An Interview with WiseOceans…Samantha Craven from The Reef-World Foundation

This week we chat to…Samantha Craven who has some excellent advice about getting the right skills for a meaningful marine conservation career – hint…it’s not all about qualifications and ‘saving the sea’!

Name: Samantha Craven

Job Title: Programmes Manager

Organisation: The Reef-World FoundationGreen Fins

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

I did a marine biology field trip when I was 11. Despite growing up in the tropics, I had shown little interest in the sea but after my first guided experiences with reefs and mangroves I was hooked. My focus was pretty academic until I landed my first job leading the same tropical field trips. Having spent years teaching science and conservation issues, I found myself wanting to ‘walk the talk’ which shifted my career from being a scientist to a conservation practitioner.

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

I think what many people (including myself) don’t do early on in their career is to actually set those goals!

  • How did you land your current job/position? 

When I left the field trips role, I wanted tangible experience in the conservation sector, so I volunteered for a variety of organisations to get a feel of what I wanted to be part of. One of those experiences was with Reef-World’s sister company: Zoox. Zoox used to run professional experience programmes for early-career conservationists, which was basically a crash course in how the conservation sector works coupled with work experience to build up skills like project management or building relationships with stakeholders – the stuff you don’t get at University. I felt like I’d finally landed on my feet and got the foundation I needed to get into the sector. The feeling must have been mutual – they hired me at the end of the programme! As Zoox and Reef-World’s work has such an overlap, I eventually started working for Reef-World too. That was seven years ago!

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

I really enjoy the training aspects of my job; whether that’s training government staff as Green Fins assessors or working with dive guides and instructors in a dive shop to better understand environmental practices – helping people uncover their own potential to create positive change for the environment, and developing the tools they need to do that, is incredibly gratifying.

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

At Reef-World, we often say our role is to catalyse conservation – empowering and providing the right people with the tools and knowledge to have conservation impact at the grassroots level. I think this makes our reach far greater, but it can be difficult to stay in touch with how we ‘make a difference’. I feel it the most when we work with government. No matter what country, there are good people facing huge environmental challenges with endless bureaucracy and limited budget and capacity. When we work with them to help streamline their systems and training for Green Fins, we have knock-on effects on the effectivity of other systems too.

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

That achieving conservation impact is less about loving the pretty reefs and amazing marine life, it’s about understanding and collaborating with people. We often come out of tertiary education being told we know all the things we need to make a change. But it means nothing if you don’t talk to the communities you are working with, understand their cultures, the way they interact with the sea, and what they want from you. Science alone doesn’t change the world; it’s how you use it that counts.

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

Great question! There are so many – especially working in a small NGO, we often have to be the jack-of-all-trades. I never thought I’d need to know so much about website and UX design, social media monitoring or the inner workings of a motorbike! What I do wish we had been taught at Uni was the importance of ‘soft skills’ – the stuff that catalyses your technical knowledge – how to manage a project and a budget, how to manage people, network and develop effective relationships, how to stay in tune with your industry online. Even if you develop these outside your career industry, they are invaluable! My advice would be to get as much work experience as you can, wherever you can at the beginning of the year.

  • The Reef-World Foundation was recently named one of the Escape 100 Best Companies to Escape to – for you, what’s so special about working for Reef-World? 

Being a small team can seem like you’re at a disadvantage, you’ve got limited capacity, limited funding and never enough time in the day! But I think we’ve managed to turn that on its head and use it to our advantage. I like working with people who I respect both personally and professionally, and we’ve nurtured a strong team culture and an emphasis on work-life balance. We do work hard, but we work smart and take the downtime that we need to not burn out. The best conservation impact comes from staff working at their best, and there’s no celebration in working all hours and over the weekend if it’s not needed. To have this recognized by coming 16th on the Escape Top 100 list is a real accomplishment and the whole team is proud to be recognised.

  • What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

More often than not, marine conservation is less about ‘saving the sea’ and more about managing people’s impact on the sea. My advice is to develop a skillset and attitude that allows you to develop a strong and genuine relationship with those you are working with. Use this to understand their wants and needs and collaborate to find solutions to threats. There’s no cut and pasting from other solutions, each location and community is different.

  • What is your favourite marine creature and why? 

I love nudibranchs! They’re so diverse in shape and colours and I love the challenge of finding them, you get a real sense of achievement. Plus, without a shell they have pretty epic defences like eating cnidarians and usurping their stinging cells into their gills.

  • What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

I’ve been lucky enough to dive some of the best dive locations in SE Asia; had wonderful encounters from muck diving critters to megafauna but I think my most profound moment was the first time I saw a healthy reef in Palau and realised that my baseline of what constitutes a ‘good reef’ was completely subpar. It was both humbling and motivating at the same time.

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Thank you Samantha, you’ve given some great advice there and congratulations to The Reef-World Foundation for their (well deserved) award!

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