This week we’re with Jeroen van de Waal, CEO & Founder of Orca Scuba. Jeroen is a great advocate that success isn’t defined by wealth or power, but by doing what you love and are passionate about. Jeroen encourages budding marine conservationists to define their own versions of success.
Name: Jeroen van de Waal
Job Title: CEO & Founder of Orca Scuba
Organisation: Orca Scuba
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I have always believed I could make things happen and change my world. I lived in a relatively conservative town in the east of Holland, far away from the oceans, and very far away from Canada. But I could see on our black and white television the slaughter of whales taking place daily in Canada. They were slaughtered to make lantern oil, not for medicines or food. Then there was the clubbing of baby seals – killing them to use their beautiful fur to make coats. To me those things didn’t make any sense at all. We didn’t have computers in those days, but I started a petition to stop the slaughter. In May of 1978, when I was nine years old, I took a few hundred sheets of paper, and used a ruler to make boxes, where people could write down their names and addresses. Then I collected signatures in the little town where I grew up. Ten percent of the people whose doorbell I rang didn’t understand why a Dutch farm boy was petitioning against the clubbing of baby seals, but I collected around 1,500 signatures. Optimistically, I sent my petition to Greenpeace in Amsterdam. I got a short letter in response, saying, ‘Dear Jeroen, thank you very much.’ And that was it, nothing happened. This has stayed with me my whole life.
Even though, as a young boy, I was crazy about the oceans, when I reached adulthood I did nothing to follow my passion. I got caught up in the rat race, going to school for mechanical engineering, then thinking I had to pursue a career in the same field. Eventually I had children to raise and a family to support. It wasn’t until I hit my forties that I had an epiphany. Yes, I had a good life. I was making a nice income, had a great car and a chauffeur; I had a large villa and a swimming pool – I had everything that sounds like a successful life. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the life for me. Of course, status and money are nice, and they help a lot, but I realised I could still make a difference when it comes to my passion for the oceans. So here I am, now trying my hardest to make up for lost time.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I decided to dedicate my life to a new vision – saving the oceans, planet and ourselves. That’s my new motto. To achieve it, I started up Orca Scuba, a dive company based in Singapore, with the goal of having dive centres spread throughout Southeast Asia. Orca Scuba is not only about teaching people to dive; it’s also about educating them about the oceans. It’s about igniting a passion in people, so they may start to care about the marine environment as much as I do. Alongside Orca’s diving business, we’re developing a facility for marine conservation, marine research and marine education. I’ve also very recently written a book entitled: “Together We Can Turn Tides: A Manifesto to Save the Oceans, Planet & Ourselves”. This is about to go to press. The book is meant for all ages and all levels of education, but my hope is to get it into the hands of as many kids and students as possible. Young people aren’t hampered by past experience in the same way as adults are – their imagination is without limits and they believe anything is possible. I believe the future wellbeing of our planet lies with them. My book and our dive centres are tools. We are using them to educate customers, students, interns and divers about the importance of the oceans, as well as the habitats and creatures within them. We are in the process of determining how we can incorporate the book as reading material for International Schools here in Singapore as well as in Malaysia. We are also developing an Oceanic Awareness Program. This will include lecture presentations on a variety of marine issues and topics, from the impact of ocean acidification to the impact of shark populations declining worldwide. I need help to do this, which is why I am hoping to get bright, passionate people to join our Ocean Ambassador Program. This Program is geared towards, but not limited to, gap year students, undergraduates and postgraduates. They would have the opportunity to get professional dive training combined with education and outreach work. They would also contribute to our conservation projects. Right now, we have a formal collaboration with the University of Malaya. We are supporting two of their professors on a seagrass restoration project and with reef surveillance. We are also bringing in a masters student, who will start a behavioural study on different sea urchin species. All of these projects are happening at our dive centre on Pulau Rawa, Malaysia.
- How did you land your current job/position?
With passion, love, creativity and hard work.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Scuba diving and inspiring kids. Diving allows me to be underwater, which lets me unplug from the world and just relax. It also affords me the highest privilege of observing our marine life in their natural habitat, rather than in aquariums or on the dinner plate. I have such a deep appreciation for the life I see underwater. I wish for nothing more than for my kids still to be able to see these things when they are my age. For that to happen, the way we are treating our oceans needs to change. Inspiring kids is what drives me forward. I work as hard as I possibly can to make a positive difference, to help our children be better than ‘us’ – the older generation – when it comes to how we treat the ocean. I want to encourage them to pursue their passions now, when they are young and full of positive energy, rather than wait like I did. I look forward to the day that I see kids who I have helped inspire in some small way, grow up and make a positive difference in this world, which so drastically needs it.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Dealing with universities and international schools in Malaysia and Singapore has been amazing. There are so many bright young people out there ready to contribute to helping the oceans. And what better place than in their own back yard of Southeast Asia? Starting to develop collaborations with these schools is the first step to making a difference. My dream is not only to have our staff teach customers, interns, and children how to scuba dive. I want everybody to experience the true wonder of the underwater world, and I want them to understand the importance of the life they see there. WiseOceans often refers to the words of Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught”. I wholeheartedly believe in this quote, especially for kids. In order for someone to fall in love with the ocean they first have to experience it! So I want Orca to be more than just a dive company. It should be a place where education, conservation and scuba diving come together. The work we are doing, the incredible people we’ve met, and the wonderful organizations we are collaborating with, all fill me with hope that we can make a lasting difference.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I am fairly new to the marine conservation scene, BUT after having lived 40+ years of a completely different lifestyle – one I didn’t truly enjoy deep down – I wish I had known that I would be much happier had I pursued what I loved from the beginning. I wish I had started Orca Scuba when I was in my twenties, I wish I could have contributed to marine conservation efforts sooner… but better late than never. Life experiences are an effective but often harsh teacher. I’ve learnt the hard way that monetary gains are not as fulfilling as living a life doing what you love.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
I am not sure how to answer this question. I believe in the value and power of education. I love to learn, read, and apply the knowledge I’ve learnt, as I continuously evolve and develop. What I recognise more than ever is the need to understand others with whom I am working, valuing their skills and knowledge, and harnessing their ability to improve both myself and our organisation. During the earlier stages of my education and career development I might have been more egocentric. Today I fully recognise the need for team collaboration. As they say, “no man is an island.”
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
I would encourage budding marine conservationists to define their own versions of success. Before I founded Orca Scuba, I lived a life many people would think was successful. I finally worked out that success isn’t defined by wealth or power, but by doing what you love and are passionate about. If I could give my eighteen-year-old self some advice, I’d say, “Life will be more fulfilling, and your heart and soul will be inspired by pursuing a career in marine science. Don’t get caught up in what society deems as successful; trust your heart instead.”
I would like to reassure budding marine conservationists that it is not too late. Although the future may look bleak, we must not lose hope! Together we can create a bigger movement of people fighting for our oceans, our planet and ourselves. Yes, we will probably be fighting an uphill battle, every day, for the rest of our lives. Yes, there will be many challenges in the way – big and small. But when everything is said and done, we will be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: “We did our best. We did what we could to make this planet better – not for ourselves but for all people, young or old, rich or poverty stricken.”
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
Orcas are my favourite creature because they are beautiful and powerful but they are also gentle. This is the essence of our ‘gentle way’ mantra at Orca Scuba. We want to solve the problems affecting our oceans in a way that is both powerful and gentle. Rather than being aggressive and blaming others for our problems, we must all share responsibility. Only then can we, together, make a considerable difference.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
In December 1992 I visited Koh Phi Phi Don and Le for the first time. Until that moment, I had never experienced the true beauty of the oceans. The closest I had come was watching documentaries on television, like those by Jacques Cousteau. What I saw underwater has been burned into my memory ever since. Just off the beach of the main bay I snorkelled for what must have been 6 or 7 hours nonstop. It felt like the most precious and pristine place on Earth. I stayed in the water for all these hours watching sharks, rays, massive colourful moray eels, reef fish, and stunning coral formations. This is what life is about for me: true nature at its best. I left the ocean totally dehydrated and sun burnt, but the beauty I had seen changed my life – forever. This is the moment that triggered my passion to become a scuba diver and to be as connected to the ocean as much as possible. What I saw that day was what I thought a normal reef looked like, and maybe back then it was. But when I went back in 2010 with my family, it became extremely clear to me the impact humans have had on the reef. What was once a place teeming with marine life had completely changed, much of it devastated, in a span of only 25 years.
Thank you Jeroen, what a fantastic interview, your passion and dedication is infectious. We wish you and your team all the best for Orca scuba.
Don’t forget to sign up to our weekly job alert emails and keep an eye on our Wise Work pages so you don’t miss your dream opportunity in more marine conservation.