Suddenly, in mid-conversation, Mark Beeston stops. His attention has been grabbed by something over my shoulder.
We are chatting over coffee in the Blue Reef cafe on Southsea seafront. He’s facing the sea and he has spotted something, a speck on the water, way out in the Solent.
‘Quick, look, – two grey seals. Two heads bobbing around in the water mid-way between here and the Isle of Wight.’
By the time I turn around they have disappeared, but I don’t doubt Mark’s powers of observation.
He has just returned from a month in South Africa during which he was studying great white sharks and their prey – dolphins and seals.
‘I’ve got my eye in at the moment because I’ve just spent four weeks scouring the surface of the sea looking for just that sort of thing,’ he says excitedly.
‘There are 14 grey seals that live in and around the Solent. They’re mostly based in Fareham Creek and they travel round to Pagham Harbour. They feed off Selsey Bill and Bembridge.’
Mark, 34, has two passions – fish and all things marine, plus music. By day he has devoted his life to studying sea life; by night many will know him as DJ Spikey Mark who has entertained late-night clubbers at the Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea, and other Portsmouth pubs for the past 14 years.
Three years ago he won the Best DJ title in The News Guide awards. He had a job in the music business as a tour manager driving bands all over Europe. But he’s given it all up for the sea and what lives in it.
But Spikey? ‘When I starting DJ-ing I had a pretty extreme Mohican, hence the name. Most people know me as Spikey.’
Mark, of Maxwell Road, Southsea, has come late to the world of study and research. He is currently half-way through the first year of a new two-year course run by Sparsholt College, Winchester – marine ecology and conservation.
‘It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and if I do well I want to move on to the University of Portsmouth to do a BSc in marine biology.’
The Sparsholt course is highly vocational hence the recent field trip to Mossel Bay on the southern Cape of South Africa and four weeks getting up close and personal with dozens of great white sharks (that’s the one depicted as a ferocious man-eater in the film Jaws).
But travel comes naturally to Mark. His father was in the RAF and was posted around the world.
‘I went to 14 schools,’ says Mark, ‘and one of them was in a national park in Australia. We’d see kangaroos going past from the windows and we’d get snakes in the classroom. It was a progressive school where wildlife conservation and ecology were on the curriculum. This was in 1991 so it quite early to be teaching that sort of thing.
‘It certainly fed the monster and perhaps that’s what gave me my lifelong ambition to work with animals of some description in conservation, but I really think it was something else.
‘I remember as a kid being taken to garden centres by my parents, the ones which have displays of tropical fish, and I was stuck in front of a fish tank to keep me quiet.
‘I was totally captivated, mesmerised, and as a result I’ve been keeping fish for more than 20 years.’
The family finally settled in Havant in 1992 and Mark went to Chichester High School for Boys. This was followed by a course in theatre technology at Chichester College. ‘I went to the Wedge to practise what I was learning, ended up working behind the bar to earn some money and then got the DJ work.’
But all the time Mark was studying fish, particularly reef fish and their breeding habits. ‘I worked in the industry which imports fish for selling in pet shops and trained people how to look after them in captivity.
‘But it was the spawning habits of reef fish which really got me going. I now breed sea horses,’ he says, lowering his voice.
‘I suppose I’m quite geeked out by it all, but I don’t want something to sit in the corner on its own and die. I want to take it home and get it to breed.
‘Unusual? Not at all. There’s a whole community of people in Portsmouth who swap fish to breed.’
As part of his course Mark successfully applied for an internship with the world-famous Oceans Research project in South Africa run by marine biologist and great white shark expert Ryan Johnson.
‘I was studying all aspects of the great white’s behaviour, from their breeding patterns to their feeding routines.
‘One day we saw 26 sharks in four hours around the boat. They were just curious. They have plenty of food in Mossel Bay – fur seals and dolphins – so they have no need to attack humans.’
Mark’s team spent much time tagging the sharks with GPS transmitters so data can be built up about their lifestyles. ‘One tagged in South Africa has turned up off the coast of the United States.
‘To tag them, you have to catch them, land them on the boat’s deck, cover their eyes and hold on to them before making a quick incision to insert the GPS. It’s all very quick, a bit intrusive, but it doesn’t harm the animal.’
During his stay there a dwarf sperm whale beached itself and died.
‘She had died an hour before we got to her.
‘We dissected her on the beach to send different parts to various universities for research and found she was a carrying a near full-term baby which also sadly died.’
Now back in Southsea, Mark is as equally excited about the Solent waters outside the window than studying great white sharks off South Africa.
‘We are so lucky where we live. The Solent and the harbours off it and the rivers that run into it are some of the most important in Europe.
‘Did you know there’s a worm in the mud in Langstone Harbour that only exists there...?’ He tails off. ‘Sorry, I’m being a bit geekish again aren’t I?’