When he was in third grade, Phil Allman’s parents sat him down to watch the 1975 thriller film “Jaws,” hoping that it would quell his desire to spend all day, every day, at the beach.But their plan backfired miserably.
Allman couldn’t get enough of the movie about a shark who wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting, beach-going public.
In the movie’s final showdown with the bloodthirsty fish, the marine biologist, accompanied by the police chief and a local fisherman, climbs aboard a rickety boat to pursue the great white shark. Allman recalled that he wanted to be on the boat so badly: “Like, put me on that boat!”
That 9-year-old boy is now a marine biologist, an associate professor at Goshen College and the director of the J.N. Roth Marine Biology Station in Layton, Florida.
Allman led a cohort of five students this fall at the newly refurbished marine biology station, which sustained significant damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
While growing up in North Carolina, Allman consumed a slew of television documentaries by the renowned French naval officer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Like Cousteau, Allman would dedicate his life to researching and exploring the world’s oceans.
Living in North Carolina, Allman and his family took many trips to the beach. His parents had to practically drag him away from the water while Allman dug his heels into the sand and sobbed, “No, I wanna stay out here, I wanna stay out here!”
He didn’t want to fly a plane or explore the heavens; he wanted to plunge into the depths of the oceans. “I am not sure where the interest came from,” Allman said, “but I have certainly had a fascination with the mysteries of the ocean for as long as I can remember.”
By the time he reached middle school, he was locked into science, he said. And in high school, he took a marine biology course that included a spring break trip to the coastline of North Carolina. He realized on that trip that he was “absolutely hooked,” and wanted to make a career of marine biology.
During his first semester as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Allman discovered a particular passion: sea turtles. He began volunteering at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where he completed a sea turtle internship.
Allman’s responsibilities each night included trips up and down the beach on an all-terrain vehicle to monitor small sea turtle hatchlings that were found disoriented in the sand.
“I learned then that I wanted to study sea turtles and wanted to help prevent them from going extinct,” he said. “I have been a part of the international sea turtle community for over 30 years and am very proud of the work we have done to help save sea turtles.”
He jokes about prefacing in-class examples with an apology before using another example from the sea turtle world in his lesson plan. But he credits that internship as the kickstart to his marine biology career.
Allman is excited to help his students find their own direction in the field by connecting them with internships in the Florida Keys. He believes that internships and volunteering are crucial to separating oneself from the thousands of other students graduating every year with marine biology degrees.
Though he works for Goshen College in Indiana, Allman resides full time in Florida, and his interest in the marine world is broader than just sea turtles.
“I am just as happy to see small fish, sea stars and hermit crabs as I am to see larger animals such as turtles or whales,” he said.
On a recent three-week scuba diving trip to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, Allman said that he experienced some of the best dives of his life.
He and his wife, Karyn, are avid scuba divers, and they spent three days at a dive site where hammerhead sharks merge together to form “mega-schools” that contain over one thousand sharks swimming in all directions.
“Everywhere I turned my head was a ‘wall’ of hammerhead sharks,” Allman said of his encounter with the mega-school.
“Those dives seemed like dreams to me and the experience was one that you have to keep questioning if it really happened,” he said. “By far the best experience of my life.”