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WDCS remembers Mandy McMath

The marine conservation world lost one of its greatest and most modest heroes last week. Dr Mandy McMath, the senior marine ecologist at CCW (the Countryside Council for Wales) passed away after a long battle with cancer.

Mandy McMath touched the lives and hearts of many of us who work on marine wildlife and we could all do a lot worse than seek to walk in her footsteps.

The news of Mandy’s death took me by surprise as a few days earlier I had exchanged emails with her and she was as wise and witty in these exchanges as ever. By then, I had heard that she would have to run her life from a wheel chair, as her cancer had resurfaced, but I did not know that her death was imminent. Perhaps she knew but chose not to share this, instead channelling her energies into positive engagement with colleagues and issues, as she had always done.

Mandy was renowned for her championship of two key causes in the marine conservation sphere: firstly, the conservation of the marine mammals in Welsh seas; and, secondly, the promotion of the role of women in conservation and science. Part of her legacy is the conservation designations that now gird the Welsh coastline. In this context, she was also a great friend and supporter of research on dolphins and seals around her beloved Bardsey Island and elsewhere in Cardigan Bay.

One of my fondest memories is sitting with Mandy on Bardsey one particularly fine sunny day at what we call the Cliff End lookout and surveying the wonderfully flat sea south across the Bay. A small group of the usually elusive Risso’s dolphins accompanied by their calves swam into view and then milled for long wonderful minutes in the waters directly below us. Clip boards with forms for essential data and cameras were forgotten, the dictaphone was dropped and cameras kicked as we both lost our professional detachment in the thrill of this rare inshore encounter. Her enthusiasm for marine wildlife was undeniably infectious.

In recent years, Mandy visited Bardsey many times and led the innovative work there using digital photography to examine how mother gray seals returned to the same coves and often the same mates each year. Several of the team from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society are on the island today and send their best wishes and join their thoughts with yours. One of Mandy’s last messages to us asked for photographs of the recently moulted seal pups, to extend this project, which of course we have been doing.

Seals have a strange status in the UK and can be the subject of human persecution. Bardsey Island is relatively remote and offers a sanctuary for them.  Mandy was one of their champions working hard to navigate the complex politics that affect them. It is not surprising that the handful of people who live on the island (who all knew her well) have already made a small salute to her memory and named a recently born seal pup there ‘Mandy’.  I think that would have made her smile. She did not like fuss and she certainly did not seek accolades (this eulogy would have made her cringe) but my goodness she deserved to be recognised as the fundamental force for marine conservation that she was, and Mandy the seal’s chances of a long and happy life in an increasingly busy and dangerous sea have certainly been improved by her namesake.

The second sphere of influence where Mandy was also an undoubted champion was more subtle, but nonetheless important, and this concerned her encouragement of the participation of women in conservation and science. Mandy recognised the many difficulties that often stopped an enthusiastic female graduate from making a career in conservation.  With a kind and encouraging word here and some subtle manipulation elsewhere she would help them along. Her influence will have been spread by them all around the world.

Over the years that I knew her she encouraged many people of both genders in their endeavours and a chat with Mandy would often serve to re-inspire and redirect even the most jaded researcher. ‘Keep going Boyo’ she would say to me and I am sure she spoke similarly to many others.

Mandy was funny. Mandy was fun. Her good humour helped many of us through difficult periods in the field, as well as in dealing with our frustrations with the authorities.  Above all, she was wonderfully wise and I am sure like many of you, I will miss being able to talk to her.

Part of what Mandy leaves behind her is a body of papers and reports which bear her name as author or project manager, but her influence is much greater than this. Put simply, Mandy significantly nurtured marine conservation in Wales, and also far beyond. One example of the ‘far beyond’ being her contributions to the work of the European Cetacean Society which also extends its condolences. Recently she helped to establish the European Cetacean Society’s Conservation Prize and in doing so also ensured the Prize’s strong focus on education.

In what turned out to be our last email exchanges, when I was initiating a visit to see her, Mandy commented that the people at CCW could not have been more supportive of her in her illness and how proud she was of her team. Perhaps I should have seen a hint in the tense she used in this thought that she shared with me.

In response to my comment: ‘Those are some tough life cards you have been dealt…’ her reply was characteristically wise:

“The trick now is to make the most of the hand dealt.”

As I said, we could all do a lot worse than try to walk in Mandy’s shoes – striving to adopt a similar positive attitude and her good humour, being down to earth but still inspirational, and at least attempting the wonderfully wise support to friends and colleagues that Mandy gave so generously. 

WDCS wishes all of Mandy’s family and friends well at this sad time. It was a pleasure and privilege to know her.