Sheree Marris is a force of nature who, by her own admission, “should’ve been born with gills, a sparkly green mermaid-esque tail and a breath-hold to rival a whale.” Just a few minutes in her company is enough to witness the passion and energy she has for the incredible diversity of life under the waves. “As long as I can remember,” she said, “I’ve been drawn to the ocean which is natural because I was born a pisces, grew up on the peninsula and my surname translates as ‘sea’. I’m really fortunate to still live on the peninsula where I can easily access some of the most beautiful and spectacular marine environments in the world.”

It’s evident the sea is like a second home to Sheree; she is a qualified marine biologist, and, as such, spends quite a bit of her time in the water, studying, observing, collecting data and experiencing marine life up close, playing her part in making our local marine habitats healthy and sustainable ecosystems. “We really do have some of the most beautiful and diverse marine habitats right on our doorstep,” she said. “Seagrass meadows, sponge gardens, rocky reefs, sandy plains. Front and back beaches that are so different in terms of their marine life. A crab migration to rival that of the Serengeti wildebeest, seapony clouds at our piers, dolphins, whales and seals with eyes so big and round it seems they are staring right into your soul.”

But it’s on land where Sheree hopes to make the greatest impact by devoting her time to educating others about the marine environments she cares so deeply about. And not just for the benefit of the millions of creatures that call the water their home, but also for those of us who live above sea level.

“Our health,” she said, “is intrinsically connected to the health of our marine environments. These environments provide food and regulate the weather but if people don’t understand or value these facts then they won’t care. That’s my mission. That’s what fills my cup. To talk to people of all ages about the magnificence of our seas and oceans and connect humans to them in a way that makes them care. To take complex scientific data and communicate it in a way that will resonate with everyday people, informing them and hopefully inspiring them to look after our bays and beaches.”

Sheree’s list of achievements is impressive. She has been awarded Young Australian of the Year and the Australian Centenary Medal for outstanding contribution to conservation and the environment; she has served on several government boards and committees and is currently the director of several marine conservation organisations; she was also the recipient of a scholarship for the Centre for Sustainable Leadership.

Sheree has gained a reputation as an expert in her field and is regularly called on for commentary and opinion by media outlets to talk about everything from Port Phillip Bay’s crab migration to coral bleaching; how males of the seahorse species get pregnant and give birth to their young; how female octopuses will sometimes strangle and eat their lovers after courtship. “I love to see my audience’s eyes boggle when I relay facts that may seem astonishing to the average person, but I do it to spark a conversation and generate interest.”

Indeed, bringing marine science to the people is Sheree’s passion, either through the media, as an educator in schools, or via other projects like documentaries and her books, of which she has authored five. One book, ‘Australia’s threatened and endangered animals’ won The Environment Award for Children’s Literature. Her full-colour, table-top book ‘Melbourne Down Under’, containing stunning photographs of Port Phillip Bay’s underwater life, has become a bestseller.

Sheree is set to release another book this December – ‘Octopuses – Underwater Wonders’-and this one is very close to her heart as it is all about her favourite marine creature. “I can understand why some people think they’re aliens because they’re definitely alien-like,” she said. “They can change colour, are jet-powered, have three hearts, a beak, and pump blue blood; they are absolutely fantastic, and I love them.”

The inspiration for the book came from a chance meeting with a stranded octopus during one of Sheree’s beach rambling walks. “I noticed a flicker of movement in a piece of plumbing pipe and to my amazement there was a mother octopus inside the pipe trying to protect her eggs. The problem was the pipe was above the high tide mark, so there was no way the mother and her eggs were going to get back into the safety of the water.

Photos Yanni & Supplied

“Then something amazing happened; the octopus started to try and roll the pipe back into the water and I was astonished and touched at how desperate this mum was to try and protect her babies. So I helped her back into the water and tried to secure the pipe to something more permanent sto ensure it didn’t get washed up on shore again.”

Sheree captured the event on her phone and posted it on social media, not thinking too much more about it until she awoke the next day to see that thousands of people had viewed the video. A few weeks later, while walking along the beach near McCrae, Sheree spotted a piece of pipe washed up on some sea grass that looked exactly like the one she had seen the octopus in previously, and it turned out that it was exactly the same one.

This time Sheree took it upon herself to take the pipe containing the mother, who Sheree now called Casey, and eggs further out into the bay and anchor them so they would not be subject to bad weather. And each day Sheree would go out and check on Casey, capturing it all on social media where thousands of views had turned into millions,-25 million and counting to be exact,-from people all around the world whose hearts were captured by the struggle of this eight-legged mum and the empathy and dedication of Sheree.

Casey’s eggs hatched but sadly she died shortly after which is the lot of an octopus mum.

“I couldn’t believe how many people were invested in Casey’s journey,” Sheree said. “I guess, like me, they were in awe of this mum who would do anything to see her babies born safely. I think Casey really touched the hearts of so many people. Especially me.”

The response to Casey’s journey also signalled to Sheree just how much people cared about the environment. “There is so much bad news out there on global warming and its effects on our marine environments and we need to hear it but not be paralysed by it. That’s why I prefer to concentrate on the positives. I firmly believe we have the collective power to shape the world we want to live in, and we can do it with small things like picking up rubbish before it ends up in the bay, reporting illegal fishing, demanding our food outlets use recyclable cups, and stop using plastic bags just to name a few. So many people are doing great things already like the Beach Patrol groups.”

With so much happening in Sheree’s world – books, docos, talks, media… It’s hard to know how she finds the time to relax and reset. “I love to get my gills wet,” she said. “That is my form of meditation. It’s all I need. A heavy dose of vitamin sea does wonders. Everyone should try it.”

You can find more information about Sheree and her upcoming book ‘Octopuses – Underwater Marvels’

Peninsula Essence – December 2023