She quits teaching to save sharks

Benita Aw Yeong The New Paper AsiaOne 23 Sep 14;

One is getting more than her feet wet to protect the environment. Another created an app to help the underprivileged.

When Miss Kathy Xu started diving with sharks, she was still a history and English teacher at a secondary school.

But during her dives, she found she had developed an emotional bond with the sharks, which prompted the 32-year-old to quit teaching.

"I realised that they were being fished and eaten at a rate that was unsustainable," she says.

Her dream was to enable the future generation to enjoy diving with sharks. So she set up The Dorsal Effect, an eco-tourism company which aims to provide an alternative - and more lucrative - livelihood to Indonesian shark fishermen.

"The fishermen in Lombok go on shark fishing trips that stretch up to 10 to 20 days each... they make only between US$50 (S$63) and US$100 per trip," says Miss Xu.

"Many of them go into debt because they need to buy bait and other supplies.

"By using their boats to take tourists out to sightsee and snorkel instead, they are killing fewer sharks and they also make a little more money."

With the help of a local photographer, who doubles as her translator, she organised the first boat trip in September last year.

Tourists pay US$120 for a one-day excursion. The fishermen, who also double as tour guides, can each make about US$150 per trip.

Miss Xu, who has never regretted her decision to quit teaching, is candid about the challenges she faces.

Her parents found it difficult at first to understand why she would leave her job for something that yields little financial returns.

"It's been a struggle to scale this business, as there are not enough visitors taking up the tours," says Miss Xu, adding that only four to eight people take up the tours each month.

She pumped most of her savings into the business but it's still in the red. She currently employs only one fisherman on a full-time basis.

She also teaches part-time in Singapore to take care of her personal and business expenses.

"There have been many times I've broken down and cried because money is so tight," she says.

"Maybe I'm stubborn, but I've not thought about giving up or setting a timeline for it to work."

Miss Xu is grateful for the help that has come her way, such as support from non-profit organisation, the Singapore International Foundation (SIF).

Last year, Miss Xu came up tops in the Young Social Entrepreneurs programme organised by SIF, which awarded her $10,000 in funding. So far, about $7,000 has been disbursed.

Aside from eco-tourism, Miss Xu also gives talks at schools on sharks and marine conservation.

"When I return to the schools, the children will tell me they remember the things I've spoken about and how they have told their parents that it's not good to each shark's fin. That keeps me going," she says.

Her dream is for The Dorsal Effect to expand to a point where people pay fishermen to tag sharks with tracking devices and to take care of them, instead of hunting the creatures.

In the meantime, she is looking forward to a group of 20 secondary school students who will be going on her eco-tourism trips during the November school holidays.