On an adventure down south at the unique Prince Edward Islands in the middle of the austral Southern Ocean, I met an intriguing sealer, Nasreen Khan. I had never met a woman sealer before and had to know more about her and how she became a sealer doing scientific research on Marion Island! Nasreen was born in Ladysmith Kwa- Zulu Natal, South Africa and reveals that all her undergraduate and postgraduate studies “encompassed all things marine related”. Khan completed her Honours degree in Marine Biogeochemistry and Masters in Marine Microbiology. She has always been passionate about our oceans, and always felt the need to understand and conserve them. Nas admits that she hates sounding like a stuck record, but the reality is that studying our global ocean and conserving it will always be vitally important, the ocean is our lifeline, she adds. She believes that we need scientists in all spheres to help understand the unknown and to protect it from those who plunder, pollute, disrespect, misuse, and those who are ignorant about their effects on it.
Life on Marion Island
The Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme has been conducting world-renowned research, uninterrupted, for the past 3 decades. There is a wealth of knowledge collected over the years by sealers, under incredible supervision from the profound and legendary Prof. Marth’an Bester and Prof Nico De Bruyn. She suggests that we visit marionseals.com and check out the book called ‘Pain forms the Character’ to learn more about the history and work done on the island. Of course, I wanted to hear all about life on Marion Island and Nasreen did not hold back. “Marion is everything I imagined it would be and more”, she exclaimed. Khan says the island is one of South Africa’s greatest assets and it gives young researchers the ultimate opportunities in science. It is a researcher’s dream to work hands-on with animals in their natural environment. On Marion, the animals own the land and the human beings tread carefully because they are the visitors and not the other way around. Being a Sealer/ Killer whaler on the island afforded her the absolutely wonderful opportunity of working closely with Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic fur seals, Southern Elephant Seals and Orcas. “They say that you shall never work a day in your life if you are passionate about the work you do. No matter how tough the schedule was for a Sealer/ Killer whaler, it was worth every moment”! Nas acknowledges that being be able to work on Marion as a Sealer/ Killer whaler was a massive privilege and had been one of her longest-standing dreams. She says that she had been in awe of Marion Island since her second year of university and it’s not very often that one gets to play the protagonist in their dreams. Marion Island’s remote, virtually untouched beauty had always appealed to her love for the wild rugged outdoors and her conservationist ideals. The idea of treading on an uninhabited piece of land and being able to witness animals flourish in their natural ecosystems without being compromised by human hands is the rarest things on our planet, she says.
Difficulties encountered as a woman on the island
Nasreen’s seal team consisted of her and two male colleagues Sydney and Kyle who she admits were much faster and fitter than her. This was initially very intimidating for her and it took a few months on the island and many days in the gym for her to at least match their fitness levels. Nas confesses that she had concerns considering the extremely physically demanding role. She did not want to let her team down in any way, including the legacy of previous female warriors. Therefore, she always remembered a female sealer’s words, Dr Cheryl Tosh who said, ‘Sealers can do anything!’, this stuck with her for the entire expedition and got her through the tough times. There were many obstacles she had to overcome, including being able to dually lift elephant seal weaners who weigh an average of 120 kg to 220 kg, another great female sealer Dr Mia Wege was there to give moral support and tons of sealing advice regarding this. Another woman sealer, Liezl Pretorius played an important role in Nasreen Khan’s expedition as she assisted her to better prepare for the island before embarking on the journey, by kindly answering the “hairiest of questions”. The entire expedition was life-changing for her and she is confident that she is 100% a different person from when she started. “Marion changes you for the better. There were so many key moments, too many to mention here, but if you meet me, I’m always happy to talk about Marion memories”.
In her own words, advice for those who would like to follow in Khan’s footsteps
When one signs up for working on Marion Island, it is not for the faint-hearted, there are physical and emotional intricacies that play a big role, and one has to be prepared to encounter difficulties beyond anything that urbanized South Africa can offer. It is remote, you will not see your loved ones in a year, and you have to live with 19 strangers who automatically become your family, you have to be a forgiving and versatile individual to be able to handle everyone’s idiosyncrasies, and be mindful of your own. Life outside base brings even more challenges; it helps to be really fit. It becomes easier if you are fit because your legs are your greatest asset on Marion and will take you everywhere. Never let gender determine the steps you take in life and don’t ever undermine your strength.
Go get ‘em girl!
Nasreen, to date, has been awarded the 2018 Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans in Environment honour. She currently lives on a conservation island reserve in Seychelles. The island is run by the Island Conservation Society and she is tasked to look after its biodiversity. Khan works with animals like seabirds, turtles and seals to produce scientific data that assists in preserving endangered species and fragile island ecosystems.
All photos supplied by Nasreen Khan