Meet the man behind Wembury's citizen science project

A tagged eggcase lit from behind reveals the embryo

Meet John Hepburn. For two years he has been tagging catshark egg cases around Wembury Point, reporting his findings to the Shark Trust to further our understanding of these sea creatures.


John Hepburn frequently dives at Wembury Point
John Hepburn frequently dives at Wembury Point

Where did your interest in marine conservation begin?

I used to be in the Navy and always had an interest in the sea. I used to value sea life in terms of what I could eat, but since diving in UK waters I’m more interested to learn about the creatures themselves.

I’ve snorkelled at Wembury for over ten years, and when I started volunteering with Wembury Marine Centre in 2003, I realised there’s so much to learn about what lives here. There are some really exotic looking sea creatures around, like nudibranchs, or sea slugs, which come in all sorts of strange shapes and colours.

Why did you want to study the egg cases?

I saw the mermaid’s purses on dives and was curious to know how long they take to hatch. It turns out that no-one really knows, because research typically happens in aquariums and may not reflect wild behaviour. So, with support from the Shark Trust, I decided to try and find out.

It’s thought that there are catshark hatcheries in Looe and St Michael’s Mount. In time, they may learn from our research at Wembury and adopt something similar to monitor their own egg cases.

If you’re visiting Wembury, you can help by reporting any egg cases you spot to the Shark Trust, especially if it has a tag.

A tagged eggcase lit from behind reveals the embryo
A tagged eggcase lit from behind reveals the embryo

How else can people help, even at home?

By thinking about what you throw away. Plastic is a huge problem for our oceans, and littering causes a lot of harm to wildlife on land and in the sea. Flushing things in the toilet that you shouldn’t will end up in the sea, too. So being responsible about what, and how, you throw things away is a great place to start.

Also, you can buy sustainable fish that has been caught ethically. The Good Fish Guide from the Marine Conservation Society is helpful for this. There’s even an app to help you choose in shops and restaurants.

If someone wanted to start their own citizen science project, what advice do you have?

Speak to the groups that relate to your topic. When I approached the Shark Trust they were so enthusiastic and helpful, and the same can be said of the other conservation groups too. Projects like this can make a big difference in a small way, so if you’ve got an idea – go for it!

Where is your favourite place to spot marine life?

In the whole world? Antarctica. I’ve been lucky enough to spot dolphins and whales, including humpback, minke, and killer whales there.

In the UK, it’s Wembury Point. It’s particularly good for marine wildlife, because the rock structures make it quite sheltered. The Mewstone is also great for the birds to have a haven. The National Trust has done a brilliant job with the area, it would have been much worse off without their care.

And what’s your favourite marine fact?

The sea squirt is more closely related to humans than it is to most of the marine life you’ll find, like starfish or crab. 

Diving for catshark eggcases at Wembury Point
Diving for catshark eggcases at Wembury Point

If you’d like to discover the weird and wonderful creatures around Wembury, then you can join our rockpooling events or try it yourself with our rockpooling information. You can also look out for egg cases on our strandline walk at any time of year.