Local folk: Sam Stammers

A career as a marine biologist and scuba diver flowed on into teaching science and biology for Arkles Bay resident Sam Stammers. In her college days, Sam was inspired to become a marine biologist by a wonderful teacher and has come full circle, as she now shares her passion for marine life with her students. As she told Terry Moore, with pollution becoming a more and more pressing problem, anyone who loves the natural world soon finds themselves fighting to protect it.

My passion for marine biology started when I was at school in North Yorkshire, which is very far from the sea. As a child I used to gobble up David Attenborough documentaries and be transported to the natural world and more and more to the ocean. We visited beaches when we could, but I had never snorkelled or scuba dived. In college, when I was 17, there was one short but really captivating module on marine biology with a wonderful teacher, Phil Brown, and right away I thought this is me – this is what I want to do. That led me to study applied marine biology in Edinburgh. I took every opportunity to go scuba diving, at places like St Abbs and a number of Scottish sea lochs, often when it was snowing. Even in a drysuit, I found the diving challenging but it was all that I knew. It was very beautiful with drop offs and overhangs, and lots of sponges and beautiful crustacean life; visibility was often surprisingly good.

I was employed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and did research in the Firth of Forth. In my free time, I completed my commercial diving certificate and began diving with sharks at Deep Sea World in Fife. We used to feed the sand tiger sharks, with mackerel on a stick. We did it in pairs and didn’t wear fins because we didn’t want to look anything like fish. We had to sort of spring off the bottom, avoiding hitting the sharks as they gathered around us. There were a couple of hairy moments – those sharks aren’t man-eaters but they have teeth that can do some damage. Once when feeding the sharks I was bitten on my wedding ring finger by a conga eel, which wasn’t pretty. It shredded the finger and after that we were given chain mail gloves.

More than anything, I wanted to spend more time in the water and so I followed a dream to be a scuba instructor. I took myself off to Australia to study in Cairns, going from Dive Master to Dive Instructor. I worked on the Great Barrier Reef, which is one of those places where your heart flutters whenever you go in the ocean. As it happens, that is also where I met my husband, Alex, who was a scuba instructor from Howick, also working on the reef. We travelled together to the Cayman Islands and lived and dived there there for four years. I also became an underwater filmmaker and Alex was an underwater photographer and managed a dive shop. There is amazing coral life and the water is as turquoise as you can imagine. The largest island is Grand Cayman, with the famous seven mile beach with white silica sand and hotels and water sports – the reef is only a 10 minute boat ride away. So we looked after, mainly American, tourists and probably spent more time underwater than on the surface.

We fell in love with the ocean, which of course makes you passionate about protecting it, because it moves from heart to head. I believe we are all called upon to be stewards of the earth and gratefully use what we are given as well as avoiding wasting life and resources. I made friends with teachers on the island and would go into local schools and talk about marine biology. Being a scuba diver is very physical work, but along the way I found my passion was being with people, sharing my knowledge and getting excited about a common cause. Before long I could see my next port of call would be to go back to university and retrain as a science teacher, which meant leaving the Cayman Islands for Oxford.

After that, Alex said it was time to go home, by which he meant New Zealand. We moved to Auckland and had our three boys and Alex got to dive and take photographs at Goat Island Marine Reserve in Leigh as much as he possibly could. He has also dived at Little Manly and found some amazing nudibranches – brightly coloured shelless sea snails – and also seahorses up towards Leigh. Taking photos like that is the perfect way to unwind from his job with the Police as a forensic photographer. We knew we wanted to live by the ocean, so we settled in Whangaparaoa 10 years ago. Our three boys, Jack, Harry and Oliver are all at Kingsway. Jack, who is 14, had his first proper dive this summer with his dad but we have been diving in Fiji and all the boys are like little fish. I like to go diving with Alex when I can, and more and more the children can come with us, which is a dream come true.

I relieved at Kingsway, and six years ago became a fulltime science and biology teacher in the senior school. I love teaching, especially the relationships with the students. Recently I introduced a new course called Applied Science Marine to Level 2 students. It offers standards in ecology and includes microscopy work, with plant samples, particularly marine organisms. Students can gain a PADI open water certificate in scuba diving, which we do at Leigh. We have really nice links with the marine institute up there and have had seminars on things like the significance of marine reserves and the importance of lobbying for more marine reserves. When I took the first Kingsway group diving, I was enthusing about the biodiversity that we were likely to see and the beauty and then unfortunately on the first dive, as we descended into the water, we were met with plastic and glass bottles, endless fishing twine which was tangled around things and plastic bags that had been there for a long time. So although the students enjoyed the dive and were able to see beautiful snapper and nudibranches on the rocks, it left a bitter taste in our mouths, sadly – especially as it was so close to a marine reserve.

We got back and a few days later I decided to set up a regular meeting, so we could talk about how we could reduce plastics in the ocean. It was up to them to come up with strategies and several students formed an organisation called One Bag at a Time. Those students are now at university and plan to further this type of work, studying conservation management and marine biology subjects. We also set up the Enviro Council at school, which is run by senior students. It has run for two years and we have tried to make changes in the school to better the environment such as bringing in recycling bins and encouraging students and staff to pack lunch boxes without using plastic. We linked with the council and Tori Christie from Sustainable Schools and had two waste audits done; in two years we have reduced the amount of school waste we are sending to landfill by around 50 percent. We also have a vegetable garden and the produce is given to families that need it. The most recent batch I took up to Love Soup. We have been involved in Orewa Beach cleanups – so, we are making steady changes to improve our environment.


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