This week we chat to…Shannon Cameron from Operation Wallacea. From the first moment Shannon saw a coral reef underwater she knew that she wanted to be a marine biologist. Now Shannon loves inspiring a passion for the marine environment in their volunteers and creating the next generation of marine scientists!
Name: Shannon Cameron
Job Title: Marine Research and Operations Officer
Organisation: Operation Wallacea
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I studied Zoology at undergraduate level because I had always had an interest in wildlife in general. I took part in a couple of terrestrial-based projects, which I enjoyed, but my first glimpse of a coral reef occurred in the summer before my final year when I went to Indonesia with Operation Wallacea. I couldn’t believe what lay below the surface of the water, and that set me on the path to becoming a marine biologist – I’ve never looked back!
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Having spent a lot of time around marine scientists on my first expedition, I had a fair idea of what I had to do to become one of them – get as much experience under my belt as possible! I started by going back to university to undertake a MSc in Marine Biology, during which I snapped up any available opportunities to get some hands-on experience. I then got myself back into the field and volunteered for 6 months on another project in the Philippines, helping to set up marine protected areas (MPAs). All the while, I was building on my diving qualification, working my way up from the PADI Open Water I gained on my first expedition, to eventually become a PADI Divemaster with plenty of hours experience in collecting data underwater.
- How did you land your current job/position?
My current position is with the very same organisation that I started my journey with, although I started in a slightly different role. When I was preparing for my first expedition with Opwall, I spent much of my time raising the money I needed to travel to Indonesia and take part in the programme. With their help, I was able to raise almost £3000 in about six months’ through a combination of grant funding, sponsorship and hosting various fundraising activities. Surprisingly, it was this experience, more than anything else, that secured me my first position as Fundraising Coordinator for the organisation that I had dreamed of joining ever since I saw a coral reef for the first time. After some time in this role and working on our marine research project in Honduras, I was able to start focussing more and more on the research side of things, ultimately landing in the position I hold now.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Since starting with Operation Wallacea I have been lucky enough to visit four of our expedition sites in Honduras, Mexico, Dominica and Indonesia. Being able to travel as much as I do, and experiencing so many different countries and cultures is a huge privilege and by far the best thing about my job. However, jumping into the water to start the working day comes in at a very close second.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
All the data we collect makes a difference to the ecosystems we work in and the local communities that we support, and it is wonderful to contribute to this bigger picture. However, I get a more instant sense of gratification from working with our volunteers in the field. Showing someone the wonders of the underwater world for the first time is a thrill, and it is so heartening to see that many of them go on to pursue careers in conservation. It really feels like we are inspiring the next generation of marine scientists.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Although the field of marine biology is competitive, it is also quite small and made up of a network of good, like-minded people. It’s far less intimidating than you might think, so talking to people and asking questions about their research can be both a fun experience and a great way of getting your foot in the door.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
I never realised how important it is to have good public speaking and presentation skills. This is a huge part of my job now and, although my presenting style has improved over the years, it certainly did not come naturally to me – I always dreaded it at university!
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Take every opportunity that comes your way. Travel, volunteer, get your hands dirty and talk to as many people as possible along the way.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
I love boxfish, cowfish, trunkfish… anything that belongs to the family Ostraciidae. They come in weird and wonderful shapes and look as though they don’t belong in the sea! I especially like the juveniles, nicknamed ‘peas’, which often look like tiny bumble bees buzzing around in the water.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
I was lucky enough to see a whaleshark during my time in the Philippines; it swam right in front of our research base, so everybody dropped what they were doing and jumped in to join it. It genuinely took my breath away and is an experience I will never forget!
Thank you Shannon for your fantastic insights. If you would like the experience of a lifetime with Operation Wallacea check out their programmes here.