Exploring the depths: The adventures of a marine biologist
Driven by an endless curiosity and a sense of adventure, Prerana Gawde juggles many roles — marine biologist, professional diver and one of the few female underwater researchers in India
By Sanjana Chevalam and Pragya Solanki
| Posted on September 18, 2023
Prerana Gawde studies baitfish in the Lakshadweep Islands, filling data gaps in our current knowledge of these tiny fish, and contributing to the sustainability of small-scale fisheries in an ecologically-sensitive region. Her work lies at the intersection of the relatively unexplored, both in subject and geography, and she’s worked hard to create a niche for herself in marine conservation. “I strongly believe that to have a lasting career in the marine environment, you need a lot of passion and a never-give-up attitude. It’s all about loving what you do and staying determined along the way,” she says.
A simple word of praise from her biology teacher in school fanned the flames of her interest in the subject (Photo – Hariprasath R)
The beginning of her tryst with the ocean
A word of praise from her biology teacher in school fanned the flames of her interest in the subject. It was further fuelled by her father, who encouraged her to pursue research and create her own body of knowledge. This led her to study zoology at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the University of Mumbai.
She found inspiration everywhere — from old science manuscripts in the college library to a DD Girnar (Gujarati language channel of Doordarshan) broadcast featuring Dr Dipani Sutaria, a young researcher working on marine mammal ecology.
After completing her master’s, Prerana knew her days as a student hadn’t reached an end. However, she was unclear about the way forward, and she didn’t have support in terms of guidance and mentorship from subject experts.
She sent out emails to researchers across the biological sciences in India, from cancer research to marine biology. They were shots in the dark, but she hoped that at least one would hit the mark. And it did.
Her email to Professor Kartik Shanker (Indian Institute of Science) led to her meeting him and Dr Naveen Namboothri (Dakshin Foundation) the following week.
This interaction convinced Prerana that, despite the many options before her, her heart lay in marine research. As a plus, she was already an excellent swimmer. When Prof. Shanker offered her the opportunity to travel to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for a volunteer position at ANET, her parents were hesitant, but her sister persuaded them by saying, “Prerana has the right to carve out her own path. Let her go.”
Thus began Prerana’s great tryst with the ocean.
On the islands, she met Mahima Jaini, a marine researcher working at Dakshin, in whom Prerana saw qualities she wished to imbibe: independence, self-sufficiency and steadfastness. Inspired, she extended her stay in the Andamans after her volunteer work ended. Following a brief stint as a receptionist and housekeeping staff at a resort on the islands, she was given an opportunity by Jurgen Van Duffel to work at the dive shop, ScubaLov. She went on to become a divemaster and taught diving to people who were often discovering the deep sea for the first time. The role also gave her a chance to explore marine life, learn practical skills such as equipment repair, and pursue underwater photography.”
‘Her research-oriented thinking and diving experience give her an edge’
Her interest in research and her desire further her knowledge led her to Australia, where she studied Marine Biology and Ecology at James Cook University. After returning to India, Prerana joined Dakshin Foundation to advance their ongoing work on the ecological monitoring of baitfish that are crucial to Lakshadweep’s sustainable pole and line tuna fisheries.
Photos taken by Prerana during her diving days in the Andamans have been included in the Field Guide to the Sea Slugs of India, published by Bombay Natural History Society
Prerana’s research-oriented thinking and her experience as a divemaster have given her an edge as she develops a protocol to monitor baitfish
To her great delight, life came full circle, as this research gave her the opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr Namboothri and Prof Shanker on a project that had been initiated by Mahima Jaini!
Baitfish, as the name suggests, are small fish that are caught as bait and used to lure bigger fish like tuna. They are a critical limiting factor in the operation of the island’s tuna fisheries and their populations can indirectly impact the livelihood and food security in the islands. Prerana took on the challenge of understanding the knowledge gaps that exist in the study of these fish and developed a protocol to gather data on different species and generate critical baselines. Prioritising the simplification of the process, her protocol allows certified divers and snorkelers from the local community to independently collect data and contribute to the research.
“She came up with the protocol to monitor baitfish on her own, and it’s no easy feat studying these very small cryptic fishes, but she did it. Planning a whole monitoring study takes a lot of knowledge of study design as well as field experience to know what will work and what won’t. Her research-oriented thinking and her experience as a divemaster have really given her an edge”, her colleague, Hariprasath R, says.
‘I’m more interested in human interactions with the sea’
Going beyond pure ecological monitoring, Prerana undertook the mapping of traditional baitfish fishing grounds and traditional knowledge associated with baitfish ecology. Passionate about communicating her work to the islanders and the world beyond, she did not allow the paucity of funds to hinder her efforts and designed outreach material herself. “The results of her participatory mapping efforts indicate that the communities appreciated her sincerity. Despite the language barrier, she put a lot of effort into communicating with the fishing communities,” Dr Namboothri notes.
As the most skilled diver among all the researchers in the organisation, her expertise has been invaluable. Hariprasath, who studies green sea turtles in the islands, notes, “You need a level head on your shoulders to deal with the uncertainties of working in the ocean. I’ve seen that in her and wish to emulate it. When I am unsure about something with my fieldwork, I run it by her. Prerana has even helped me improve my underwater research methods and data collection.”
Prerana has contributed to various projects under the Sustainable Fisheries programme at Dakshin in addition to helping out with other underwater research.
One of her teammates, Ajithraj R, says, “Prerana is not confined by marine waters in Lakshadweep. She is also interested in people and different cultures and traditions.”
Prerana and her teammates who come from diverse educational backgrounds work together and, in the process, have realised the interdependence between their individual areas of work. Over time, this has led to a radical shift in her perspective and interest areas. “One thing is for sure. I find myself being more interested in human interactions with the sea,” she notes.
Baitfish are “one of the toughest groups to study underwater” (Photo – Prerana Gawde)
Navigating murky waters
Working in Lakshadweep comes with its own challenges. Tackling concerns of safety, dealing with restricted mobility and access to different spaces, and having to be a lot more mindful of how she dresses and talks — Prerana has had rougher terrain to navigate compared to her male counterparts. Often, gender dynamics get in the way of work. Some boatmen are uncomfortable taking her out to sea, especially because of the lack of toilet facilities on boats.
While the fishers are respectful and in awe of the young girl who dives, they are also less open and free in their interactions with her. She also feels that she is taken less seriously when she is by herself, as opposed to when she is accompanied by a male colleague. Prerana has gone the extra mile in an attempt to overcome some of these obstacles.
She has learned Malayalam, the locally spoken language, adapted to the ways of the island, and worked on building rapport with the community. She has developed friendships with the women of the community, and, according to Ajith, has even become a source of inspiration for the younger girls. For Prerana, however, gender-related challenges are not limited to the islands. She navigates gendered spaces, inaccessible and exclusive cliques, and a ‘boys’ club’ culture in the larger conservation space.
She emphasises the need for women to collaborate to carve out spaces for themselves in the conservation sector and envisions a future with more women in leadership positions. To the young girls making decisions about their careers, she has a strong message: “There is no profession that is off-limits.” This advice is reflective of her own journey so far, to which Dr Namboothri attests: “Over the years, I have seen her evolve into an independent, strong and confident person and a notable researcher in the field.”
Prerana is currently brimming with several ideas. Concerned about the well-being of Lakshadweep’s fishing community, she wishes to explore and study diverse adaptation and resilience-building measures that can effectively reduce their livelihood vulnerabilities. She also wants to support women’s Self-Help Groups on the islands. She wants to pursue underwater videography, teaching and professional writing. Additionally, she would like to combine her passion for history with the skills that she has acquired over the years and explore the fields of historical ecology or marine archaeology. She’s scanning the horizon for her next big adventure: “I think I am just getting started.”
Despite the language barrier, Prerana put in a lot of effort into communicating with the fisher communities (Photo – Mahaboob Khan)
About the authors
Sanjana Chevalam is a social ecologist with interests in gender, politics and environment. She hopes to use her learnings to support civic engagement and deliberative democracy initiatives towards improving community participation in local-level decision-making.
Pragya Solanki is a development and communications professional. With a keen interest in gender, diversity and identity-inclusive spaces, she has been creating and channelising content to improve communication and encourage informed dialogue.