Even as the pandemic was keeping many of us at home, Winston Cowie was busy underwater, swimming with his formidable friends – whale sharks – the largest known extant fish species.
As part of a community outreach campaign called Whale Shark Watch organised by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), its marine policy manager has just completed spending the last seven weeks tracking two whale sharks that were spotted in the Abu Dhabi waters.
Winston, a New Zealand expat, moved to Abu Dhabi seven years ago and found his dream job at EAD working in Marine Policy and Conservation. "Working with over 200 islands; managing critical habitats like mangroves, sea grass and coral and key indicator species like turtles, dugongs and dolphins; we seek balanced and sustainable outcomes. You can have a really positive impact on both nature and society through marine policy. In a way, we act as the referees between nature and society and we try and make it positive for both," he says, explaining part of his job.
The gentle giants
Whale sharks are not regular visitors to the UAE. Every year or two, there may be fleeting visits from them where they circumnavigate Abu Dhabi island for a day or so before heading back out into the deeper areas of the Arabian Gulf where a large population of them can be found.
This year, a 4m-long juvenile male was spotted at the Al Raha Canal area and a larger male, almost 7m long, was seen in the Al Bahia region.
"To have two here in Abu Dhabi this year – they remained in these waters for seven weeks – was unprecedented," says Winston, excitedly. "It’s very rare and unusual. It was inspiring and amazing at the same time." One of them actually showed up some 200m from his home in Al Raha. "We think they initially followed a plankton bloom and then over time became a little disorientated in the canals," explains the 38-year-old.
Whale sharks can migrate thousands of miles, so Winston’s first job is finding them. "When we hear of a sighting in Abu Dhabi, the team gets pretty excited. We act on the sighting information and then work with our partners like Abu Dhabi Maritime and Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority (CICPA) – to close the waterway so there is no risk of vessel strike."
Once, the marine creatures are spotted, they are photographed and videographed both from above water and below, checking on coloration, and over time changes in stomach size, and any issues they may be facing. After the data is gathered they can then be checked in international databases to see if they have been catalogued before.
Winston and his team discovered that the smaller whale shark had inadvertently got tangled in some fishing gear. "We were able to remove it," he says. "Over the seven weeks [we were monitoring it] we also noticed that after the initial plankton bloom, the juvenile whale shark has become very skinny." So with the help of the National Aquarium – Abu Dhabi, they supplemented the animal’s food with krill. "Plans are in place to move the whale sharks gently back to sea, particularly the juvenile when it is strong enough," he says.
One of the jobs Winston does as part of Whale Shark Watch is to get in the water with them to videograph them to gauge any changes in mass. Initially this involved hanging onto a ladder in the canal and photographing the whale sharks as they swam past. "I tried to make myself as small as possible pressing myself against the side of the canal, barnacles and all. But over time, a form of relationship developed. I always wear my same blue EAD work polo, and I think the Al Raha one recognises it. On many occasions now he has made eye contact and has circled back to check me out and see what I am up to – as if he is saying ‘Hi’."
Winston finds it ‘a special experience’ interacting with these massive creatures. "It is also incredibly motivating and makes you want to work even harder on their protection. Filming the shark feed on the krill, seeing it gobble up food barely a foot away from you as you are filming it has to be up there with one of the most amazing nature experiences I have had," he says.
Isn’t he scared they will hurt him? "Remember these gentle giants are filter feeders – they have teeth but they are tiny – there is a very low chance of them hurting you," he says.
Growing up in a rural area on the coast north of Auckland, Winston was always keen on diving, fishing, surfing and boating. Interacting with sea creatures from orca and dolphins to sharks, he developed a sense of duty to protect them.
Perhaps, a series of accidents – five road mishaps and one time nearly getting electrocuted while on a yacht – also had a role to play in altering his perspective on his mission in life. "I considered them as repeated reminders that life can be very short," he says. "When you have all of these close calls, you want to make the most of every minute of every day and that is something I have been doing since my early twenties. I value every sunrise and sunset, and try to do positive things every minute in between."
Though oceanography was his passion, he went on to study law at Otago University in Dunedin. Realising it wasn’t his calling, he switched to MSc in Environmental Policy at Oxford University.
He remembers receiving a piece of life-defining advice from a friend at the time. "(He said) ‘Life is your game, no one else’s. The buck starts and stops with you. Dream big and work hard to chase those dreams down. It’s on you’. So I took the advice and have been working in my passion ever since – marine policy and conservation."
During his tenure at EAD, Winston has helped develop sustainable fisheries policy; completed a comprehensive fisheries survey of the UAE waters of the Gulf spending over 250 days at sea; worked on aquaculture policy development; caught turtles and satellite-tagged Green turtles that have travelled all the way to Oman, nested, and returned to Butinah (a first for science in the region); authored international IUCN Fishers Knowledge Guidelines; and made nature documentaries for EAD.
A Royal Geographical Society Fellowship, he is also considered a thought leader in international environmental policy and climate change, and is a recepient of two Al Dana Pearl awards for his contributions to the emirate.
Sea and its creatures are not his only passion. Winston is also an author of New Zealand history, having written about a potential Spanish and Portuguese discovery of New Zealand prior to the official recorded discovery voyage by the Dutch. His book Conquistador Puzzle Trail was added to the online encyclopedia of New Zealand, praised by the Spanish and Portuguese governments and translated by the Spanish Foreign Office into Spanish.
He has also written two historical fiction novels on the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s: Flames Flicker and Greenstone Trail.
In 2018, he was chosen as an Ambassador of the EAD to complete the Sir Robert Swan Leadership and Climate Change Course on the International Antarctic Expedition. (Sir Robert Swan was the first person to set foot on both the north and south poles.) He also went on to win the supreme Sir Robert Swan Leadership Award for his contributions to the expedition, notably for his use of solar energy to deliver a message of unity, hope and action to the world in solar lights from Antarctica.
The film that Winston directed and co-presented on the Antarctic expedition, Zayed’s Antarctic Lights, won a World Medal at the prestigious New York Festivals TV and Film awards and is available on Emirates and Etihad flights.
"One of my favourite experiences has been directing and producing marine policy documentaries at EAD. I believe in film as a key policy environmental change mechanism. Some of our notable films are Our Sea Our Heritage on the UAE’s fishery; Zayed’s Antarctic Lights with a really exciting one in the pipeline called Wild Abu Dhabi: The turtles of Al Dhafra," he says.
Winston has always been inspired by people who follow their passion, live positive and have environmental values and lead by example by taking consistent and relentless positive action. Growing up, it was the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Sir Peter Blake. He feels Steve Irwin was an amazing man who changed the way the world looks at reptiles and wildlife. "His passion was irrepressible. And more recently, Dr Jane Goodall, who redefined how we looked at animals and then inspired a generation of youth to always have hope and believe they could change the world."
At EAD, he is inspired by managing director Razan Al Mubarak (a nominee for IUCN President) and secretary general Dr Shaikha A Dhaheri. "Both were behind some of the most ambitious reintroduction programmes in the world – reintroducing extinct in the wild Scimitar-horned Oryx back to their rangelands in Chad. Our executive director of biodiversity Ahmed Al Hashmi is the most passionate and team-orientated manager you could ask for," he adds. "We have some outstanding youth marine leaders as well – Maitha and Shamsa Al Hameli – who work on marine species and fish; and our regional turtle champion Hind Al Ameri who works on turtles."
Married and with four children, his wife Lucy Jones is a teacher and former Arabian Gulf rugby captain. When not protecting the environment, Winston can be seen on the rugby field and has even represented the UAE Rugby National Team at the World Cup Qualifiers in 2017.
The children, aged 2 to 10 years old, are also budding environmentalists, who have joined on whale shark watches and Hawksbill turtle releases too.
"My five-year-old son Zac loves Whale Shark Watch. He is an early riser and has been coming with me outdoors – it has been special father-son time seeing his wonder and admiration for whale sharks. We also have a rescue dog Roxy – she is amazing in the desert."
Since his stint with the sharks is over, Winston is now thinking of suitable names for them when they visit next year. "Some of the names I heard people in the community use include Wally (after the book, Wally the Whale) or Orion because of the beautiful spots like the constellation, or Poseidon after the Greek god of the sea or even Winston," he smiles.
"I think if they come back next year perhaps we will have the community pick out a name for them."
After the team felt the whale sharks had moved on and his life had returned to normal, Winston got an urgent call from a friend. "It was nearly 10 days after we thought the sharks had gone, but my friend claimed he had spotted one in the Al Raha Canal, and that he was worried because a boat had driven past. I drove home, and right on sunset, skateboarded the 200m to the canal. I looked over the edge at the canal, and there in front of me, right there, was our whale shark. I got goose bumps! I ran along and climbed down the ladder. He passed, saw me, came back again, circled the blue polo wearing amphibian, then swam off determinedly.
"I think he was saying goodbye. That was a few weeks ago now and we haven’t seen him since. Maitha, Shamsa and Hind tease me that he had come to say goodbye. Who knows! But I did whisper to him to come back next year!"