An Interview with WiseOceans…Stella Diamant from Madagascar Whale Shark Project
This week we chat with Stella Diamant, founder of the Madagascar Whale Shark Research Project. Stella saw a gap that needed filling and started her own research project. She recommends gaining project management and media relations skills to boost your CV.
Name: Stella Diamant
Job Title: Founder of the Madagascar Whale Shark Research Project
Organisation: Madagascar Whale Shark Research Project
What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I’ve always been interested in nature so I decided to study Biology at university. For my final project, I focused on the effects of plastic pollution on marine environments and the more I learned about how single-use plastics are destroying the ocean, the more shocked and concerned I was! I’ve always been motivated to get involved with causes that I believe in strongly and protecting our oceans is one of my passions – working in marine conservation was the natural choice for me.
What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I have started a research and conservation project from scratch and walked away from a paid job to work in my favorite place on earth: Madagascar. Already that was a very big step for me! I want to become a better manager and am trying to learn more about running a business and an organisation – the real challenge lies in making my project sustainable and offering a lasting benefit for local populations.
How did you land your current job/position?
I went to Madagascar as a volunteer several years ago and fell in love with the place – it’s such a stunning country. I heard there were whale sharks in the area but no work seemed to be ongoing, so I contacted various whale shark experts to see who was interested in supporting me as back then I didn’t know much about project management or whale sharks. I was amazed to find out that nobody was so I decided to quit my job and start a research project myself.
Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
That’s easy – there’s nothing quite like swimming with a whale shark. These enormous animals appear out of the blue – we have no idea where they’ve been – and allow you to share the ocean with them. It’s really quite humbling.
Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Yes. I’m really proud of how much the Madagascar Whale Shark Project has achieved in the last few years. We’ve recently published a study on whale shark populations in Madagascar, which shows the country is a feeding hotspot for juveniles. This is totally new research so I hope it will contribute to conservation efforts in the area – because no sharks or rays are currently protected in Madagascar.
Another way I feel we’ve already made a huge difference has been by developing and implementing a code of conduct for local operators. These guidelines advise on best practices when interacting with the sharks and, as well as protecting the whale sharks themselves, makes it a better experience for tourists because there are fewer people all trying to swim with the same shark. Since we rolled out the code of conduct, we’ve already had really positive feedback and it makes me happy to know we’re also doing our bit in protecting these endangered species by minimising the risk of boat strikes etc.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Probably how varied my work would be and how much I’d have to learn – as well as how much hard work it takes to get to where you want to be. You need to prove that you can do your research to perfection day-in-day-out for a long period of time; it’s a challenging and exhausting role. In addition, you need to be independent, pro-active, and secure funding as well. All in all, it is a lot more than one responsibility. But I wouldn’t change it for the world – I love the ocean and I’m so lucky to be able to dedicate my career to protecting it.
Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
Yes – lots of them! You might think when starting out in marine conservation that your whole time will be spent doing fieldwork but that’s not the case at all. I’ve had to learn a huge range of different skills in order to make the project a success – as well as learning to freedive, I’ve had to gain project management expertise and media relations skills. Pretty much everything that’s going on with the project, I’ve been involved in extensively – which means my CV is very colourful now!
What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
That really links to your last question – make sure you invest the time and effort to gain all the skills you’re going to need to succeed in your field as many of them will not be the “obvious” ones you think of. Also, do your research and work out exactly what type of marine conservation you want to specialise in – they might seem similar but you won’t be able to get a job as a whale researcher if all your experience to date has been with dolphins. You have to be very specific.
What is your favourite marine creature and why?
Of course I would have to say the beautiful whale shark. You can’t quite imagine the enormous size of these gentle giants until you’ve seen them in the flesh and they’re so mysterious: there is so much we don’t know about them which I find really intriguing.
Perhaps it was written in the stars that I’d end up working with whale sharks: in the Malagasy language, the name for whale sharks is “the Milky Way” because their spot patterns look like they’re covered in many stars and my name, Stella, is Latin for star!
What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
There are so many to choose from. There is one day in particular which was fantastic – I was out collecting data with my team and we came across a huge 9m whale shark, which is the biggest I’ve ever seen (although adults can reach up to 20m). He was totally chilled out in the water and went vertical to feed while we all hovered around watching him for maybe half an hour. These beautiful animals look so much bigger when they’re hanging vertically in the water in front of you – it’s quite spectacular.
Thank you, Stella, for an amazing insight into starting your own research project. It goes to show that if you are passionate about something you can achieve great things.
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