Jan. 12, 2021

Survival of the Strangest: Mikki McComb-Kobza On Her Passion For The Undersea World of Hammerheads

Survival of the Strangest: Mikki McComb-Kobza On Her Passion For The Undersea World of Hammerheads

In this episode, I speak with Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza, Executive Director of the Ocean First Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving the world's oceans, and a woman with a deep passion for sharks and particularly hammerheads.

When I spoke with Mikki , I found her to be not only a dedicated shark researcher but also an entertaining interview. And she talked openly about how her life has been shaped by a few seminal moments, from seeing a movie with her brother as a child to a chance encounter with the ocean icon Dr. Sylvia Earle, and how it all came full circle one afternoon in The Bahamas.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

Please give us ★★★★★, leave a review, and tell your friends about us as each share and like makes a difference.

Transcript

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Speaker 2:

Hi and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big, deep as a podcast about people who have connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong, it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of this series. We'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. In this episode, we speak with a woman who has dedicated her life to protecting what she calls the weirdest sharks in the ocean. Hello, this is your host, Jason Ellis. Welcome to the big deep podcast. And today's episode. I speak with Dr. Mickey McComb Kobes executive director of the ocean. First Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving the world's oceans and driving that is Mickey's deep passion for sharks and particularly hammerheads. When I spoke with Mickey , I found her to not only be a dedicated shark researcher, but also a very fun and openhearted interview. And she talked openly about how her life has been shaped by a few seminal moments from seeing a movie with her brother as a child, to a chance encounter with the ocean icon, Dr. Sylvia Earle and how it all came full circle. One afternoon in The Bahamas.

Speaker 3:

My name is Dr. Mickey McComb Kobes , and I'm the executive director of ocean first Institute. My primary focus is on sharks, but I'm equally as passionate about outreach to inspire people to care about the ocean.

Speaker 2:

So you are into sharks.

Speaker 3:

That's my thing, why sharks? I grew up in Colorado and was fortunate enough to have parents that were very outdoorsy. I went camping as a kid. I was kind of a feral child, really spent a lot of time outdoors getting lost in the woods, literally. And my parents took my brother and I on vacations to Mexico and to Eleuthera in The Bahamas when we were very young and I had amazing encounters with the ocean, the crystal clear water of The Bahamas is just undescribable. I remember vividly seeing the ocean thinking it was so vast, the smell of the ocean , the heat, the humidity, the warmth of it. And it was like nothing I had ever imagined before. And it was intoxicating. But I think for me, the clincher and the thing that was a trajectory changer was when I was years old, I went with my big older brother to go see the movie jaws and walked out of that movie, terrified of sharks. And when I got home, I thought sharks were under my bed under the kitchen table. I tried out for the swim team and I made it because there were invisible sharks coming out of the drain. And I didn't really know how to get over it. Other than to read about sharks. My parents had this animal encyclopedia set and sharks were in there and I devoured it and learned that there wasn't all that much, that we knew about sharks at the time. And I was just fascinated by their story and their diversity and that primal fear that jaws brought out from being eaten and having no control changed things for me as a scared child and allowed me to look into the world of sharks and turn it into something that became my passion is really directed my whole life. The thing that really intrigued you about this was there was a hole in the information on sharks , and that speaks to something in you that really is intrigued by the blank spaces on the map as a child. Did you know that you were going to go on to be a Marine biologist? And did you know that you, especially in the church ? Oh, no, I did not know . I actually struggled in college. I went to community college. Then I literally slept in my car to miss classes because I had no direction and did not know what to do. I ended up getting a job in the business world and I did great, but truthfully, it was meaningless to me. I remember looking in the mirror going this, this doesn't matter to me. It was an awful realization on my cubicle. I had shark posters and shark calendars, and I was just a fanatic. I couldn't shake it, but it was a wonderful realization because I felt like, Hey, I may not make a lot of money in life, but that's not what is my motivator? It's doing something that gives me meaning. And for me, that meaning is trying to protect these animals. That don't have a voice. One of the biggest passions I had was scuba diving. I then found my way through becoming a scuba instructor. I moved to the Florida keys and I was with sharks almost every day. And then I met a guy in a bar and he hired me to work for national geographic as a production assistant. So my job was to handle all of the diving that the Aquarius underwater habitat. And then I had an experience with Sylvia Earle. So she was there for a week and I got to dive with her every day and have dinner with her. And it was just extraordinary. I played underwater football with her with a coconut soup . It's just silly, but she was someone who had a heart bigger than the planet. And I just thought, wow, if she can do this, I can do it too. And I was so inspired. I decided I wanted to go back to school. So I did my undergrad at Florida international university. And then I did a master's degree working on hammerheads and then moved into a PhD, studying the hammer , head head. Why do hammerheads have that weird head shape? And what's the functional significance of it. Got to travel all over the world, looking at different hammerhead species. And then I did a post-doc at Harbor branch oceanographic Institute, and I wanted to get a voice to credential myself to make a difference.

Speaker 2:

Sylvia Earle obviously is Seminole in so many people's lives, but it's amazing how random circumstances can lead to the most profound life changes. But it can't lead up to that and not tell us why have her has had that edge shape. I mean, what is , why do they,

Speaker 3:

Oh, it's so interesting. There's multiple hammerhead species all with these different expanded heads. So some almost looked like a normal shark and then all the way to flat out boomerang, head in the wing, head shark and everything in between. And so there's a couple of different thoughts. One is that the head shape acts as a bowel plane so that they're very hydrodynamics. So they can really cut through the water and have lifts . The other thing is some of the hammerheads feed on stingrays and they'll use their stuff , lift oil or their head to pin down prey , which is amazing, but not all of them eat stingrays . Genetically. We found out that the one that has the smallest head is the most advanced and the one that has the biggest head is the most primitive. That was a mind blowing discovery. So the weirdest one came first and as it speciated out, it's kind of going back to that normal head shape who would have figured that. And then the thing that I really cued into was how the sensory structures are stretched. So some of these sharks, their heads are over a meter long. They have optic nerves that are over a meter long leading to the eyes on the ends of the hammers. They're all these changes that have happened and you have to wonder, okay, what has it done to the way they experience their world so they can see straight ahead, which is something I didn't think they could do. I tested their visual field and hammerheads actually have larger binocular overlaps than normal sharks, which is so surprising. And it's all the position of the eyes on the ends of the hammers they're canted slightly forward. And then the other thing that's amazing is sharks have the ability to detect weak electric fields. So imagine if you're a hammerhead, your whole head is packed with these sensors. So inherently, it probably gives them a slight advantage over other sharks, just because they have a giant metal detector as the head. The other thing that's really cool is they have a big blind spot visually in front of their head . So if you try to put your finger right in front of your eyes, you can't see it. Well, that blind spot extends out pretty far on a hammerhead . And so I was wondering, well, if they can't see their food, right, when it's coming into their mouth, what do they do? And that electro sensory system is a short range sense. And so they use that in that little void where they can't see. And so it's just this perfect combination of their sensory systems working together to make them perfect predators. I'm taking a shot in the dark here, but our hammerheads, your favorite shark. Yeah. I love them. They're just so weird. And in my opinion, they're beautiful When I go diving and I see a shark in the wild and I'm able to share space with it. It's profound. And I know how fortunate I am. And I think the reason I get choked up sometimes, and I'll cry. My mask underwater is because I know the evolutionary history of sharks over 440 million years on our planet. They have lived through five mass extinction events. They were here before the dinosaurs and the dinosaurs got wiped out, but sharks were here and they made it.

Speaker 1:

And so the struggle,

Speaker 3:

The survivorship, the story, everything that that animal has gone through to be there at that moment, I can appreciate it. So when I look into the eye of that animal,

Speaker 1:

I feel off and honor,

Speaker 3:

And I celebrate that amazing life with such a legacy.

Speaker 1:

I mean, I've

Speaker 3:

Had great white sharks swim right next to me and

Speaker 1:

You feel power and

Speaker 3:

You feel insignificant. It's hard to describe the reality that we're terrestrial primates. And here we are underwater blowing bubbles and swimming next to these amazing ancient animals. Then I hold out so much hope for them because they're in trouble. Storytelling certainly come through for a lay person like me. Can you give me an interesting take on how they experience world that might be different than the way we do? So they have all the same senses that you and I do, but they have more. One of the things that I studied is how fast do their eyes work? So if you're a Maaco , shark going 50 miles an hour under water , the cheetah of the sea , your eyes have to work fast. And so their eyes are constantly refreshing at a very quick rate in hammerheads. They can stereo smell because their nostrils are spaced so far apart. It helps them localize, odor gradients in the water. They have, what's called a lateral line where they feel pressure waves, just like any other kind of bony fish. And then the electro sensory system, every living thing in the water gives off a weak electric field and sharks have evolved to detect it. So they literally use these jelly filled canals inside of their heads to detect the electric field given off by any living thing. And that means crabs people, anything that's a very close range sense. So if a crab is hiding under the sand, forget it, the shark will be able to detect it. So it's a huge advantage. And here's where it gets really interesting. It's possible sharks may use their electro sensory systems to navigate the ocean basins. So they may use that system similar to birds in figuring out where they are and where they're going. You know, what else is amazing is that scallop Tamra heads , the hammerhead shark that you think of these school together in the hundreds, and they have a social hierarchy. There are dominant females, subordinate females. There is a communication occurring, and we think there's an intelligence on par of a common domestic dog. So think about your dog. Your dog is pretty smart. These fish might have an intelligence that is surprising to us, and maybe it shouldn't be surprising. Maybe that's the thing to think about. It really gets me excited that there are all of these intricate relationships in the ocean. And we're just now starting to scratch the surface to understand these stories. That is amazing. And what it does is it really talks about every Sinthian being has its own diverse experience. And we so often label shark has shark predator, swimming through the ocean, kills everything. And what you're really talking about is there's a much richer experience happening there. Is there one experience in the water that really resonated with you that you can talk? There is, there was an experience that I had a few years ago. It was an expedition where I had young students with me, where we scuba dive and collect data and show them what it's like to be a scientist in the field. On this particular trip, we went to an Island in The Bahamas called Eleuthera . Funny enough, this was the Island that my family had gone to when I was a young girl is 11 years old. Oh my goodness. It was a magical time with my family and my father. And it was one of those moments. I'll never forget to return to that Island. It was really more emotional than I thought we arrived at the Island and then we were on a liveaboard vessel. So we were living on the boat and I had about seven or eight students with me. And these are junior high school age because we were on a liverboard . There was really no one around, we just anchored off shore in the middle of absolute nowhere. So we were going to go down on our dive and I was doing treasure hunting with them. So they were using metal detectors underwater , and they were looking for treasure after we were diving for quite a while , was the end of the dive was late in the day. The sun was coming to the water as it does that magical honey light that just trickles through the water. And it makes that unbelievable with shimmer. I remember looking up and seeing

Speaker 1:

A

Speaker 3:

Great hammerhead swim right by looking at all of us. And I remember looking back at all of my students and thinking, Oh my gosh, this is amazing for them to see now I lost my dad when I was young. I remember almost my heartbreaking thinking. This is like my family. This could be my dad swimming by

Speaker 1:

Then. I felt like

Speaker 3:

It was a full circle moment. It was so emotionally overwhelming for me to see a beautiful hammerhead shark in that dappling light, and then have all of these young divers experience . The magic of that with me, that was it. It's like, this is as good as it gets.

Speaker 2:

Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question, we ask everyone, we talk to, what does the ocean mean to you?

Speaker 3:

It's where we started. It's where we came from. It's our home. It's our life support system. It's what gave our planet life. And it's everything that I love and work for. It's everything to me.

Speaker 2:

Thanks for listening to the big D podcast. Next time on big deep, we really appreciate you being on this journey into the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like, and comment because those subscribes likes and comments really make a difference for more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything. You've heard. There's a lot more content at our website, big, deep.com. Plus if you know someone who should think we should talk to let us know what our big D website is, we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.