This week we chat to…Chloe Winn from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP). Chloe’s top bit of advice is to volunteer! If you don’t have qualifications, get experience and volunteering can be the perfect way to do that. Chloe also proves that there are many sides to marine conservation and that having creative skills can be just as important as a science degree.
Name: Chloe Winn
Job Title: Assistant in-field Coordinator
Organisation: Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP)
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I grew up near the sea in Plymouth, UK and have always been fascinated by the creatures that live there. My passion for marine life was spurred on by documentaries, books and my Dad’s stories of scuba diving which always captured my imagination. My love for the sea had always been there throughout my life but wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I really got to explore and learn more about the ocean. After my creative degree I suddenly was able to dedicate time to my own learning, and after a while I had saved enough money to travel and volunteer in aid of marine conservation. My first abroad volunteer experience was with Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme which I can firmly say put a fire in my belly to consider pursuing a career path in marine conservation. This was solidified after I had later completed my internship with MWSRP.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I volunteered a lot. Even before I was able to travel for volunteer roles, I was volunteering on weekends. After I moved away from Plymouth to London, I would still travel down a couple of weekends a month to continue my volunteer host role at the National Marine Aquarium. Although it was tiring I was pretty happy to be able to engage with people and share my passion. I undertook a scuba qualification, a freediving qualification and a first aid course. It’s worth mentioning at this point that these things didn’t happen overnight, as gaining various water-based qualifications is expensive! There are some volunteer schemes out there which will tie in scuba qualifications with various marine science in-field roles, a useful experience for aspiring marine conservationists.
- How did you land your current job/position?
I proved early on I was passionate about whale sharks during my time volunteering and also throughout my internship, where I was able to really hone in my data collection, observation and leadership skills. After having completed those steps, I left my internship feeling certain of my chosen path within whale shark conservation. I continued to stay in touch with MWSRP and represent them for a couple of events in the UK, and so proved my loyalty over the span of three years.
- What is the aim of MWSRP and what does your day job to day look like?
We are usually based on the island of Dhigurah, in South Ari Atoll where there is a yearly aggregation of whale sharks. The organisation’s aim is to study the whale shark population and better understand why they are here. From our 14 years of research we have come to believe that these predominantly juvenile male individuals are using the area as a secondary nursery. South Ari provides perfect conditions to suit their feeding habits and thermoregulation process until they reach maturation around 30 years of age, at which point they move on to new pastures. We have also found that this ‘staging ground’ for juvenile sharks has the highest re-sighting rate of individual sharks anywhere in the world.
Our working week consists of boat based surveys with our volunteers within South Ari Marine Protected Area (SAMPA) collecting baseline data on the whale sharks, the megafauna and vessel usage. After the survey is over we head home for a shower and a short break before heading out to do data input with the volunteers. As well as doing these duties, there are evenings where myself and Basith (lead-coordinator) also do presentations or we have meetings in regards to community events and projects. Its a very full on work day!
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy many aspects of my job and miss them very much at the moment! The shared aspect of the experiences we have is always wonderful; I love it when we exit from a good encounter and we all talk excitedly about what we saw. For obvious reasons I enjoy quiet encounters with whale sharks; as with any whale shark hotspot in the world, sometimes encounters can be busy and may end sooner if other people are behaving irresponsibly. Curious whale shark encounters (with less snorkelers in the water) are always very cool. Having the world’s biggest fish approach on their terms to check you out is very exhilarating. At the same time, I enjoy a chilled and long cruising encounter; when the individual swims slowly near the surface and you don’t have to work too hard to catch up and can record your observational data without too many time constraints.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Our education and outreach programme ‘Moodhu Kudhin’ (meaning Children of the Sea in dhivehi) is always quite rewarding. For this programme we do a whale shark presentation and a day out on our survey boat where the pupils learn how and why we collect data as well as the importance of good code of conduct. Last year we did the programme with Dhangheti school and the pupils were particularly engaged from the beginning, which was made even more special when a whale shark (identified later as Fernando) surprised us during our snorkel.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
There are not so much tangible skills I wish I knew, but I wish I knew to be kinder to myself and to not let imposter syndrome get the better of me so much. In the period after my MWSRP internship I had to return to my costume making job in London which just didn’t make me happy anymore. I was really struggling to find conservation jobs, often coming up against the problem of not having a Divemasters qualification or a degree in the subject, despite having a decent amount of experience. This period was very emotionally and mentally strenuous for me and I wish I could tell my past self to not be so hard on herself! I hear this kind of thing from young conservationists time and time again, especially nowadays with the pandemic. They are disheartened by how competitive the sector is and having been through it myself, all I can say is ‘expect it to be a hard and take some time, but know it will be a worthy and ultimately gratifying path.’
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
When I started out pursuing a career in marine conservation I didn’t think that my creative skills would be of any use particularly but they have proven to be invaluable. While working at MWSRP I’ve employed them for a few different public engagement events and activities. I’m a firm believer in the need for conservation to be more interdisciplinary in order to thrive; especially in regards to the visual arts. Photography and various forms of media are often key to connecting people all over the world to the plight of our oceans when the ocean is not physically accessible to them.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Volunteer a lot. This is especially important for those of you who are like me and don’t have a degree in marine biology/conservation subjects. I would also advise them to be resourceful; during the time when I was searching for jobs and landlocked in London, I created my own conservation event which also added to my CV. I hosted a fundraiser and screening of the film Chasing Coral for my local community and invited various marine organisations including the Horniman Museum’s Project Coral. Although the project was a crazy one woman show, I gained a lot of skills and contacts and found some purpose in that challenging period of time where I felt in a bit of a limbo.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
That’s a tough one because sometimes my favourite creature can change day to day depending on new experiences or new things I learn. At the moment the sperm whale is a creature I’m particularly fascinated by. I recently read an article by Fred Buyle about his studies on them which stated that they have the largest neo-cortex in existence; this is the part of the brain associated with emotional intelligence.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
I’m very lucky to be able to say I have a few, but I have to admit my most recent one was pretty amazing. It took place at Lundy Island in the UK with a few of the resident seals. For the trip I had signed up to scuba dive however, after struggling with my sinuses (and just generally being unprepared for the formidable UK conditions), I later decided to snorkel with them. I hung out around the little bays, floating and moving slowly, and watched a few individuals twist and turn beneath me occasionally coming closer to inspect. At one point I floated on my back to adjust my camera setting and suddenly two seals bobbed up a couple of metres away from my finned feet. They both came closer to inspect and nibble gently on my fins, I remember laughing incredulously and smiling with joy. They were so close that I could smell their breath which I would say smells like a cross between burning rubber and a herd of cows! When I returned to the boat, after having a beautiful lone encounter, the crew told me that all that time there had been another seal behind me sniffing my head!
Thank you Chloe, we can all spend the day dreaming of whale sharks now! If you want to get started on your volunteering journey then check out our opportunities on our job board.