Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 7 August 2020

Meet the UAE marine biologist who started her career on a hideout island for fugitives

Jimena Rodriguez's love for sea life stemmed from an early age during family holidays to the coast

Growing up in a landlocked city in Colombia, Jimena Rodriguez always yearned for the great outdoors.

Despite being surrounded by concrete buildings and polluted streets in her home town Bogota, she was a water baby at heart and wanted to explore the deep life under the sea.

As a youngster in the eighties, family holidays to the coast would always end in tears.

Mesmerised by the shells, water and marine life, she never wanted to leave.

Unlike most children her age, she was not a fan of cartoon shows.

Instead, Ms Rodriguez, would be glued to documentaries by her favourite explorer, Jacques Cousteau.

I was very connected to the ocean as a child. When we used to holiday along the coast of Colombia I never wanted the trip to end, the sea was like my home

Jimena Rodriguez

“He was my reference point, my inspiration for all things nature,” the research marine scientist, who now works for the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority, told The National.

“I was fascinated by his curiosity for travel and animal conservation, he was my escape from city life.

“I was very connected to the ocean as a child and from an early age I loved being in nature. The sea was like my home.”

Born and raised in a city located in the middle of the Andes Mountains, Ms Rodriguez said there were no beaches in sight.

But at the age of 10, she told her family she wanted to be a marine biologist - a decision that was met with a lot of scepticism given where she grew up.

Years later, her love for the sea set her on a path that paved the way for a career spent travelling the world as a conservationist.

It also led to a six months stint living on a remote island in the Caribbean region of Colombia, which was a “hiding place for fugitives running from police".

“When I finished high school I applied to the only university in my city that offered a bachelor’s degree in marine biology," she said.

“My chances of getting in were so low. My friends were applying to five or six different universities but I had just one option and no fall back.

"Against all odds I got in, I always knew I would."

For the last six months of her five year degree, Ms Rodriguez carried out some field research in a protected area of Santa Marta, a port city in Colombia, to learn about different turtle species and where they nested.

Her professors were hesitant to let her do it at first as students were not allowed to work off campus, but she was eventually given the green light.

“When I finished the project and graduated, the university established a full research stream dedicated to turtles which is still going strong today,” she said.

“That was a proud moment for me and it’s when I really delved into the world of turtle rehabilitation.”

After graduating university in 2003, Ms Rodriguez spent six months on the remote Archipelago of San Bernardo.

Jimena Rodriguez says UAE is rich in natural resources and animal biodiversity is very important in the Middle East. Antonie Robertson / The National    
Jimena Rodriguez says UAE is rich in natural resources and animal biodiversity is very important in the Middle East. Antonie Robertson / The National    

Her family were concerned about the move due to the isolation but she was adamant to find out where green and hawksbill turtles nested and fed.

“I went with a university friend and when we arrived on the island there was no preparation or facilitation from the university,” she said.

“It was like jumping into the real world. We depended a lot on the help of the local fisherman to find out where the turtles were feeding.

“In reality, we were crazy moving there because we later found out that a lot of people were running from police on the mainland and hiding there because it was so remote.

“We were two young and adventurous girls who threw ourselves into a risky situation, but it’s an experience I'll never forget."

After becoming friendly with one of the head fisherman named Pedro, Ms Rodriguez said she was unsure about the relationship at first.

"We were trying to protect the turtles while fishermen like Pedro were hunting them for food and money," she said.

“I quickly realised it was not my place to tell them to stop because this was their livelihood, their way of life.

“Pedro never understood why we were so interested in turtles but one day, while he was on his way out to hunt, he asked us if we would teach his children about animal conservation.”

After spending long days at sea diving with turtles, the pair would head back to the local village and teach members of the community, mostly children, about marine ecology and protection.

On their last day on the island, Pedro made a move that Ms Rodriguez said changed her life.

“We had spent hours diving and were heading back to the island,” she said.

“Pedro picked us up and had three turtles in the boat which he was planning on selling on the main island.

“I was laying down in the boat trying to sleep and we suddenly came to a stop.

“Pedro looked at me and said he was no longer going to hunt turtles. He picked each one up from the boat and placed them back in the water.

“That moment hit me deep down.

"At one point I thought there was no hope of ever getting them to understand the importance of conservation because hunting marine life was their livelihood.

“It taught me there is always the possibility for change and I knew I had to continue what I was doing.”

Ms Rodriquez spent the next few years living in Costa Rica, Mexico and Australia before landing a job in the UAE with Emirates Nature-WWF in 2016.

Recently, she joined the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority.

She has been involved in several important turtle rehabilitation projects in the UAE and has conducted research both locally and in Oman to confirm the links between turtle feeding and nesting grounds.

“One of the things that impresses me about the UAE is that it’s rich in natural resources,” she said.

“Before I came here it never crossed my mind to work in the Middle East.

"When you think about animal biodiversity you think of places like Asia or the Pacific but the Middle East is important in this field so I’m glad to be a part of the work being carried out here.”

Updated: July 30, 2020 03:57 PM

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