An Interview with WiseOceans… Catherine Gemmell from Marine Conservation Society
This week we chat to Catherine who took a leap and landed herself a dream job where she really does make a difference. Her journey is an excellent example of how making an impact as a volunteer can be a great stepping stone to building your career.
Name: Catherine Gemmell
Job Title: Scotland Conservation Officer
Organisation: Marine Conservation Society
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
Growing up along the beautiful Moray Coast with its resident population of bottlenose dolphins I have always loved the sea and the creatures that call it home. My younger years were full of trips to the beach, paddling, sand castle building, rock pooling and in later years’ beach parties and wild swimming! However, it wasn’t until I left University and starting working in environmental education that I realised I could pursue a career in not only protecting the amazing seas and wildlife I had grown up with but also to help others fall in love with the sea and inspire them to take actions to protect it too.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Looking back over my journey to becoming the Scotland Conservation Officer for the Marine Conservation Society I can pick out a few significant steps that have helped me get to where I am today. Even if I did not realise it at the time! When I was a teenager I volunteered for Whale and Dolphin Conservation at their dolphin centre in Spey Bay which helped increase my knowledge and confidence in engaging people with our oceans. At the University of Aberdeen, I joined the Dive Club and learnt to dive off the chilly shores of the east coast of Scotland which has led to many amazing underwater adventures across the world meeting new people, seeing new habitats and coming face to face with everything from beautiful cold-water corals to sand tiger sharks! To this day my diving is a constant source of ocean optimism and inspiration which motivates me to keep working towards helping our oceans. My degree was in Marine and Coastal Resource Management but it was my part-time job at the Disney Store that made me realise how much I enjoyed engaging with young people. I therefore put the two together and started working in the environmental education sector doing everything from taking wee ones rockpooling for the first time to senior students doing their coastal management research projects. Now working for the Marine Conservation Society I try and grab every opportunity that comes up from doing things that slightly scare me (like my first live TV interview!) to working with as many different people as possible – young, old and everything in between!
- How did you land your current job/position?
I was actually a Marine Conservation Society Sea Champion Volunteer when my role was advertised and after my work volunteering on MCS beach cleans, delivering education sessions on my days off and helping run stalls at events the Volunteer Coordinator recommended I apply. I was so glad I took the leap and went for it even though I thought it was the dream job that was still slightly out of reach – always believe in your ocean optimism and take the opportunities when they come up!
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I still absolutely love working with young people and over the last two years I have been able to engage young people from beach cleans and citizen science to attending parliamentary events and speaking to Scottish Government Ministers which is so powerful as it highlights to both the students and adults the importance of involving young people in ocean conservation. There was one school we worked with on our #wildbottlesighting campaign who were based in Perth, so no local beach for them to clean, but they started recording the ‘wild bottles and cans’ in their playground and around their school to show the problem of litter and why a deposit-return system for Scotland would be a good idea. This resulted in the hashtag going global and having the Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham visit their school to celebrate with them when the Scottish Government decided to commit to implementing a deposit return system. However, my favourite part was when, thanks to funding from the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, we were able to take the students to the beach, and for some of them that was the very first time they had been. To be there when someone steps on the sand, sees the sea or watches the waves for the first time was incredible and motivates me every day to keep helping people fall in love with the sea so they can take actions to protect it.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
The MCS citizen science project Beachwatch is vital to our marine litter campaigns and policy work and has already made a huge difference to marine litter policy and I believe will continue to do so for many years to come. Beachwatch is our national beach cleaning and litter surveying project which involves thousands of amazing volunteers cleaning and surveying 100m stretches of beach across the UK. This data has been collected for over 25 years and has been used as evidence to get a Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland, the carrier bag charges (the same data which has now shown a decrease in bags on beaches – proving that the policy is working!), a commitment to ban plastic stemmed cotton bud sticks in Scotland, a commitment to introduce a deposit return system as well as helping multiple local authorities introduce balloon release bans on their land. The data gathered over the flagship event; the Great British Beach Clean, is even used at a global level through the International Coastal Clean Up. Without this evidence, we would not have seen these policy changes happen so quickly, if at all, so I am a very proud champion of citizen science and especially Beachwatch! Thanks to our amazing citizen scientist volunteers we are making a big difference by using the data collected to prevent litter entering the ocean in the first place.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
That this job existed! When at school or even through University I had no idea jobs like mine existed. It would be fantastic to increase the awareness of ocean conservation careers here in Scotland and across the UK so more people are aware of what they can do to help and how they can get involved from a voluntary level to a professional one.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
My dress sense?! Anyone who has met me at a conference or event will know I have a wardrobe of marine-themed dresses and they are a fantastic networking tool! My interest in using social media has also been a huge help in increasing awareness around my work and making new connections. I never thought a skill in sharing what I am up to could be such a huge help but I couldn’t imagine my role without it now.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Get involved! If you are interested in something or passionate about something find a way to get involved. Volunteer locally with a project, community group, charity, council – you never know who you may meet and what vital skills you might learn along the way. All those conversations I had with visitors to the dolphin centre on our wonderful local bottlenose dolphins I still use in my work today in sharing my ocean optimism and helped me start on my journey to working for MCS. I would also advise using your social media to follow people who are in jobs that you find interesting or who are working in an area you are passionate about. There is so much to learn from other people and even if they do not live near you the world of social media can open your eyes, and it still opens mine every day, to the number of different jobs and opportunities out there. Also remember you don’t have to consider yourself a ‘marine conservationist’ to work in marine conservation! I never studied biology let alone marine biology but by connecting my love of engaging people and my love of the ocean I have been able to work as a conservation officer. So always take the leap and take a chance – it can be scary but also so worth it!
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
Ah this such a difficult question and it changes every day if not hourly! I will always have a special place in my heart for the Moray Firth Bottlenose Dolphins but during my time at MCS I have also fallen in love with the incredible Basking Sharks that come to visit us every summer – they are the second largest fish in the sea and they come to Scotland – that’s awesome! So right now let’s go for the big and beautiful basking shark because whenever I see them they literally take my breath away.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
One of my favourite experiences was when I was taking a break during a dive trip to Scapa Flow in Orkney and two porpoises were following the boat out to drop the rest of the team off for their second dive. The skipper asked if I would like to go for a snorkel so I put on my fins and mask – took a surface marker buoy so they could see me easily and jumped in. Scratchy (so named as they had a scratch over one eye) started circling me closer and closer trying to work out what I was and by the end was having fun swimming at me and diving down to make me turn around and follow them. Being eye to eye with such a friendly, curious creature was just amazing and an experience I will never forget. Our ocean is awesome and its these stories we need to share to help keep us motivated to put in the work needed to protect them so we can continue to enjoy and celebrate our wonderful blue planet for years to come.
Thank you for sharing all this excellent advice, Catherine. You are really making a difference with the work you do.