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Jul 27, 2015 2:27 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

A Teenager Who Makes Sharks Her Business

Alexandra DiGiacomo and a fellow diver holding a stuffed whale shark in Fiji. Alexandra DiGiacomo
Jul 29, 2015 9:27 AM

Trading in her lab coat for jeans and rainbow-colored running sneakers, Alexandra DiGiacomo seems like an average 17-year-old girl.However, thanks to that lab coat, she has traveled far beyond the halls of her high school in Ridgefield, Connecticut—with Southampton being another stop.

A typical mid-July day for Alexandra involves juggling theater rehearsal and deciding which college to attend next year, with measuring algal cultures and working to save shark populations.

Her extracurricular activities include visiting countries like Belize and Fiji to study marine biology, as well as publishing her own children’s book, “A Familiar Fin.”

“I didn’t consider that I was significantly younger than people doing this type of thing,” Alexandra said, laughing.

This summer she also does research alongside marine ecologist and conservation scientist Dr. Konstantine Rountos, through Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program. In fact, her underwater adventures began by spending summers in Quogue and on the shores of Southampton, as well as trips to Key Largo, Florida, with her family.

“I would get completely sunburned trying to snorkel all day,” Alexandra said. “I was just really curious about the water and wanting to know what was in it.”

Wishing to expand her aquatic experiences, she traveled to the Oceanic Research Center in Belize in the summer of 2013 as part of National Geographic’s Student Expedition. That was a summer that would change her life forever.

“That is where it started,” Alexandra said. “Once I understood that there were a lot of organisms that needed protection and needed human help, I kind of just got sucked in.” She said traveling has opened her eyes to the need for action, after seeing the pollution on the shores and coral reefs of Belize.

But Alexandra still had an intense fear of sharks. “I would swim in my swimming pool, and I would think a shark was going to come out of the filter—so I wouldn’t swim alone,” she joked.

With a little hesitation, and a lot of courage, Alexandra and the National Geographic team dove into the shark-infested waters of “the Great Blue Hole,” a ring-shaped coral reef approximately 40 miles off the coast of Belize. In these 410-foot-deep waters, Alexandra encountered Caribbean reef sharks. “If we got too close, they just went away,” Alexandra said. “I realized that a lot of the things I was told about sharks are wrong.”

With a change of outlook, and a little more research, she realized that shark populations around the world are being over-fished and killed for sport, with little support from humans because of the widely misunderstood nature of these creatures.

“We are taking out more sharks than we can replenish in most ecosystems,” Alexandra said. She explained that because they are a top predator, “when their populations are depleted, all of the trophic levels go out of balance,” referring other living things in the food chain—what they eat, and what eats them.

Even with headlines about attacks on swimmers in North Carolina this past June, Alexandra stands by her commitment to protect them. “If you make them out to be man-eating, evil creatures, nobody is going to care when you say they have to be protected,” she said.

While in Belize, Alexandra had the opportunity to meet and interview one of her role models: Dr. Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer. Alexandra described Dr. Earle as being a pioneer of women in marine science, as well as a major personal inspiration.

“Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you’re lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you’re in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don’t see sharks,” reads a quote from Dr. Earle that Alexandra posted on her website, savingsharksforsaferseas.com.

On her website, as well as on a blog, Alexandra offers viewers an inside look at her marine escapades, current events involving sharks and steps to ensure safer seas.

After a great experience in Belize, she decided to travel to Fiji the following summer with the program called Broadreach, which gave her a chance to swim with and study bull sharks and blacktip sharks. She recalls admiring the beauty of 40 of the supposedly aggressive bull sharks as they swam around her.

Alexandra has taught shark anatomy and basic biology to 4- and 5-year-olds at the Little Naturalists camp at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge for the past two summers. She also reads her children’s book, “A Familiar Fin,” at camps and schools.

Published in June, the book earned her the Girl Scouts “Gold Award,” which is the highest honor a Girl Scout can achieve. Alexandra has been a Scout for 12 of her 17 years.

“A Familiar Fin” is about a young boy who sets out on a quest to fight off a great white shark. After he realizes the shark is more afraid of him than he is of the shark, the two go on a tour of the sea and see the various ways sharks are killed in the ocean.

Profits from the book, which can be ordered on Amazon, go to Sharks4Kids, which provides teachers with curricula and activities to integrate shark education into science programs, as well as providing children in South Florida with firsthand marine experiences.

While deeply invested in her research and shark conservation, Alexandra still dreads the typical family dinner question: “So, where do you want to go to college?” She said is looking at schools on both coasts, but that her passion for marine biology makes the decision-making process a lot easier.

But first she is exploring what lies under the Shinnecock Bay. Alexandra’s current research allows her to learn and practice marine biology in a real lab setting, studying with graduate students and researchers well beyond her years. “There’s no time to be intimidated,” she said.

Dr. Rountos describes her as having “infectious enthusiasm” for the work they do. Together, they undertake bi-monthly trawl surveys of Shinnecock Bay, conduct laboratory experiments focused on larval fish behavior, and do computer-based literature searches as well as data entry.

This week, Alexandra will be heading to the British Virgin Islands to get her rescue diving certification with the Actionquest program. She hopes to continue her research with the Bimini Shark lab in the Bahamas, and said she would love to work with juvenile lemon sharks. She also wants to swim with great white sharks in the murky waters off South Africa.

While marine research and conservation are her main focus, come September she will be singing as captain of two a cappella groups at her high school, as well as getting ready to perform in the school musical. Her limits seem as endless as the oceans she studies.

“Alexandra is one of the top-performing summer interns that I have ever mentored,” Dr. Rountos said. “I have little doubt that she will continue to shine throughout her academic journey.”

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8k run & 3 mile walk, Agawam Park, Southampton Rotary Club fundraiser