Amanda Vincent is a scientist, a conservationist and probably the world's foremost seahorse expert.
With colleagues, she has set up Project Seahorse,
a worldwide scientific and lobbying forum
that aims to highlight the plight
of seahorses worldwide.
Jo Moulds spoke to Amanda from her base at the University of Montreal, Canada.
A little fact that maybe people don't know is that 99 per cent of the liveable space on the planet Earth - liveable space meaning where there are life-forms - is in the sea?
99 per cent of where life-forms are found is in the ocean. The oceans cover 70 per cent of the planet but because they're so deep and varied, you get life all through those ocean depths. To me, that's a slightly stunning figure," enthuses Amanda Vincent, in a tone of wonder that only the truly dedicated to their profession can muster.
Amanda Vincent is known in certain circles as the world's foremost seahorse expert. In fact, for a while, she was the world's only seahorse expert.
She's also a dedicated scuba diver and travels the world to pass on her message of marine conservation.
"In the last calendar year, I've been in Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Kenya and Canada. I'm off to Jordan and Mexico soon, diving in both places," she says.
This is a woman who could make many a dive girl jealous.
Amanda Vincent is Canadian-born but spent much of her childhood travelling with her family. A lot of time spent in South America helped her develop the travel bug early, and she hasn't really stopped since. An undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Western Ontario was followed by three years travelling, "mostly by bicycle," she adds, like that's not really that unusual, and jobs including research into dugongs (sea cows) in Shark Bay, Western Australia, and being part of Western Australia's sheep-shearing team... of course.
Following this, Amanda decided it was time to go back to university and embarked on a PhD on seahorses at Cambridge University, which has pretty much marked the course of her life from then on.
"I'm interested in seahorses mostly because I'm very interested in the evolution of sex differences, and in seahorses, only the male gets pregnant," says Amanda. "I wanted to understand that and what it meant for other male and female characteristics. For example, usually males are more colourful, more aggressive, more ornamented, larger than females and this is purportedly primarily because of their lesser investment in parental care than females. So I was curious with male pregnancies whether in seahorses the females would be larger, more aggressive, more competitive, more colourful and so on. And it turns out they're not... The males still compete more to get pregnant than the females do to give their eggs away."
For this research, Amanda did a lot more diving in Australia and tried to find as much information as possible on seahorses, but she didn't find much.
Even though everyone recognises the shape of a seahorse and its mythical qualities - what, a horse under the sea? - little firm scientific research had been done before Amanda started out.
More diving followed, working on pipefish in Sweden's only fjord - "very, very beautiful," she says - and a stint in Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles working with students from the Netherlands on seahorses. "Bonaire's whole coastline is a marine park. That was rather marvellous too," she says.
In 1996, Amanda moved back to Canada, having launched a field conservation project - Project Seahorse - in the Philippines and Vietnam, which was the subject of a BBC documentary. It brought the plight of seahorses worldwide to the public's attention and was the first time I had heard of Amanda Vincent.
It is one of those documentaries that stays in your mind as being such an amazing thing to do, and for such good reason... saving seahorses, of course, somebody ought to do that... I had wanted to find out more about this woman ever since.
"Direct exploitation is one threat to seahorses, for example, for their use in traditional medicine in Eastern societies," Amanda says, "but accidental capture in shrimp-nets is another big problem. A third problem is damage and destruction of their seagrass, mangrove, coral reef and estuarine habitats. That latter problem, particularly, is a huge issue - protecting their marine coastal habitats."
Project Seahorse's work in the Philippines and Vietnam concentrates on biological research on seahorses, education for youngsters, involving villagers and helping them to set up marine protected areas. Fisheries are monitored and sustainable management practices are put forward.
"All our projects are community-based. We neither promise nor impose anything on the communities. It has to be if they want it," Amanda emphasises.
Project Seahorse also works in Hong Kong, communicating with the traditional medicine traders to help them to adjust their consumption of seahorses so that it doesn't exceed their supply. One of the latest ideas is to take traders from Hong Kong over to meet the seahorse-fishers of the Philippines so that they can develop a direct dialogue.
Project Seahorse also has an active conservation programme with the public aquaria of North America and in Europe, which helps to keep Amanda jumping on those jet planes to go and meet people.
So when does Amanda get time to dive?
"I still really enjoy getting in the water whenever I can," she says. Apo Island, off Negros Island in the Philippines, has been a recent favourite dive spot, but at the question of an all-time favourite destination, Amanda stalls.
"Oh, the diving's so different for me everywhere,'' she hesitates. "For temperate diving, I really enjoyed a couple of dives I did in Port Phillip Bay, Australia. I really enjoyed diving with seadragons down in Tasmania...
"For tropical dives, I think Bunaken Marine Park in Sulawesi, Indonesia, would have to be one of my favourite places. There are islands about five kilometres offshore and, in between the mainland of Sulawesi and these islands, there's a very deep trench. So you are diving on corals but you're also getting all the deep-sea pelagics past and so you get a real diversity of fauna on top of each other. It's really fantastic marine life. Coral-reef marine life, yes, but also this spectacular offshore marine life.
"Oh, I forgot... one of my favourite places for diving was in Yap, Micronesia. I was there about a year ago. I dived with the manta rays a lot and that was quite magnificent because they are each individually identifiable and they're extremely large creatures that float just over your head, three or four metres wide. That was simply wonderful."
Sounds like she likes to dive. But you'll find that wherever Amanda dives, she takes care to find out about local dive business practices.
"This is something I'd like to emphasise," she says. "Divers who really care about the marine environment ought to be very careful about the resorts they select, because many resorts have themselves caused a lot of environmental damage. Everyone ought to ask a resort what they do about their garbage, what they do with their waste disposal, whether their beach is natural or their beach has been imported, whether they've mined their corals in order to build their buildings. Often the limestone from a local coral reef has helped to construct a building with concrete. I think anybody wanting to go to a dive resort should do an environmental audit of it before they give their money to that place".
And what are the other ways in which divers can help seahorse conservation?
"Well, there's a very simple way in which divers can help, which we've just started. Guylian Chocolates, based in Belgium, which makes seashell- and seahorse-shaped chocolates, is now sponsoring five of our reseach positions. So, buy chocolates - which I hear is something women like to do - and help seahorses that way!"
This is an abridged version of this interview.
Volunteer with Project Seahorse!
Project Seahorse is looking for trained volunteers to assist with our seahorse research in the Philippines. Volunteers would be assisting in its surveys, looking for seahorses in the wild. This volunteer position would start March 2002, and would require a diver's certificate.
Visit www.projectseahorse.org to apply
For more information on seahorses, visit www.projectseahorse.org or buy
"Seahorses: An identification guide to the world's species and conservation" by SA Lourie, ACJ Vincent and HJ Hall, 1999
This beautifully produced book is available through www.nhbs.com email email@example.com