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Humans of #UNLITTER

Max, Shark Conservationist

By Max Kushner

Man scuba diving.

Ocean conservation and fighting for our oceans has been at the core of my life since I was 5 years old. I grew up watching “The Crocodile Hunter” which featured Steve Irwin traveling around Australia and showcasing so many magnificent creatures, some of which have been deemed dangerous. An episode aired about the Banded Sea Krait which is my first memory of the ocean which I still remember to this day. Ever since I fell in love with the ocean at 5 years old I had wanted to go see it for myself which I was finally able to do at 8 years old when my family took a vacation to Akumal, Mexico. During my first snorkel in the

ocean with my father, I saw a Southern Stingray and one of the most dangerous animals in the ocean, the Blue Ringed Octopus. At the time I had no clue how deadly the animal in front of me was as I reached out to try and touch it because I didn’t know any better. At a dive shop two hours later, I found out that octopus had enough venom to kill 26 adult humans. I learned that even though the ocean is a beautiful place, you must respect it and should not go around trying to touch animals that just want to be left alone. Expressing the feeling of being in the ocean for the first time and seeing how unbelievable it was is a feeling that I will never forget and still struggle to express how happy it made me. I fully believe there are people who are born with a purpose and mine is to educate about and protect the oceans.

As I grew up my love for the ocean only grew as did my involvement. During my junior year of high school I moved to Huntington Beach, California where I got my open water scuba certification. Scuba diving had been a dream of mine that had previously been unachievable due to living in landlocked states and being unaware that you can in fact dive there in lakes and queries. My first dives were in Corona Del Mar, California where all I saw were some sand dollars and little else, which made me to see the entire ocean. In my senior year I was able to gain my advanced open water scuba certification where I got to dive in the kelp forests of Catalina. In college I became rescue diver certified which gave me a taste of what being a dive professional was like. Working all throughout my senior year of college, I have been able to complete my Padi Divemaster internship and earn my first professional scuba certification. Working as a Divemaster has been really rewarding being able to work with students completing various scuba classes and really help them grow as divers. I have been able to see so many absolutely beautiful animals such as manta rays, dolphins, eagle rays, nudibranchs, and so many other species. Being able to interact and dive with manta rays really is a life changing experience, they are some of the most majestic and graceful creatures in the ocean. A personal favorite species of mine to look for is nudibranchs as there is such a wide variety of them in the Hawaiian islands and they can be quite difficult to find which makes seeing them so rewarding. Nearly every dive professional that I know absolutely loves looking for nudibranchs so keep your eyes out and you might just find one! With all of my experiences, I realized that I valued Empowering those around me by teaching them to scuba dive. The gift of seeing students take their first breaths underwater is a feeling I always enjoy and being able to point out a cool fish or a turtle and seeing their eyes light up is what pushes me to combine conservation and diving as much as possible because they do go hand in hand. Divers have a responsibility to help conserve and protect the reefs that they dive on as they are the ones that see these places the most and understand what they have to lose if these reefs die off. I have been able to dive some very popular sites where I have seen reefs impacted by bleaching which have been pretty hard to see. However, there are still some very healthy reefs I have been able to dive here and I really encourage people to go dive and snorkel on healthy reefs to see what ocean conservation is fighting for.

Conservation has managed to become a more important part of my life than I could ever imagine at a time that I hardly expected it to. As covid hit during my freshman year of college in the Spring of 2020, I was forced to go home from school at UH Manoa on the island of O’ahu. Having to return home left me unsure of the path I was to take in life, as my aspiration of becoming a marine biologist momentarily appeared unattainable. I enrolled in a community college, and tried to find what I could do away from the


A stingray swimming.

After some time of being home I moved in with a friend from college in Colorado Springs where I worked at a golf course and had no connection to the ocean for a period of time. Being so far away from the ocean was difficult and I had gotten bored with where my life was at, which led me to start a TikTok account (@maxconservationtalks) to share the plethora of knowledge I had gained on conservation and marine biology over the years. Shark conservation has been at the forefront of my life for as long as I can remember and having the ability to talk about it to thousands of people was the coolest part of this. I had a comment where a high school student said that they were doing a science report for one of their classes based on a shark finning video that I made. The entire point of my TikTok was to create a place where people could learn about the ocean and seeing a comment such as this meant the world to me.

Unbeknownst to me, creating this TikTok account would begin an ongoing project that I continue to develop even after two years.In February 2021, I uploaded a video addressing shark finning, which unexpectedly gained over 300,000 views and propelled my follower count to reach 20,000 in a few days. As someone who had been exceedingly introverted and reserved throughout most of my life, having one of my videos viewed by such a vast audience instilled me with the confidence to voice my opinions on what I deemed truly significant. With each video, I grew increasingly self-assured and inventive with my content, which ultimately led me to reach out to Madison Stewart of Project Hiu in the hopes of collaborating with individuals I admired. We scheduled a phone call to discuss managing the TikTok account for Project Hiu. The meeting proved to be a success, and I was granted access to the account, allowing me to connect my dreams of really being involved in meaningful conservation efforts with Project Hiu.

Stingrays swimming

Following the success I had there I reached out to Andre Borell who directed the documentary Envoy: Shark Cull. After meeting Andre I was able to begin running this account and had success as well spreading the world about what is going on in Australia. I was able to spread the message of the documentary and raise awareness for shark culling in Australia to a large number of people who had never known it existed. Many of the interactions I had in comments were quite shocking as to what is going on and people really wanted to support ending the culls.

It's important to mention that many individuals pursue a career in marine conservation because they hold a deep passion for the work and its impact. If you are considering marine science, be sure to consider whether conservation is something you genuinely love and want to make a difference in. It's a question everyone should ask themselves, as those who truly wish to make a positive impact in the world must take action to do so. In any field really being passionate about the message you are sharing with the world is important and having the knowledge to back up what you say can make your words so much more impactful.

The #UNLITTER movement strives to motivate individuals to adopt a positive and sustainable lifestyle. It emphasizes the significance of daily actions and encourages people to inspire those around them. Promoting conservation can be done from the comfort of your own home and simply talking to friends or family can start an important cascade effect of conservation knowledge being passed around. Encouraging people to look into different online resources on how to be more sustainable can be impactful and truly inspire others to continue to do more for the planet.

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