PHOTO BY SCOTT PORTELLI
Melinda Brown is a diver, conservationist, and the current OWUSS Australasian Rolex Scholar.
T: If you were given the option to live permanently in the sea, would you take it?
MB: Dolphinately. The underwater world is so incredible. Every time I put on my mask and jump in I see something new, something amazing. Imagine if you could live there permanently! I remember watching Mission Blue with Sylvia Earle, and it showed her living in a house under the ocean with a group of other ladies for a few weeks while they did research. They would leave their little home through doors reminiscent of something from a spaceship and enter the ocean with their tanks on their backs. It blew my mind. I’ve been a little bit obsessed with that notion ever since.
PHOTO BY SCOTT PORTELLI
T: We like to say the Thessalonike style is somewhere between Bond Girl and mermaid. Which one do you feel like you relate to more?
MB: Well, I’ve just come back from cage captaining on a shark diving boat in South Australia, and that definitely makes me feel like a bond girl. However, I have my mermaid moments often. It’s hard not to feel like a mermaid when you’re free diving next to humpbacks or diving over a coral reef. Most of the time though I feel like a bit of a baddass in my dive gear. Maybe I watched too much Captain Planet when I was young, but every time I put on my gear I feel like I’m off to save the world. Most people think scuba gear is a bit dorky, but it allows me to view the underwater world for long periods of time; giving me the opportunity to learn and explore and be inspired. I definitely feel like a bond girl when I’m 30m down dressed completely in tight black neoprene, completing some sort of scientific survey whilst maintaining perfect buoyancy. Even navigating a tricky wreck or cave has its Bond girl moments. Sometimes I sneak up on fish to ID them, and that takes a lot of stealth in noisy dive gear. I also like to strap a knife to my leg while I dive so I can be like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (mainly because I think it looks cool).
PHOTO BY SCOTT PORTELLI
T: Is there a particularly special moment or interaction you’ve had in the ocean that will stay with you forever?
MB: There’s so many! But I think the most special moment for me was my first-time diving with a whale shark. I was still so new to scuba diving, I’d only taken my first breath underwater six months prior to this moment. I was living and working in Thailand at a conservation dive school, and a whale shark came through one afternoon when we had just finished work. Desperate to see it, myself and four others hijacked a boat and ‘borrowed’ some tanks and sped off to find it. We jumped into the blue, swimming aimlessly, we split up. I was looking around, heart racing, when suddenly, I saw it. The whale shark swam right up to me, veering to the side at the last second, engaging me in an intense game of ‘chicken’, while I cried tears of happiness into my mask (which resulted in my mask fogging). I was close to the surface, so I quickly popped my head up to clear my mask, and as I put it on and looked back down, the whale shark was right there next to me. It was only 30cm from my face. Looking at me. Just staring me straight in the eye. I’d never seen anything like it. It was like being sucked into a black hole, my whole world turned inside out and upside down. That huge inquisitive eye, made me realise just how incredible the ocean was. This giant creature felt no fear from my presence, just curiosity. I realised how vulnerable creatures in the ocean were, how trusting they could be by coming into such close proximity with us humans. We aren’t all gentle. We aren’t all kind. It was that moment that made me realise I would spend the rest of my life fighting for these creatures and protecting them from other humans that may not appreciate their intimate eye contact like I did.
T: Name something you’ve checked off your bucket list and another you can’t wait to check off soon.
MB: I recently spent a month in Tonga with photographer Scott Portelli, who created the Tongan Fluke Collective, swimming with humpback whales. Freediving with the humpies was something I had dreamt about for so long but due to limited funding (aka uni student life) I’d never been able to make my dream a reality. But, thanks to the OWUSS Rolex Scholarship, I was able to make my dream come true whilst contributing to research! Words can’t describe how grateful I am for that opportunity. Being 15m down with the whales, cruising around the reefs, or jumping into the middle of the sea with a heat run was always exhilarating and humbling. People say that when you’re eye to eye with the whales that it changes you, and I couldn’t agree more.
I’m just realising whilst I write this that I’ve got a thing for eye contact with marine mega fauna. I don’t know how this has only just dawned on me.
Anyway, eye contact aside, my next adventure to tick off my bucket list will be in Mexico! I’ll be boarding the National Geographic Sea Lion with Lindblad Expeditions and journeying down the Baja coastline to San Ignacio Lagoon. Inside this lagoon, something unique and perplexing occurs. Grey whales have their young in these waters, and in some bizarre ritual that they have been performing for hundreds of years, they bring their young up to small skiffs full of gawking humans to be touched. The mums push their babies to the surface. The boats sit motionless in anticipation. The whales spy hop, checking out the humans on board, moving closer to allow kisses and pats. It sounds ridiculous, but the whole thing is truly phenomenal. I don’t normally like touching wildlife but this is different I promise! The whales have control over the entire interaction. The tourism in this area is tiny, and the whales are protected. I can’t wait to experience it all. It’s the only place in the world that this occurs, and I think I’ve read nearly every book on the history of that lagoon and it’s friendly inhabitants.
PHOTO BY JOANNA SMARY
T: There are so many things we may never know about what goes on in the head’s of marine life. If you could ask any animal why they do the things they do, what would it be?
MB: I had this conversation recently with a friend about the dolphins that inhabit the Moray Firth in Scotland. It is so hard to track cetaceans through the sea. There’s so much they do in their lives we can’t understand and interpret, yet we try anyway. If I could have a conversation with any of the dolphins from that pod I would want to talk to an older female about her reproductive cycle.
PHOTO BY SCOTT PORTELLI
I’d ask her how many babies she had given birth to. How many survived? Did she mourn the way we think they do when they lose young? Did she want to be a mother? The dolphins in the Moray Firth often lose their first born calf due to PCB build up in the mothers (PCB stand for polychlorinated biphenyl - a man made compound created through industrial processes) . They accumulate it over their lives and store it in their fat tissues, then off load it into their young, so if their calf survives the birth, it will probably die from contaminated milk or a weakened immune system. Its absolutely devastating. There’s so much research occurring now about PCB build up and it’s effects on cetacean fertility. I think it hits close to home for me because I’m physically not able to have children, and the thought of other creatures chances of reproducing being jeopardised by our activities breaks my heart. So, if I could, I’d talk to an old matriarch, I’d discuss love and loss and everything to do with being a female dolphin in a male dolphins’ world.
T: What are your three favorite Thessalonike items?
MB: My absolute favourite is the Tofu’a ring. I have a whale tattoo that nearly matches the exact shape of the ring! I also really love the Sirena tee and the Dauphin Pareo! They’ve got such comfy beachy vibes, and I am all about big tees and pareos at the beach!
PHOTO BY JAYE JENKINS
T: What’s your main advice to others interested in making their day to day lives more eco-friendly and safer for the ocean
MB: I always love to talk about the classic ‘don’t use single use plastic’ tips and tricks, like avoiding straws and disposable coffee cups, as well as the famous ‘plastic bag’ that I’m quite sure was designed by the devil himself to infiltrate and destroy our ecosystems. But if I’ve got someone’s attention that wants to do more than that, I often encourage people not to eat seafood. I hate being that person who tells others what they should and shouldn’t eat, but sometimes I will push that boundary. In my opinion, there is no ‘sustainable’ option when it comes to seafood. Most people know the stats. We’ve fished 90% of viable fish stocks in the last 100 years. We’ve all seen the videos of trawlers pulling out millions of fish, or accidentally catching seals, dolphins, sharks, and even whales. Nothing pulls the heart strings harder than an inspiring marine creature thrashing on board a fishing vessel while workers stand around and helplessly watch the situation unfolding on their boat. I’ve seen a trawler coming back into port with a whale shark strapped to the roof. I’ve seen sun fish being cut up at fish markets to be sold for $10 a piece ($100 for the whole fish). I’ve seen reefs that have been bottom trawled, reefs that have been fished until there’s nothing left. And on top of all that we are now finding that if you eat seafood regularly, you’re actually consuming 11,000 pieces of micro plastic a year. So I guess I often encourage people to avoid plastics, and try to help them realise that they don’t just affect everything in the ocean, but their own personal lives as well in hopes that they might make some serious changes.
PHOTO BY SCOTT PORTELLI
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