“My dream is that the future generations are able to enjoy swimming with sharks the same way I do it today. For me sharks are the most beautiful, powerful and mysterious living organism on Earth and, as their populations are been decimated over the past years, they need our help. I am sponsored for one year to travel around the world, living unbelievable underwater experiences and documenting through articles, pictures and videos about each one of them. Thanks to the Rolex Scholarship, I am living the dream and learning from the best people in the world, in order to achieve my goal: work towards shark conservation through ecotourism”
Elena Salim Haubold
Sharkoholic, Biologist, Entrepreneur
European Rolex Scholar-2014
Elena is a German/Venezuelan biologist who is extremely passionate about marine megafauna, especially sharks. Her dream is to work towards the long-term conservation of these predators using ecotourism.
Although a part of her family comes from Germany, she had the privilege of growing up in Venezuela: a beautiful tropical country with the longest coast along the Caribbean Sea, where she was strongly in contact with nature. Her favorite activities were swimming in the ocean and rivers, traveling around the exotic national parks and interacting with all kinds of species in their natural habitat. At a young age she realized that being surrounded by animals was her purpose and biggest motivation in life. She studied biology in the Simon Bolivar University (Caracas, Venezuela) where she received appropriate guidance to get into the scientific world. Meanwhile, she got certified as a scuba diver to gain a strong foothold in her job as a researcher of marine life. Elena also undertook a freediving course to be able to swim closer to the aquatic fauna without scaring them away with the bubbles from the scuba diving system.
Elena interacting with an adult lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) removing remoras from its body. Picture by Johnny Gaskell – Tiger Beach, The Bahamas
In the third year of her career she went to the multicultural city of Granada (Spain) for one year as an exchange student. There she had the chance to learn about social behavior and animal physiology through research projects at the university and discovered her other passion: travelling! Her experiences around Andalucia, East Europe, Morocco and Scandinavia gave her a holistic understanding of how different cultures live and use their natural resources. At this point she was unaware of how useful this knowledge would be in helping her achieve the goal of protecting marine life throughout the involvement of local communities.
Swimming with her favourite species! The lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris). Picture by Gerardo del Villar – Tiger Beach, The Bahamas
She was sure that she wanted to work with marine fauna but she was in a dilemma when it came to deciding the species she liked the most. It was at this point that, just by chance, she watched a video of the world famous shark feeder Cristina Zenato on a television program. Elena was awestruck by the sight of big, majestic sharks surrounding this woman while she was touching them like they were her pets! Elena was so fascinated by it that decided to write a letter to Cristina without expecting that her answer will change her life! After that, her doubts vanished and then she decided to work with, and for the sharks. Following Cristina’s advise, she decided to get involved in shark research spending seven months at the Bimini Biological Field Station (The Shark Lab). Her research was about the effects of coastal development on the spatial ecology of the lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) population of this small and pristine island. She was finally able to see sharks in their natural environment and found it extremely fascinating.
Swimming with the biggest fish on the ocean, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Picture by Armando Gasse – Isla Mujeres, Mexico
She got an honored mention from the university for her research findings (University of Granada) and couldn’t wait to follow the path of a shark biologist. Like any other top predator, sharks are fundamental in their ecosystem. They play a key role in maintaining the ecological balance. It was her dream to become a specialist in the tiger shark predatory behavior and its effect on the prey population. Her belief was that by taking this path she would be able to contribute towards shark conservation, but it dawned on her that the outside world is completely different from the academic environment. Her opinion is that what really determines the vulnerability status of any marine species is commercial fishery and perception of the general public regarding the danger faced by marine species.
Elena surrounded by sharks. Picture by Johnny Gaskell. Tiger Beach, The Bahamas
Elena’s goal of Marine Conservation using Sustainable Tourism required sound business knowledge of the tourism industry and so she decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Business Administration in the field of Tourism Industry from European University, Munich. She got her dive master certification with the pioneers in bull shark diving with Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where she worked for two months. This experience coupled with her stint at the MBA gave her both, the theoretical and practical knowledge required to get started with her endeavor in the sustainable tourism industry.
Elena understands the importance of involving the society in the ecotourism industry. „I strongly believe that the contribution of local communities is a powerful catalyst in the conservation process. The realization of people that they are the real owners of nature and that it can be a viable source of high income, encourage them to protect it“.
Playing with cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) while freediving. Picture by Jean Tresfon – Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa
Recently Elena won the prestigious Rolex Scholarship which is giving her the right platform to implement her ideas in order to guaranty long term marine conservation. The scholarship provides young passionate divers brand new diving equipment and travels around the world to visit, work and learn from the top leaders of the underwater industry. For Elena this program is the perfect opportunity to enrich her ideas. She is having the chance of meeting scientists, tour operators, photographers, conservationists, business people, scuba and freediver instructors, journalists and many others top leaders of the world who generously host her and teach her all she need to know to start in her future a successful business model focused on marine conservation.
Holding a 3 meters female tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) after taking measurements and before releasing it. Picture by Sean Williams – Bimini Shark Lab, The Bahamas
The three Rolex Scholars 2014 selected by Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. From left to right: Courtney Rayes (Australasian Rolex Scholar 2014), Elena Salim Haubold (European Rolex Scholar 2014) and Ana Sofia Guerra (North American Rolex Scholar 2014)
Picture by Jayne Jenkins – New York, U.S.A. (May 2014)