Growing up in Florida, Tina Weier dreamed of being a marine biologist on a tropical island.
“My mom has a picture book I made when I was in first grade that has a photo of me next to a giant fake shark,” she said. “I had captioned it ‘Me and my best friend, Jaws.’ ”
As Weier got older her love of the ocean evolved, and she realized she wanted to contribute to society by helping preserve the marine environment for future generations.
Today, her childhood dreams have come true. After earning a master’s degree in marine biology from USC Dornsife in 2009, she now lives in the paradisiacal Cook Islands, where she swims with sharks and works as a pearl biologist, helping the local community build a stronger, more sustainable black pearl industry.
Weier arrived in the Cook Islands for what was intended to be a six-month trip in December 2011 after spotting an online job posting for a science officer with an eco-volunteer lagoon monitoring project.
“I had never heard of the Cook Islands before so I did a Google Earth search. When I saw it was a tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific I decided I had to apply or I would never forgive myself. One month later, I was on a direct flight from Los Angeles to Rarotonga.”
Initially, however, things didn’t work out quite as she had planned.
When the lagoon monitoring project’s first expedition was indefinitely postponed, Weier found herself working as a volunteer making no money and living far from home.
“I had sold my motorcycle and given up my job and apartment in L.A.,” she said. “I had no choice but to make the most of it.”
In exchange for continuing to volunteer with a local NGO, Weier obtained her Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Divemaster certification, then participated in a month-long turtle research expedition to Palmerston Island, a coral atoll.
It didn’t take her long to realize that being in the Cook Islands was a huge opportunity for a marine scientist.
Before landing her current job, she helped a lagoon cruise company launch a reef restoration project, developed a lagoon monitoring education module for the Cook Islands Ministry of Education and aided a campaign to turn the Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone into a shark sanctuary.
In June 2012, Weier began working for the Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources, Pearl Support Division, which provides technical and management support to assist with the sustainable growth of the Cook Islands black pearl industry.
As the staff marine biologist, Weier is stationed on a remote atoll, Manihiki — the hub of the Cook Islands pearl industry. There, she works directly with pearl farmers and the community to assess their needs and develop work programs.
Weier runs the water quality monitoring program, generating weekly reports to allow farmers to adapt their practices based on environmental conditions. Her responsibilities also include completing Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping of farm areas and lines, performing annual inspections for compliance with the Manihiki Lagoon Management Plan and conducting environmental monitoring, as well as designing and implementing research trials to improve pearl quality.
She also holds monthly community meetings to present research findings and foster co-operation and works with Manihiki schools to introduce their students to science.
“Marine pearls are amazing little gems. A new pearl farmer must wait five years from their initial start-up investment to receive their first income,” Weier said.
“Because oysters require pristine environmental conditions to produce pearls, the industry itself demands conservative and environmentally friendly practices. It is a perfect example of people working sustainably and in harmony with the marine environment.”
Before moving to the Cook Islands, Weier served as first mate and education coordinator on the Tallship American Pride for three years. Run by the Children’s Maritime Foundation out of Long Beach, California, the ship provides experiential marine science education opportunities for children and teenagers. Weier designed educational activities, trained the crew and organized the day-to-day workings of the ship.
“Youth are the future decision makers of the world, if you can inspire them and get them excited then I believe you have definitely made a real difference in the world,” she said. “And there is no better way to get kids excited about the ocean than to take them sailing on a pirate ship and show them Catalina’s kelp forests.”
The tiny atoll of Manihiki, which is divided among more than 50 small islands, totals just 2.09 square miles of land. Its 204 inhabitants live an idyllic, if isolated, life.
“There are no malls, supermarkets, restaurants, cinemas, bars, doctors, dentists or bookstores. Internet is slow and expensive. There is satellite television, but only one channel can be watched at a time. So everyone watches what the telecom manager wants to watch. We don’t bother.”
Instead, Weier and her fiancé go free-diving on the tua, the outer reef, or go for walks on the motu, the small uninhabited islands ringing the lagoon.
“We spend a lot more time preparing food here, because it takes much longer to catch a fish, clean it and fillet it than it does to pick one up from the grocery store. We also have to be very creative to maintain variety.”
One of the greatest challenges Weier initially faced was the food situation. Cargo vessels bringing food stop at Manihiki irregularly once every three or four months.
“It was hard to adjust to not being able to order take-away, or be able to pop down to the grocery store when we ran out of something. After our first three months, we ran out of everything because the ship with our food on it was delayed by seven weeks. Luckily, there is a constant supply of coconuts and fish, and the people here are incredibly generous and helpful. Nobody on Manihiki ever goes hungry.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time it doesn’t even occur to me that we are missing anything. In America, day-to-day life is filled with advertising. Here there are no billboards and no commercials, no ‘haves and have-nots.’ Everyone is equal, everyone works together, shares and helps each other. There are things we don’t have, but we just don’t notice or care.
“For me, it is the realization of a lifelong dream to live in a remote island paradise and help establish sustainable relationships between people and the sea,” Weier said.
“I can’t imagine anything else I would rather be doing.”