This week we chat to…Katie Burkart from People and the Sea. Like us, Katie believes that education is the key to making a positive difference to our oceans. She also knows that finding the area of marine conservation that fits you and your skills is important – there are so many ways you can contribute.
Name: Katie Burkart
Job Title: Dive Operations Manager
Organisation: People and the Sea
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I started reading, learning, and becoming passionate about environmental issues after reading the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn when I was 14. When I started university, I began studying Environmental Science and found myself simultaneously enthralled and overwhelmed by the multitude and complexity of all the anthropogenic impacts we are now trying to mitigate. I found I most enjoyed classes like International Environmental and Marine Law and Coastal Resource Management and around that same time I finally tried SCUBA diving for the first time. As a lifelong hydrophile I quickly became obsessed with diving and learning more about the ocean, the threats it’s faced with, and how I could focus my efforts on marine conservation issues. Fortunately, I’ve been able to spend the past seven years studying and working to do just that!
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
After falling in love with diving and marine conservation I volunteered with ReefDoctor in Madagascar for six months as a research assistant/dive master intern. This opportunity pushed me to transfer to Humboldt State University in Northern California so I could complete my degree in Environmental Science Policy with a Minor in Scientific Diving whilst gaining experience as a teaching assistant in the university’s dive program. Over the summer I worked as a divemaster at a dive shop in Kauai and then the following summer was able to return and do my instructor course. After completing all the course requirements for my major I took a job as an instructor for the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) in Borneo where I taught volunteers how to dive and help to build artificial reefs for seven months. I then found a job as Resident Marine Biologist at Maafushivaru Resort in Maldives where my job consisted of giving educational briefings regarding the biology and conservation of mantas, whale sharks, and sea turtles guiding tourists on snorkelling expeditions and making sure they interacted responsibly with these majestic creatures. In one year there I was able to save up some money and pay some of my student loans so I could get back into hands-on marine conservation and science!
- How did you land your current job/position?
I should have found this job on WiseOceans actually! It was being advertised there as well but I first found it on a platform that used to exist called 200Bar that had dive job postings. I was immediately interested in the position as it would allow me to learn more about and do more actual conservation work and surveys as well as progressing in that I wouldn’t just be instructing but also getting experience managing the day-to-day operations and safety concerns of a diving marine conservation project. The final aspect that truly sold it all is People and the Sea’s commitment to community-based conservation- out of all the conservation projects I’ve worked with I feel that this one exemplifies community involvement and takes a holistic approach to marine conservation by helping the people of Malapascua create opportunities for alternative sources of income such as through the Homestay Association, and to reduce pollution with the Waste Collection and Education team. I think what sold them on hiring me was that I had worked with marine conservation organizations and done underwater surveys before and so had the marine science background in addition to dive instructing experience.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
What I enjoy most about my current position is the opportunity to do lots of different things. Of course, as with any instructing job I love seeing my students go from anxious and uncertain to confident competent environmentally-conscious divers, but here I also get to help teach the volunteers coral reef ecology and train them how to do underwater surveys. To see someone go from never having dived before to hovering upside down collecting data for an Invertebrate and Impacts survey within the span of a month is incredible and being a part of that transformation is a pretty awesome feeling! I also had the opportunity to learn basic equipment maintenance and servicing which I didn’t think I would enjoy but turns out taking everything apart and seeing how it works and putting it back together is fascinating. There’s a lot of different aspects to the project and I’m excited to be involved in all of them- interacting with the kids in environmental education activities and taking them snorkelling, working with people, dive shops, and businesses on the island to do beach cleans as well as record and tackle Crown of Thorns outbreaks, or helping with the gardening and composting. As always though, the best part of any project is the people- all the local and international staff and volunteers are here because they care about the same things and we’ve been lucky enough to always be surrounded by interesting, kind, funny people that we’re actually happy to be around 12 hours a day 6 days a week and that end up feeling like family.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
In my time here I’ve been able to teach dozens of students and help to foster their passion for and awareness of marine conservation issues; I believe that education is the most powerful tool we have in hopes of making a difference and I like to think the volunteers take what they learn here and preach it to their friends and family back home and that ripples outwards. In the 10 months I’ve been here I’ve also been able to see progress made in many ways- the government has recently granted People and the Sea permission to start building artificial reefs and doing systematic Crown of Thorns outbreak management; I also feel that there’s less trash on the island than when I first got here which makes me think that the Adopt a Pathway program that was started by some volunteers when I first got here and the Debris Free Thursday clean ups and the Waste Collection and Education Program are all making an actual noticeable difference. Some of the kids are great swimmers but have maybe never been snorkelling or learned much about what they see when they do so to be able to show them corals and fish and see their faces when they yell for all their friends to “come look at Nemo!” or for them to be excited to identify a butterflyfish definitely feels like you’re making a difference for them.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Being able to study and do conservation work of any kind requires a lot of dedication as well as financial and emotional support: university is expensive and then to get experience in the field often means paying to volunteer because governments and businesses around the world currently just don’t put enough funding into environmental research and conservation to allow organizations to pay entry-level staff, the things you learn and experiences you have can sometimes be disheartening and frustrating and make it difficult to stay motivated and hopeful. Having a strong support system and striving to stay focused on the positive and on the progress made is essential. There are a lot of ups and downs over the course of pursuing a career in marine conservation but fortunately, there are also myriad reminders as to why it is such an important and rewarding field to dedicate your life to.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
I suppose at the beginning I didn’t think I would be taking Environmental Communication, Environmental Conflict Resolution, GIS, Environmental and Natural Resource and Economics, Biological Statistics, Grant Proposal Writing, Environmental Justice, and Environmental Ethics classes when I started studying Environmental Science or learning how to fill tanks and repair dive equipment when I first started diving but all of that knowledge and those skills have proven to be not only interesting and fulfilling but also super useful in terms of contributing to the successful running of a community-based marine conservation organization.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
There are so many ways you can get involved in marine conservation, figure out which aspects interest and inspire you most and where your strengths lie and pursue that area. For example, I enjoyed my GIS class but I know that while making marine habitat maps is crucial to establishing Marine Protected Areas I personally would be more suited to and more interested in the policy and stakeholder side of MPA set up and management. Some people are going to excel and thrill in analysing the genetics of corals and breeding species that are more adaptable to climate change and some people are going to be natural teachers that love raising awareness and sparking a passion for the marine world. There is no right or wrong better or worse way to contribute- marine conservation is an inherently diverse multidisciplinary field and we need as many people with as many different skills, ideas, and perspectives as we can get!
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
Oh dear, that’s a hard one! Mantas are amazing because they are so intelligent, mesmerizing, and interactive. Sharks are fascinating because they’re such a pivotal part of the ecosystem and are so misunderstood. Octopuses and cuttlefishes are super cool because their intelligence and anatomy have evolved in such different ways to ours. Mantis Shrimps are just insane and physics-defying and beautiful. Turtles are gentle dinosaurs that travel thousands of miles using the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Don’t even get me started on all the actual aliens bioluminescing at the bottom of the ocean!
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
Also a difficult one as every day and every experience is so different, but if I had to choose I guess I would have to say free diving with Mantas in a feeding cyclone in Hanifaru Bay, Maldives. To be surrounded by so many curious and majestic sentient beings is an indescribable feeling of awe and oneness.
Thank you Katie! Your detailed answers are sure to help inspire others to follow their dreams and forge a career in marine conservation. If you simply can’t wait you can join Katie and the People and the Sea team this November/December where some last-minute places are still available. Click through to their expedition page to find out more!