic arms and 10 or so cameras attached.
When SuBastian was 800m below the surface, the scientists observed an undiscovered cephalopod species. This burrito-like creature is called a Ram’s Horn squid (Spirula).
A Ram’s Horn squid in waters off the Cape York Peninsula in northern Australia, never before filmed in its natural environment. Through SuBastian’s lens, Val was able to watch these deep-sea, alien-like creatures and their strange behaviours.
“It was a bit like being in Blue Planet – a realm I never thought I would get to explore or discover. It was such a privilege!”
Val aims to apply remote sensing methods that she has learned – using drones and spectrometers – on her current project focusing on developing new bleaching alerts for coral reefs.
While remote sensing has been often used in terrestrial habitats, it is a novel method in marine science. Val runs into countless problems when mapping marine environments in terms of their reflectivity and radiation. However, she is working to create a method of coral monitoring using drones that are becoming more easily accessible to the public.
Despite seeming to have it all, Val is still trying to figure out her path. She wants to travel to Australia and continue doing everything she loves.
“I used to look down on myself because I wasn’t a straight biologist or remote sensing scientist. But I’ve started to be okay with not being a specialist. Humans are often more generalists anyway… We need to embrace everything about ourselves.”
Val believes it is important not to ignore the things you enjoy just because they might not be valuable to your “career path.” She encourages us to test our own boundaries to discover ourselves.
“It’s important for our self-discovery that we try a lot of different things. Don’t be afraid to do something and fail, or to do something and hate it.”
We are built as holistic humans with different values and strengths. Just as she combined her research with underwater photography, Val reminds us to discover these strengths and merge them together. In this way, you can create something: A career and lifestyle that is entirely and uniquely you.