‘I saw the shark and Dad was in its mouth’

6th September 2019 9:08 PM
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OLIVIA Johnson has spent much of the past year enjoying dozens of amazing experiences in oceans around the globe.

From tagging turtles and manta rays in the Philippines, spotting icebergs and blue whales in Antarctica, going on assignment with National Geographic photographers at Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, exploring California's giant kelp forests and diving with great white sharks, her action-packed travel itinerary has taken her to some of the most beautiful - and ecologically diverse - parts of the world.

It is an amazing story considering an unimaginably tragic event while diving four years ago.

The experiences came as a result of the 24-year-old being named the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society's Australasian Rolex Scholar of 2018, a prestigious program which gives ocean enthusiasts $30,000 to fund a 12-month exploration of the seas.

Only three people from around the world are chosen for these scholarships each year - one each from North America, Europe and Australasia - with successful applicants gaining hands-on experience in activities that will help them further their marine-related careers.

Johnson, a diver who grew up around the water, has been keen to pursue a career in marine sciences since she was a teenager, and saw the amazing scholarship advertised but never imaged she'd be fortunate enough to be chosen.

"I thought this is too cool, it will never happen,'' she says. "I made a last-minute application before the cut-off in December 2017, found out I was short-listed in February and flew up to Sydney for an interview. I thought it went terribly.

"I rang Mum and I was crying. I was a bit nervous and some of the questions stumped me a bit.

"Then in March I found out I'd won it, and a month later I flew to New York to get started on the amazing 12 months ahead.''

Olivia Johnson was the first Tasmanian to win the prestigious Rolex underwater scholarship.
Olivia Johnson was the first Tasmanian to win the prestigious Rolex underwater scholarship.



It has now been four months since the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) research assistant returned from her once-in-a-lifetime journey, settling back into life in a share house with three science students in Battery Point and working at the IMAS facility at Taroona.

But she's still pinching herself about all the amazing things she achieved in that year, including overcoming a huge personal challenge by diving with great white sharks.

Johnson's father, Damian Johnson, was killed by a shark off Tasmania's East Coast four years ago, when he and Olivia were scallop fishing.

After witnessing the horrific attack, she took a six-month break from the water and wondered if she would ever dive again.



Diving with great white sharks was a personal challenge Olivia Johnson wanted to overcome during her scholarship.
Diving with great white sharks was a personal challenge Olivia Johnson wanted to overcome during her scholarship.

At the time she was part-way through her second year of a marine sciences degree at the University of Tasmania and began to question whether she should bother continuing with her studies. But Johnson says the scholarship was valuable in helping her face her fears as she travelled to South Australia for two weeks working with the crew from Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, an eco-tourism business set up by shark attack survivor and conservationist Rodney Fox and his son Andrew.

Being lowered to bottom of the ocean in a cage to watch five massive great whites swim around her was an emotionally stirring experience - but one that also brought a surprising sense of calm.

"I had a big personal challenge I wanted to overcome during my scholarship year, and that involved diving with great white sharks,'' she says.

"This was a really difficult experience for me to choose to do, but it was also one of the most rewarding. For me, getting back into the water and scuba diving again took some courage.

"It didn't take me long because I had grown up with the ocean and diving provides me with a great connection to my Dad that I don't really experience with anything else I do.

"But choosing to undertake this particular experience was a whole other level for me. It's not that I'm afraid or scared of sharks in any respect - I dived with many species of shark over my scholarship year - it was more the personal effect this particular experience was likely to have on me.''



Johnson and the crew of the Princess II headed to the Neptune Islands, about four hours from Port Lincoln.

"As soon as we arrived at the North Neptunes we were greeted by sharks,'' she recalls. "By the time we had got all of the guests into the water diving, Andrew and I were in the last group to enter the water. It was twilight on the surface, so nearly dark underwater.

"I'm not going to lie, the first dive was very eerie. As we made our way to the sea floor in the bottom cage, you could feel the presence of not just one, but multiple sharks.

"We were surrounded by five enormous great white sharks and, to be honest, it was hard to know where to look. They truly are an incredible animal that stand in a league of their own. I was pretty nervous, but it helped put them back into perspective.''

Johnson was scallop fishing with her dad on Saturday July 25, 2015, when he was fatally attacked by a great white shark.

Father and daughter embarked on their first dive about 8.30am in the calm waters of Mercury Passage, between Lachlan Island and Maria Island.

"We got the scallops back to the boat and a few were undersized, so Dad jumped back in to get more,'' Johnson recalls of that fateful day.

She began to worry as time passed and her father still hadn't resurfaced. The pair had dived together many times before - for things like rock lobster and abalone - but never for scallops, so she was unsure how long he would usually be underwater for.


IMAS employee and diver Olivia Johnson. Picture: EDDIE SAFARIK
IMAS employee and diver Olivia Johnson. Picture: EDDIE SAFARIK


So Johnson put on snorkelling gear and jumped into the water to investigate.

"I got back in around 10am to find Dad,'' she says. "I saw the shark and Dad was in its mouth. My fight or flight instinct kicked in - it was something I didn't have control over.''

She scrambled back into the boat, set off flares and made an emergency phone call.

"I don't know why I thought to set off flares,'' she says, looking back. "I just needed help.''

Nearby boats quickly came to her aid but it was too late - her 46-year-old father had suffered fatal injuries. After the attack Johnson became fixated on learning all she could about sharks.

"I think as a scientist, processing factual information has always made a lot of sense,'' she says.

"After my Dad passed away I used researching sharks as a coping mechanism.

"What a top apex predator does in the wild makes complete sense. But what had happened to my Dad did not make any sense. The more I researched sharks the more I became extremely fascinated by their behaviours, as well as becoming aware of the stigma and portrayal by the media of sharks in general, but particularly great white sharks, to the public.''

While mourning her father, Johnson also had to reconsider the entire future she had mapped out, as she was halfway through her second year of a Bachelor of Marine and Antarctic Science.

"As soon as it happened I thought 'oh my gosh, I can't do this degree any more','' she says. "I'm going to be exposed to sharks.''


Recipients of the Rolex underwater scholarship Olivia Johnson, left, and Joanna Smart. Picture: PATRICK GEE
Recipients of the Rolex underwater scholarship Olivia Johnson, left, and Joanna Smart. Picture: PATRICK GEE


She returned to her studies after a few weeks but didn't enter the water for about six months. She started with some shore dives and then dived the Great Barrier Reef during a Queensland holiday with her mum Jane and younger brother Lewis, who is 22 and in his fourth year of a medicine degree in Hobart.

She returned home and did some scientific diving for uni - and she's been diving ever since.

"I guess even now it's always in the back of my mind,'' she says of sharks and what happened to her dad. "Initially I guess it was a bit more nerve-racking getting back in, in certain places more than others. But I'm much more relaxed now. I did 250 dives during my scholarship year. Now there's a bit of calmness when I dive in.''

Some people haven't been able to comprehend how Johnson found the courage to return to diving.

"Some people said to Mum 'how could you let her do that?','' Johnson says. "Mum has been very supportive and amazing and says 'I can't stop her, it's what she wants to do'. It's the risk you take when you get in the water, as tragic as it is.

"It's nature - it's like going to Africa and getting attacked by a lion. It's just the risk you take. Mum is happy for me to get back in and do it.''

And Johnson believes her dad would be proud of all that she has achieved since his death, and amazed by the wide range of underwater experiences she has enjoyed as part of her scholarship.


Olivia Johnson didn’t dive for six months after her father’s death.
Olivia Johnson didn’t dive for six months after her father’s death.


She experienced more in one year than some marine scientists can hope to experience in a lifetime, and says the best part was networking with so many people doing amazing things in the field.

She learned to free dive in Bali, to a depth of 35m on a single breath, and completed her PADI instructor course in Sydney so she could teach other people to dive, and sailed from Fiji to French Polynesia, diving many times along the way.


An 11-year-old Olivia Johnson with her Dad Damian and brother Lewis, then 9, during Planet Ark’s National Tree Day at Whitewater Creek in 2006.
An 11-year-old Olivia Johnson with her Dad Damian and brother Lewis, then 9, during Planet Ark’s National Tree Day at Whitewater Creek in 2006.



She also dived with bull sharks in Fiji's Pacific Harbour, heard humpback whales singing underwater in Tonga, and spent time at conservation centres and research institutes in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

She got up close to giant cuttlefish in South Australia, collected temporal data in Alaska, studied hyperbaric medicine and completed an underwater cinematography course in Los Angeles, among other exploits.

"Now it's like 'wow, I did all that in a year','' says Johnson, who is also the proud owner of a Rolex watch and plenty of dive gear thanks to the scholarship's many offerings. "It's quite overwhelming if you sit back and think about all of it.''

Johnson was the first Tasmanian to win the award in the scholarship's 45-year history. Interestingly, when her tenure came to an end in April this year, she handed over the reins to another Tasmanian, IMAS student Joanna Smart, who is currently enjoying her own year of adventure.

But despite the personal challenges, her career has fallen into place in a way, she says, that makes everything seem like it is "meant to be".

She completed her Bachelor of Marine and Antarctic Science, majoring in marine biology, and was fortunate to secure an internship working as a marine biologist in the Maldives for six months.


One of the many underwater sights Olivia Johnson experienced during her scholarship.
One of the many underwater sights Olivia Johnson experienced during her scholarship.


She then returned to Hobart to complete her honours degree, handing in her thesis before heading off on her dream scholarship year of adventure.

She again returned to Hobart and was lucky enough to score a spot on a seven-week expedition to Antarctica onboard the RV Investigator, where she was part of a team counting krill swarms and blue whales while studying the relationship between the two.

And on her return she landed her current job at IMAS, where she works as part of the marine environment interactions team, surveying the rocky reefs around Tasmania's south-east.

Some weeks, when the weather is good, she's out in the field every day with her team of three, two divers and a surface attendant, to carry out a variety of tasks from counting fish, rock lobster and abalone to estimating algae percentages and underwater photography. Other days are spent in front of a computer, working with large data sets.

Johnson's honours project at university involved using the ecological knowledge of local divers to model and map the distribution and abundance of sea urchins along Tasmania's East Coast.

It's a hot topic given the current overabundance of urchins decimating the state's waterways, and Johnson hopes to expand the model and maps so they can be used by the State Government for continued monitoring.


Olivia Johnson swims with a ray during her time as the 2018 Australasian Rolex Scholar.
Olivia Johnson swims with a ray during her time as the 2018 Australasian Rolex Scholar.


In July, the Government announced a $5 million project aiming to deal with the estimated 18 million urchins on the East Coast, which have created underwater deserts devoid of all marine life and are threatening the state's lucrative abalone and lobster industries.

The fund will focus on projects that increase the sustainability of the abalone fishery, while alternative uses for harvested urchins are also being investigated.

About 540 tonnes of urchins were removed from the region in the past 12 months, with the shells turned into fertiliser and fish food.

Johnson has always been fascinated with urchins as her Dad was a commercial urchin diver.

"My brother and I had grown up with him coming home with a boat full of urchins,'' she says. The spiny creatures were sent to a factory in Launceston before being sold overseas.

"Dad was a mechanic by trade and fished on weekends - for money and because he loved it. He tried to get me out in the water a lot.

"He'd look for lobsters and I'd try and find things to look at like sea dragons. I think that's probably why I'm still drawn to this area, career-wise.

"It was a nice thing to do together and I guess it reminds me of him in a good way.''

As well as being influenced by her Dad's love of diving, Johnson says it was her time at Taroona High School, where she took part in an Experience the Ocean course and gained her scuba diving ticket, that she realised there might be a career for her in diving and marine studies.

"I always loved science," she says. "I probably knew I'd go into some sort of scientific field, but I also thought I might have ended up as a classical musician, playing the French horn.

"My friends went to Hobart College but I went to Elizabeth College where I did a mix of music and science.''


Olivia Johnson during a dive while completing her scholarship.
Olivia Johnson during a dive while completing her scholarship.


Her first university preference was Marine Sciences, so she was delighted to be accepted into the course at IMAS.

The Rolex Scholarship cemented her decision to follow a career in marine sciences, and she's enjoying applying the skills she learnt to her job.

But she says one of the biggest challenges of science is making it relatable to everyone. A valuable part of her scholarship tour was seeing how technology could be used to make science more accessible to the masses, like in The Channel Islands in the United States where rangers dive through marine reserves wearing cameras and live stream the footage online, where people sitting at home can log in and ask questions in real-time.

"During my scholarship, learning more about how we can change the 'out-of-sight out-of-mind' mentality of the general public when it comes to the ocean and its importance was a major goal,'' says Johnson, who eventually hopes to complete a PhD.

"I'm really interested in how we can help everyday people understand what's happening.

"My voyage south [to Antarctica], seeing different types of whales every day and seeing a blue whale for the first time, it helped me realise that I really enjoy research and enjoy learning about all the changes to the ecosystem and how that's affecting animals and humans. It's all helping me work out where I'd like to go next.''

Back home, she enjoys diving in the kelp forests around Blackmans Bay, looking for seahorses. She also recommends the Cathedral Cave and Waterfall Bay regions of the Tasman Peninsula and the sponge gardens at Bicheno.

"I just find a sense of calmness when I'm there,'' Johnson says. "There's always something new to see. I always find something different on every dive.

"I don't really know how to describe it.

"Even if it's a rough day or whatever, I still always enjoy being in the water, whether it's the nice sunny tropics or down here in the cold.

"Some days the water is only 8, 9 or 10 degrees and it's like an ice-cream headache when you get in, but you just have to wait a couple of minutes for it to go.

"It's not your everyday office and that makes it interesting. There's always something new to see.

"It makes me want to get back in to see what's next.''