Royale Hardenstine, a Ph.D. student in the KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC), credits her time working at a marine animal rehabilitation center as part of her undergraduate studies at The University of New England as being the spark that led her down her current path as a marine biologist.
"At the center (in Maine), I worked with sick and injured seals and sea turtles. That is what helped solidify in me that I liked working with the marine environment. Also, just being at a beautiful coastal location meant that my time there was really inspiring to me," she noted.
This initial interest in marine science was further strengthened by a semester spent abroad in Tanzania with The School for International Training (SIT). One of the aspects of her course at SIT was to complete an independent research project. Hardenstine's subsequent project focused on how marine tourism impacted whale sharks at an aggregation site off the coast of Tanzania at Mafia Island.
"I planned a two to three-week trip to go off to this tiny island and try to get some pictures of whale sharks for photo identification purposes. On one particular trip, after many fruitless days, I jumped in the water just as these majestic whale sharks swam by, and I was in absolute awe that I had just witnessed these animals in their natural habitat," Hardenstine said.
Her current research at the KAUST Reef Ecology Lab investigates the connectivity of whale shark aggregations through the use of micro-satellite and mitochondrial genetic markers. As part of another ongoing project, Hardenstine and her colleagues are attempting to detail what oceanographic perimeters correlate with whale shark presences in the Red Sea.
"This oceanographic information gathered at aggregation sites, like Al Lith, helps us to look at how sea surface temperatures affect whale shark presence. Although the Red Sea is pretty much all within the temperature comfort range of whale sharks, there may be specific temperatures that will tell us, 'This is what is kicking off a plankton bloom that the sharks want to feed on.' Because, like most other animals, whale sharks are most likely highly motivated by food," she stated.
Hardenstine believes that the research carried out by the Reef Ecology team can potentially create a positive impact on her host country. More specifically, she feels that the team's research findings can help to regulate any possible future marine tourism in the Kingdom.
"At the RSRC we want to help make sure that marine tourism in Saudi Arabia is done sustainably and responsibly as tourism continues to develop throughout the Kingdom. Hopefully, some of our work with whale sharks might inform this branch of in-Kingdom tourism moving forward," she added.
"Where whale sharks occur, there is usually a tourism industry that comes along with it. Whale sharks are big, charismatic megafauna. I think knowing where the whale sharks are and trying to determine 'why?' is a good thing," Hardenstine said.
As a location, KAUST benefits significantly from having a natural marine laboratory on its doorstep, and Hardenstine firmly believes that this level of access to the Red Sea is the University's ultimate resource.
"There is nowhere else that you could get the natural resources we have here at KAUST. The reefs that we have are stunning. Every time I'm out on the reef it's just another day seeing something that I haven't noticed before, and that is an exceptional feeling for any marine researcher," she enthused.