An Interview with WiseOceans…Julian Leon from Marine Animal Rescue

This week we chat to…Julian Leon from Marine Animal Rescue in the United States. Julian give some fantastic advice, that it isn’t just species knowledge you need but also great communication and leadership skills when working in marine conservation. Some great insights below!

 

Name: Julian A. Leon

Job Title: Marine Animal Rescue Specialist

Organisation: Marine Animal Rescue

  • What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?

From the moment my grandmother gave me one of my first stuffed animals as a child, I was always intrigued and fascinated by animals. I deepened my fascination by reading every animal encyclopedia and watching every nature documentary I could get my hands on. Seeing my heroes like Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin getting out in the wild and sharing their amazing experiences with animals inspired me to want to do the same one day. Unfortunately there weren’t really any wild experiences that could mirror the experiences of my heroes while living in the inner city of Los Angeles. Consequently, I spent a lot of time running around chasing bugs and pigeons. Thankfully my mother encouraged me to volunteer at an aquarium. After feeding some sharks, octopuses, and other creatures as well as educating the public on a daily basis, I knew that I wanted to study the ocean for a living.  

  • What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?

Getting that volunteer aquarist job at the roundhouse aquarium was a huge step. That one experience was the first stepping stone that would eventually shape my career and my life for what it is today. I was told that to achieve my goals that I would need as much experience in the field as possible. When I entered into college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I immediately got my scuba diving certification and started working at various laboratories to get research experience. After graduating with my degree in Marine Animal Behavior, I went on to work different jobs as a marine science instructor on Catalina Island, a fisheries technician in Alaska, and as a marine animal rescue specialist.  It was my time at the Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) that gave me the most essential skills. The leadership, teamwork, and effective communication skills that I gained there are probably my most valuable assets. At first, I was so keen on getting all these dive certifications, boating skills, and laboratory skills but all of that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t work as a team, communicate effectively, or lead people. 

  • How did you land your current job/position? 

My current position required someone to be knowledgeable about marine animals of course. That isn’t anything really special though. Apparently a lot of people who have applied to the job in the past had the passion for the ocean and were knowledgeable about its organisms but what really sets you apart is having field experience and athleticism. Obtaining laboratory skills and other research skills can be very important for doing science, but for some jobs in order to get the data you need you may have to wrestle a shark so you can attach tags to it, or in my case you may have to put an injured 300lbs sea lion in a net and get it into your truck so it can be taken care of. It’s a weird combination of being a very athletic nerd that I think helped me land the job for sure.  

  • Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?  

I really like being able to be in the field. A lot of marine mammal jobs you might get to be in the field sometimes but more often than not you might just be looking at data someone else has collected and that can get dull sometimes. The job definitely makes me feel like a superhero for the ocean and that’s always been a childhood fantasy of mine.  

  • Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’? 

I really feel like I’m making a difference with every sea lion or marine animal we work with. We’ve had animals entangled in fishing line and all kinds of other plastic around them and when we get to rescue and rehabilitate those animals and return them to the ocean, it’s such a rewarding thing to see.  

  • What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?  

I wish I knew how little pay there was in this field. I have been privileged enough to not really have to worry about money. All throughout my childhood, I had parents that took good care of me and we never had to worry about how we were going to make it through the end of the week financially. Even when I was in college, I had no  concept of how much a 50k a year salary really was in terms of living and enjoying your life. I’ve been finding out that especially if you live on the coast where marine life is, the cost of living is always so much higher and even with jobs that require a PhD or other higher education in general you still might not be making that much money. Also this field can be tough because if your job is to help take care of animals, most of their money might go toward taking care of the animals. Consequently, they may not be able to afford to have a lot of staff so you might end up  working hard all the time and then don’t really get to take time off for your own personal needs. Also people trying to get into this field who didn’t start volunteering early might be really discouraged because of all the volunteering one has to do in this field before getting a job. 

  • Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?

Like I said, my time at the Catalina Island Marine Institute gave me these amazing social skills that I didn’t think I’d need.  But after working at other different jobs I have seen people who have amazing field skills but lack on the leadership, communication, and teamwork skills unfortunately. 

  • What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

Start as early as you can by volunteering in highschool in your spare time and that will set the tone for all the other experiences in your life. 

Definitely work on public speaking, communication, leadership, and teamwork skills.  

Find hands on field experiences that can set you apart from other applicants  

Think carefully about what animals you want to study because that will automatically dictate how much funding you might get, how much salary you might be paid, and even where you might live.  

  • What is your favourite marine creature and why?  

My favorite marine creature is definitely an octopus. Their cognitive abilities just always astound me and we still have so much that were trying to learn about them. 

  • What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

One of my most unforgettable moments at sea was when I was driving the boat one night on Catalina Island. I was on my way back to CIMI when some dolphins started swimming along with my boat. There was a lot of bioluminescence that night so the dolphins were shimmering with glowing planktony goodness as they swam through the ocean like comets through the night sky. I have never seen something so beautiful and graceful and it was a night I will never forget.  

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