This week we chat to…Emma Hedley from Manta Trust – Maldivian Manta Ray Project. Getting lots of varied experience is essential to landing your dream job. Wider transferable skills alongside things like diving qualifications and relevant fieldwork all help to make you employable. And if you want to be doing fieldwork then good physical fitness is crucial (something you can work on during ‘lockdown’).
Name: Emma Hedley
Job Title: Raa Atoll Project Manager
Organisation: Manta Trust – Maldivian Manta Ray Project
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
A lot of people are surprised that, as a child, I was afraid of the sea and going snorkelling! But, as I got older, I began to enjoy snorkelling more and more and, eventually, fell in love with scuba diving and spending time in the ocean. As a student, I studied geosciences and biology but it was field courses in marine biology in Australia and Panama that made me realize that marine conservation was what I wanted to pursue. Even after a full day in Panama hunting invasive lionfish and doing dissection and stomach content analysis of the fish we caught, I was completely happy and realized that is what I wanted to continue doing.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I think completion of field courses as an undergraduate made a huge difference in helping me to get where I am today in my career. Without the field experience, including fish and invertebrate identification, marine survey techniques, and community presentation and outreach, I wouldn’t have been able to get my first job post-grad. I also completed a summer internship working as a Research Assistant on a project with nesting sea turtles, giving me more field experience as well as experience managing volunteers on the project. I then spent time working as a staff member on projects with Barefoot Conservation and GVI, which gave me my first experience doing community development and outreach work in conjunction with conservation, all of which are new skills that have helped me progress from one position to the other, to where I am now. Each field course, internship, and work experience I completed taught me something new and helped lead me on to the next step of my career, so I always recommend that aspiring marine biologists get as diverse a set of experiences as possible.
- How did you land your current job/position?
I actually first found my current job advertised online with WiseOceans! I took a chance and applied, completed the interview process, and was lucky enough to be offered a position.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Nothing is better than time spent in the water with our flappy friends! While in the water, we aim to collect photo IDs of each manta, as each individual can be identified using the unique pattern of black spots on its belly. We also aim to collect accurate measurements of mantas using a stereo-video system while in the water with the mantas. Of course, we can’t help to take some time to enjoy our magical manta encounters as well as encounters with some other incredible marine life.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
The Manta Trust runs a Marine Education Programme for local students and, while running one of the programs, I have really seen the impact on students. I worked with a group of wonderful secondary school students, all of who were excited and eager to learn about the marine world right on their doorstep. The most exciting part of the program I ran in my first year with the Manta Trust was when one of my students, a young lady who had never previously been snorkelling, told me that after her first snorkelling experience during the program she was inspired and plans to study to become a marine biologist. Watching her passion for the marine environment grow through our classroom sessions and seeing her gain confidence in water during several snorkelling sessions, made me excited to have inspired this student and her classmates to become the guardians of their own marine environment!
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
You will apply to a lot of jobs before you hear back from many – but you will eventually get a job and it will be the right one. Don’t stop filling in the applications, as it will pay off in the end.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
Good physical fitness. Doing fieldwork can be really tough, whether you’re spending all night walking up and down the beach doing surveys for nesting sea turtles in the heat and humidity or spending hours swimming and freediving in the sea.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Get as much diverse experience as you can – even if it’s not gained in the marine environment, many skills are transferrable, such as good communication and presentation skills. If you want to do fieldwork, improve your abilities in the water, practice marine life identifications, and learn as many different field techniques as possible. If you want to do a job that requires SCUBA diving, many places will require certification to at least Divemaster level, even if you won’t be actively working as a divemaster.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
That’s a no brainer – manta rays of course! Mantas have the largest brain to body size ratio of any fish and you can really see their intelligence and curiosity when you’re in the water with them. Each manta has a different personality, with so many friendly and inquisitive individuals around. They’re such graceful creatures and beautiful to watch cleaning, feeding, and courting.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of incredible experiences in the ocean but one that stands out for me is the first time I saw manta ray mass feeding. After two years working with the Manta Trust in the Maldives and having recently relocated to Raa Atoll, I was treated to the most amazing encounter! We found about 15 mantas surface feeding and were already having a great time in the water with these friendly individuals, trying to capture all of their IDs. After drifting with the current to the end of the reef, my colleague shouted at me to come join her and more than 50 mantas appeared out of the depths of the blue water, engaging in the rare Cyclone feeding behaviour. I was so awed and amazed and completely overwhelmed, trying to both enjoy the moment and remember to collect ID photos as well! It’s certainly a morning that I’ll never forget.
Thank you Emma, those manta experiences sound incredible! Learn more about Manta Trust and the work they do in their free live webinars featuring a range of fascinating speakers lined up including Manta Trust researchers, marine conservationists, policy makers, and underwater photographers!