Not Your Typical Gig: A Marine Biologist Talks Sharks

In this recurring column, Not Your Typical Gig, we interview people with out-of-the-box careers to get a glimpse of what goes on behind-the-scenes of their unusual jobs.

This week we sat down with shark expert Candace Fields, the first black woman marine biologist to be featured on National Geographic’s Sharkfest, whose area of expertise specializes in the study and preservation of white-tip sharks. Her special, World’s Biggest Hammerhead, is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

NAME: Candace Fields
OCCUPATION: Marine Biologist

How long have you worked with sharks as a marine biologist? 

I’ve been working with sharks roughly four years. My path to a career in marine biology was an unconventional one. In fact, I earned my bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. However, in 2018 I began working as an intern at the Cape Eleuthera Institute in Eleuthera, The Bahamas and remained their research assistant until 2020, where I gained most of my experience working with sharks.

What made you want to become a marine biologist? And what was it about sharks specifically that made you want to make them your main field of study? 

For as long as I can remember I have had a strong love and appreciation for the ocean. My parents often took me to the beach when I was younger and helped foster my understanding of how lucky I was as a Bahamian to have access to this incredible resource. I think most of my fascination is with the unknown and the many misconceptions that people have about the ocean and its inhabitants, especially sharks. All of this drove me to want to be a marine biologist, in order to be able to be an advocate for sharks and their conservation.

You specialize in studying white tip sharks. Can you give us a layman’s description of what constitutes a white tip shark?

My research focuses on the oceanic whitetip shark—carcharhinus longimanus—which is a circumtropically distributed pelagic predator which was once globally abundant.  In other words, this shark is a species that lives in the open ocean, which you can think of as a blue desert, spending most of its time in the upper 200 meters of the water column.  It is easily identified by its long paddle-like pectoral fins and the fact that most of its fins have white markings on their tips.

Working with sharks sounds like very dangerous work. Has this idea of sharks being extremely hazardous been exaggerated over the years, and have you had any close calls?

Often, the media’s representation of sharks only paints a negative picture and many use this to form their perception of these animals.  I do think this is often over-exaggerated.  When handling these animals, one has to do it so that your priorities are first and foremost your safety, and next the safety of the animal.  It is also important to note that handling a shark is not something to be taken lightly and should only be done after a lot of training.

Sharks are very high on the endangered species list. Is there a singular reason for this, and what can we do to change it?   

Because of the conservative life histories of sharks (late age at maturity, few offspring per litter, etc.) sharks are very vulnerable to overexploitation.  Beyond this, things like pollution and climate change are also negatively impacting these animals. So, there is not one singular reason, but a myriad of issues that collectively create challenges for sharks. In my opinion, the best thing we can do to change this, is to educate as many people as possible on the importance of sharks and to get people to understand how doing things like reducing plastic consumption or eating sustainably caught fish can make a big difference. 

What’s the best thing about your job?

For me, the best aspect is the field component.  When we’re out on the water and interacting with the animals, there is rarely a day where we return without numerous exciting moments!

Is there any advice you would have for anyone reading, that might want to get into this field of study and work? 

I think the best advice I can give is simply to remember that it’s never too late, and that there’s more than one right way to find your way into this field.