I love sharing the stories of women who make a difference and most of us do in one way or another. I am sharing my interview with the fascinating Andrea who really can claim to be Queen of the Mantas. I hope you too will find a love for the Manta after reading her powerful story.

Manta

Please tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years

The legendary Sylvia Earle was a huge inspiration for me growing up and I’ve been interested in diving before I an even remember. My mom tells me that I always said I wanted to dive and learn about sharks since I was about 5 years old. I never wavered in my passion for the underwater world and was steadfast that this was something I wanted to do.

I learned to dive very young and became PADI certified in Monterey, California, aged 12 – but only because they wouldn’t let me qualify any earlier. I was actually really annoyed that I had to wait until I was 12 before I could become a diver.

What did you study and why?

Growing up, I was obsessed with sharks and I always knew this was what I wanted to study. I studied biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) and got my Masters at the University of Queensland, Australia, before moving straight to Africa to do my PhD work aged 23. I was thinking about studying great white sharks which is why I’d been drawn to Australia and Africa – those are destinations where there were a lot of great whites. When I was in South Africa, I suddenly realised that you mainly study white sharks from the surface or from the boat and I didn’t want my research to be so disconnected from them. I wanted to be immersed in the water with my subject and I wasn’t satisfied with having to research species from the surface.

I had the opportunity to do some assessments on manta rays for the IUCN. Like pretty much every diver, I loved manta rays. But, I didn’t know anything about them so I tried to do some research on them and I found there was very little information out there. It was so intriguing to me that one of the largest animals in the ocean was unstudied. Ultimately, I had to list manta rays as Data Deficient on the IUCN Redlist.

What led you to going to Mozambique and why did you stay?

I was asked to do some exploratory diving in Mozambique and I was a part of a lot of those expeditions. As we started to explore the coastline for diving, I was absolutely blown away. I recognised it as a really special location. There were manta rays everywhere. As I seemed to have stumbled upon this amazing location for manta rays and no-one had studied them before, I decided I should take on the challenge of studying them. I’m so glad this opportunity fell into my lap because it really did alter the course of my life. The more I dived with these amazing creatures, the more I realised how wonderful they are and it has led to me becoming a global ambassador for manta rays and fighting for their protection across the world.

Why do you care about manta rays?

Since I’ve had the opportunity to study manta rays, I’ve fallen in love with this enchanting species. They’re just so different to other fish and are really curious around divers: they’ll come up to you and interact with you which is really special. If you were able to join me on a dive with manta rays and see for yourself, you’d understand why I’m so passionate about them in an instant!

Tell us about the bigger picture in how your work helps to protect the rest of the ocean ecosystem

Marine megafauna – or “ocean giants” – are vital to the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem and also serve as a good indicator as to the health of the ocean. If there’s something wrong with the population of the apex predator in a marine environment, the other species in the ecosystem will suffer too. So, when we protect ocean giants, we also achieve an umbrella protection for a wide variety of marine species.

Take, for example, a simple marine ecosystem where the shark is the apex predator, feeding on grouper which feed on herbivores which, in turn, eat algae. When there are fewer sharks to regulate the number of grouper, the grouper population will grow and, because a larger population of fish needs more food, will decimate the number of herbivores. With fewer herbivores, the algae will grow and take over the coral, putting the ecosystem out of balance and causing problems for its survival.

What is your greatest achievement?

The highlight of my career would have to be when I was featured in the BBC’s Andrea: Queen of Mantas in 2009. I was excited on the first night when over 2.8 million people tuning in to watch my story about mantas because I felt there were so many people who knew nothing about mantas before that evening who stopped to watch, listen and learn. I was contacted by hundreds of people the night the show aired and it was such a fantastic feeling to know I had reached the public and inspired people to learn about the fascinating manta ray and what can be done to protect them.

If you had to choose to give up diving or give up photography, what would you do?

Wow, that’s a hard question! Almost an impossible one. My camera really has become an extension of my arm. I rarely go underwater without it. Being able to capture image based data and develop media to create awareness about the animals we work on has defined my career. I am not sure how I would carry on without this tool. Having said that, the underwater world is my life. It goes beyond just passion, it is the only place where I really feel at home. Anytime I am injured, landlocked or unable to dive, I really suffer. It is where I recharge and where I find balance. It is unfathomable to imagine not regularly being underwater for work or for play, so yes I would certainly give up photography before I gave up diving.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope for the future is that I can help safeguard mantas globally and try to protect some of their most important habitats from negative human impact. Through my science and photography, and the work of my team at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, I’m hoping to share my love for mantas and inspire people around the world to fall in love with these wonderful creatures. If people could experience the underwater world, they would not only appreciate our oceans so much more but also understand why it’s so important that we protect them.

Who supports you with your work?

I’m a co-founder of the marine conservation NGO Marine Megafauna Foundation where I have a talented team across the globe supporting me with my work. MMF’s vision is a world in which marine life and humans thrive together and we aspire to attain it by saving threatened marine life.

I am also a National Geographic Explorer and I am certainly proud to represent and work with this society as an explorer and conservationist. They provide an excellent platform allowing me to disseminate my work broadly and connect the public with our focal species.

Ultimately I am fortunate to have an explorer family. My husband Janneman Conradie is a conservationist, pilot and cameraman who travels the world with me along with our two year old daughter. There is certainly no substitute for having the support and shared passion of your family.

Are there any websites you’d like to recommend to our readers?

Manta

 

  • Manta Matcher is a great website for Citizen Scientists. If you’ve been scuba diving, snorkelling or swimming with manta rays, you can upload your photos to Manta Matcher to help scientists identify individual mantas and learn more about their behaviour.

  • The Gills Club is the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s education initiative which harnesses girls’ passion for sharks by giving them the opportunity to engage in projects focused on making an impact on the way sharks are perceived by the public and inspiring ocean conservation.

  • Sharks4Kids is a great education tool which aims to create a new generation of shark advocates through games, activities, info sheets and lessons that teachers can integrate into their science programmes.

For more information about Andrea, please visit: http://www.queenofmantas.com/about-andrea/

Mummy in a Tutu

When it comes to raising children, there’s a lot of things they have to learn for themselves. You do all you can to make sure they’re ready for major events and experiences, but ultimately, it’s up to them. And one of these such experiences is university, which is a huge undertaking for anyone to handle.

So all you can do in return is advise them, and give them your best advice. If there’s someone in your family who knows absolutely that university is for them, it’s time to do your best to prepare them for standing on their own two feet. Whilst you’re only going to be on the end of the phone whenever they run into some trouble, you can’t jump in to conjure up a solution for them (no matter how much you want to!).

With that in mind, below are some of the biggest questions you should talk through with your child before they head off.

University

Meeting time! (Credit)

Whether They Should Work as Well

Working whilst working towards a degree isn’t something a lot of people would advocate to do. However, sometimes the loan itself isn’t enough for your needs, and getting a part time or side job would pay your way a lot easier. Make sure you talk about this with your kid before they head off by themselves, as a second opinion and some reassurance would really help here.

How to Pay for Their Car

That’s if they’re going to be driving at all, which sometimes is the wrong way to commute when it comes to university towns and navigating campus. On the one hand they could simply purchase a railcard or a bus pass, but on the other hand, if they have the wheels available, they could make a real go of it.

However, it’s not just the petrol they’re going to have to worry about. There’s the insurance as well, and in a town full of young people on nights out, it’s definitely going to come in handy! Head to GoCompare to find student friendly plans and considerations, and get the best quote for the loan your child is on.

How They’re Going to Feed Themselves

Being able to buy food each week to stock your cupboards up with is one thing, another is being able to arrange and cook those foods into an edible format! It’s crazy how many students are living from noodle cup to soup packet because they don’t know the nutrients that are actually available to them!

Go through some recipes right now, make sure your child has the basics down, and even give them a copy of Grandma’s fabled cookbook. Anything is going to help here, and you don’t want your avid student making themself sick over improperly cooked chicken!

Helping your kid to make up their mind about some big decisions is as far as your mentoring should go, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep quiet whenever you see them about to make a mistake!

.Recently I have watched Emmerdale on the television and seen how the character Belle is hearing voices. An old friend used to experience this and is one of the most impressive people I know because he used that experience to go on to help others in a kind and caring way. Today I am sharing Molly’s story where she shares generously and openly about what it feels like when you are hearing voices together with  who has supported her over the years and how she now runs Exhale to help other people with mental health difficulties.

Hearing Voices

 

Please tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years

Whenever I think of my childhood I have very conflicting emotions. I was a very lucky child in many ways. I had a very loving family and extended family, I didn’t go without, I got a good education and I had friends.

My mum and dad divorced when I was four. I spent the weekdays with my mum and my 2 older brothers, and the weekends with my dad. When I was little I was worried about house fires, burglary, black holes, carbon monoxide, cancer, my mum leaving and not coming back. I also had voices in my head who were being really mean to me. It took over my life.
At this stage, my relationship with my mum wasn’t very good. I spent most of my childhood angry at my mum for divorcing my dad and leaving him alone. I was angry at her for not spending time with me and for always working. She would be working instead of picking me up from school like the other mums were, she didn’t come to plays or sports days. So I didn’t speak to her about what was going on in my mind because I was adamant she didn’t care. I was too young to understand that she was depressed and only working all those hours to provide for us.
Despite having friends and family, I didn’t tell anyone about how scared of the voices I was or how bad my anxiety was and so it really did start to eat at me and wear me down.
When I look back at my childhood all I really remember is being scared 24/7 and having a voice in my head (I called him Winston) telling me that I wasn’t ever going to be good enough.
Once I hit thirteen, I think things took a real turn for the worse for me.
I was lying and faking illness to get out of school because I was suffering really badly with paranoia. I really believed that people were talking about me in school and I could always hear them whispering. The voice in my head said it was always about me and it terrified me.
I would fake tonsilitis to get out of school. My attendance at middle school was 24%, shockingly low. I never told anyone because I thought they’d be angry at me for lying about being ill, or my friends would laugh at me or tell me that I was being dramatic. I didn’t eat much, I could go for a week or two just eating flapjack or smoothies because the voice in my head made me worry about throwing it up or not being able to swallow.
I felt very alone as a teenager. Despite having good friends and a close family, I felt so alone. I had panic attacks regularly over my health, I’d pull my hair and pick my skin, I barely slept. I had to sleep with my mum a lot just to get a half decent sleep. I felt like I needed to be defined by what people thought of me so if a guy didn’t think I was pretty or someone called me stupid, it really knocked me back.
I didn’t have an ounce of confidence: my nose was too big, my hair was too thin, my boobs were too small, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t funny enough.
I hated school. I never wanted to be there, but nobody ever found out because I had really learnt how to pretend that everything was okay and that I was ‘normal’.
Many people say that they’d love to go back to being a child or a teenager, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do it for a million pounds.
How have your mental health issues affected your life?
I’ve struggled predominantly with health anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, depression and general anxiety. This has all really had an impact on my education, my relationships and my self-confidence. It has really impacted who I am and how I talk to people. I also have endometriosis, which increases my anxiety quite substantially.
Who supports you?
My family are very good and both my mum and dad have suffered from their own fair share of mental health issues. My dad has panic attacks and worries about his health while my mum suffered from depression and anxiety, so they know and understand how it is. My mum is my safety net, mother and best friend all in one. We’ve gone from having a very poor relationship to being as thick as thieves. She has sat with me through so many panic attacks, listened to me ramble on as I have worried about yet another cancer, and she always answers the phone even if it’s 2 am in the morning. My mum is my rock.
At school, however, I had Ms Duggan. She was the only person who really knew how bad things were for me at 13. She took me under her wing. If the paranoia was too bad, I’d do my work in her office. She’d listen to me every time. She gave me a safe space to go to. I honestly think Ms Duggan is part of the reason why I am still here.
I also have my boyfriend who I met three years ago. He’s my anti-depressant. He drops anything and everything the moment I start to breathe funny. He knows a panic attack is coming before I do or that I’m anxious before I do. Countless nights he has held me as I shake violently from a panic attack. I can cry, scream, throw up, kick and shake so hard that even he is being thrown around, but he stays calm, holds me and does what he knows helps me. He picks up the phone each time and listens to me even if he should be working. Whenever I’m low and refusing to get out of bed, the first thing he says is, “What do you need?”
He has become my safe place. Now, if I’m anxious, I just need to look at him and it helps because I know whatever I’m anxious/panicking about can’t hurt me if he is there. He’ll moan at me for being so cheesy.
Tell us about moving away from home
I studied journalism at London Metropolitan University. It wasn’t easy. I went to a London university to throw me out of my comfort zone. I knew if I stayed in Stoke then I’d never deal with my mental health because I’d always have my safety nets. So I went to London, where I had absolutely no safety net.
It was hard. There were times when, after I had come home for a visit, my mum would have to force me to get on the train as I cried my eyes out. A large problem was when I got to university I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was someone with no confidence and anxiety, but I didn’t know who I was, what I believed in or who I wanted to be. I was very naive. But, I met a bunch of women who were like no women I’d ever met before.
The girls on my university course were ballsy, fierce, opinionated, strong, independent, loud, demanding career women. If they didn’t agree with something, they’d stand right up and say it. They weren’t afraid to argue their point or say what they thought. They weren’t afraid to tell someone when they were wrong. They stood up for themselves. They weren’t afraid to brag about how awesome they were because they knew they were. They weren’t letting themselves be defined by their money, looks, men or what people thought of them. What defined them was their intelligence, their confidence, their sassiness and this sisterhood they had formed with one another.
I remember thinking that’s the type of person I want to be. I didn’t want to be the anxious and paranoid little girl who was too scared to share her opinion and too frightened to stand up for herself. I wanted to be like these girls.
After time, these girls, who are now award nominated journalists or starting their own businesses and using their voices for the greater good, made me realise that I was a lot more like them than I thought and that I didn’t have to be scared to tell the voice in my head to shut up. They reminded me of how brave and strong and empowered I was.
So university, despite being a challenge, was where I found who I was and that helped me immensely when it came to dealing with my mental health.
Have you ever considered suicide?
Suicide is something I only started to talk about recently.
At 14 I was suicidal. I was so tired of being me. I didn’t want to be anymore because it wasn’t fun and I was hurting so much. So I Googled the nicest way to die. I was sure I was doing the right thing, I thought everyone would be better off without me and that I was a hindrance more than I was benefiting anyone.
I made a plan and I was going through with it. I went all the way with my plan and as I started to go through with it the voice in my head told me, and I remember hearing it clear as day, “If you go through with this, your dad will find you and he will never be able to live with it. Just hold on a little bit longer.” It was a shock. Firstly, because it was right and secondly because the voice that had been tormenting me for so long had saved me.
I realised that if I did that to myself then I’d basically be ending my dad’s life too. I didn’t want to do that. I threw myself to the floor and threw up. I was so sad and scared. Stupidly, I pulled on my PJs and went downstairs to my dad with no intention of telling him. He probably wouldn’t believe me, I thought. I should have told him exactly what I was about to do, what I wanted to do and why I stopped. That would have been the smart thing to do.
Instead, I just sat next to him and watched the rest of the film he was watching. I never said a word to anyone about it until six years later. I held on to it. I really wish I hadn’t because I needed help, but I was too scared and embarrassed to ask for it.
What do you think triggered your mental health issues?
I think my mum and dad divorcing really had an impact on me.
I was a really lonely child and spent a lot of time in my own head. I also didn’t know who I was. I was always wanting to know what my purpose was and I didn’t.
I realised at a young age that I wasn’t a partier, a sporty person, a socializing person, an academic person, I wasn’t musical or political. I didn’t know who I was at all.
But, and I think this goes for a lot of young people who are suffering from their mental health issues, the divorce might have triggered the anxiety but not talking about it or getting help for it was like pouring petrol onto a flame. The more I hid it, the more things helped the fire grow and nothing was being done to put it out before it was too late and it had spread throughout my entire life.
How is your life now?
Things are better now than they have ever been before. I’m not cured and I don’t for one second ever think I will be cured of it, but I am happier than ever.
I still have panic attacks, I’m still anxious, but I’m not embarrassed about it. In fact, I will talk about it to anyone. I don’t care anymore. I have been through and dealt with a lot and I no longer look at that as me being weak. In fact, I think I’m pretty f***ing  strong!
I will talk about mental health and my experiences to anyone because I don’t want another young kid to grow up hiding their struggles and fears to the point where they also see no other option than suicide.
I was lucky that I stopped. Not every person in the same situation does. I don’t want a young person to commit suicide because they’re too scared to talk to their parents or embarrassed that kids at school will take the mick because they’re struggling with their mental health. Not having that fear has helped me grow and get more confident in my own mind.
I started hanging around with people who had a positive impact on me. I started standing up for myself. I cut out all the things that I knew were bad for me (alcohol, caffeine, people) and I started working on things that are good for me. I still have my days where I don’t want to get out of bed or eat. I still call my mum in a panic attack because I think I have cancer. I still shout for my boyfriend when I am having a panic attack, I still can’t get on a bus without freaking out but that’s okay. I’m working on it. I’m working on myself and each day I get a little further.
I’m not an anxious person, I’m a person with anxiety.
Describe your work with Exhale
So I started Exhale to help others who might be or have gone through similar things.
I hate how all these charities are saying, ‘We need to talk about mental health!’ abd  ‘we need to feel comfortable talking about mental health like we do physical health”. Yes, we do, but it’s not just enough to say it. People aren’t going to talk about mental health without being given a comfortable and safe place to do so. For most people, talking about their mental health isn’t going to happen overnight. We need to build up their confidence first and get rid of that sense of loneliness. It’s not a switch that we can easily flick on and off whenever we want to. We’re not going to talk so openly about mental health when there still isn’t a viable environment to do so. That’s like saying, ‘We all need to go plastic free!”. Yes, we do, but nobody will go plastic-free if they aren’t given viable plastic-free options to do so.
Exhale was formed to do that. I run completely free day events dedicated to mental health in all forms. They’re family-friendly and accessible to everyone.
Our slogan is ‘shattering stigma” | building communities’. We encourage people to listen to as many talks as possible. We invite them to talk to one another and make friends. We encourage them to get talking, even if it is to a stranger. At our events, when someone says ‘I understand what you’re going through’ they truly do mean it. Our attendees have got such sad back stories and yet they’re all determined to help other people first. So Exhale brings them together in one space to help one another and it works.
At our last event, one woman said she had never said ‘I am depressed’ to anyone before, but she said it to a stranger that day. She didn’t say anything else, but she didn’t need to. She had taken the step to talking about mental health and that’s fantastic.
Charities, GPs, therapists are helping to shatter the stigma and helping people cope with their mental health, but I truly believe that when all is said and done, the best help will come from the communities who have been through it and are fighting their anxiety, depression, eating disorder, PTSD, OCD, paranoia, BPD, pack attacks, BDD, schizophrenia on a daily basis.
You see it already, there are large communities on Twitter of people who are dealing with all sorts of mental health issues helping one another. One of them might Tweet, “I’m feeling really anxious today, don’t want to get out of bed.” And they’ll get a quick response of, “You can do it. You’ve done it before. I do this when I feel like you do…” It’s amazing. It’s strangers coming together and building support networks.
What would you do if Exhale had funding?
If Exhale had more funding our events would be bigger and we’d move around the country running them. We want to be huge and most of all, we want it to stay free. Nobody. should pay to talk about mental health.
What would you say to a woman who has a spark of an idea but lacks confidence?
 If you believe in something so much, do something about it. We’ve all got the power to make a difference. Whether you do something little or you go all out and do something huge, do something.
What book would you recommend to another woman?
The Chimp Paradox – an amazing book. You learn a lot about the mind with that book.
Huge thanks to Molly for sharing her story so courageously and telling it as it is. This young woman will move mountains one baby step at a time and I look forward to following her journey.
My Random Musings
JakiJellz
The Pramshed

I thought I would share some tips on hosting a superhero birthday party partly because I once scored huge Brownie points with my son when we did a Spiderman one. Everyone loves a superhero and I think it often says a lot about a child as to which one they choose. They are also equally suitable for girls and boys so here’s to amazing superhero parties for our children.

Fancy dress

Fancy dress is always fun. If you are doing a superhero party I would suggest leaving it as quite an open theme rather than just going with BatMan or whoever. This puts less pressure on the parents of your guests and that’s important as we all know. There are so many costumes available from supermarkets, fancy dress specialists and of course you can  make your own with a bit of imagination.

Invitations

Invitations on superhero themes are easy to find in stores or if you are a crafty mum you could make your own. If you are super-clever make the invitation into a mask too so that if parents don’t manage to get organised, their child will at least have a mask to wear at the party. On the same subject, if you get some material in relevant colours, you can soon rustle up some make-do capes.

Food and drink

I guess one trick here is to make the drinks relevant to your child’s favourite superhero. As daft as it sounds Halloween ideas can work well here as they often involve vibrant and occasionally gruesome colours. Pinterest is a real ally to parents when it comes to playing with ideas for superhero party refreshments.

I think a superhero party is a really clever way to encourage healthier eating too. You can explain quite subtly that a superhero gets extra powers if they eat good stuff like fruit and vegetables. You could even explain how the cakes have hidden powers if you use alternatives such as beetroot, carrots and courgettes in your baking. Of course it depends how much work you want to do and you may just decide to stock up on party food from the supermarket.

Cake

I always make cakes for my children’s birthdays. I think it is important to do this whether you are a good baker or not. You really can stir love into a cake methinks. It means so much to them when they know you took time out of increasingly busy days to make something yummy just for them.  I was perplexed when my son asked me for a Spiderman cake but the Internet is our friend with YouTube videos giving really good ideas and clear guidance how to create something impressive. With the Spiderman cake it is all about the food colouring and the cocktail stick for the webs.

I hope I have convinced you that superhero parties are such fun and don’t forget that adults can get in on the dressing up action. Now where is my Wonder Woman costume?

Have you hosted a superhero party? How did it go?

 

 

 

My Random Musings

I need some ideas for redecorating the home we moved into a few months ago. It’s a gorgeous house but sadly the walls are death by magnolia. I hate magnolia with a passion. I have tried enhancing the walls with art and decorative plates but it is time for a proper project.

Redecorating can seem so challenging. In fact once I had a few drinks before painting my kitchen and it ended up a very dubious  shade of pink. I have no excuse as my Dad showed me how to paint properly. I used to love helping  him and remember spending evenings and weekends getting our new house ready when I was a teenager. He loved sharing his skills and stories and I was always ready to listen and learn.

My husband is not great at DIY at all. Of course, if you get the professionals in it can be a costly enterprise. The ideal is perhaps to have friends who just happen to have the skills you need. We are in a new area so don’t as yet.

Sometimes when redecorating I have gone down the wall sticker route. I remember surprising my step-daughter with a purple bedroom with stars and the like. I got in trouble as I put myself up a ladder when eight months pregnant to get the roof full of stars. I was alone in the house so it was very silly but I use the excuse that I was clearly nesting.

I should start with one room so perhaps will start on the third floor where my son hangs out. He is a cool kid so I think he would be very impressed with New York Wallpaper & Wall Murals | Wallsauce and this could set a great theme for the entire room with me adding American-themed bedding and  cushions. He will like it I am sure as his favourite T-shirt depicts New York.

Yes, that’s decided! I will just do one room at a time and see how I get on remembering not to have a tipple before I start!

Do you have plans to redecorate? Please leave a comment and let me know about your themes and colour schemes.

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