I found Zoox by trawling through a conservation job website when I was in my volunteering ‘phase’ trying to figure out what I wanted to do in marine conservation and agonising over whether I had made a good choice quitting my job to pursue this crazy dream. I had four years of experience with environmental education and project management but even so, reading the job descriptions for marine conservation work was incredibly intimidating. I was unfamiliar with the terminology and concepts, had never worked with any government sector or done much at the community level. I needed an experience that allowed me to put my existing knowledge and skill set into context and go from there. I just didn’t know that yet. When I stumbled across the Zoox Experience Programme I was blown away. This list of potential skills and knowledge and experience to gain with them seemed to good to be true. From Project planning to negotiation, and consultation to developing knowledge of conservation in developing nations political systems, this was the list I didn’t know I was looking for. I honestly felt like I had stumbled across my best stepping stone to this career yet.
I think I put more effort into my CV and cover letter than anything before in my life. I was going to get on this programme. To my glee, I was accepted and joined three other volunteers who were at different stages in their careers. One was a recent marine biology graduate, the other a dive instructor with a background in industrial chemistry and a veterinarian! The one thing we had in common was that these two months were our first steps into professional marine conservation.
We had two weeks training in modules that were familiar to me, like marine monitoring and blue carbon. However, this wasn’t revision, and I found the focus wasn’t on learning the science, but applying your knowledge to make sure you have the best conservation impact possible – like approaches to designing your community project, or monitoring programme. It was essentially a beginners course in conservation management. Global Marine Conservation was another module that has been invaluable – I use aspects of what I learnt here every single day. The best description is it untangles the food web of marine conservation funding. I learnt how international conventions relate, influence and impact the work on the ground and how to align my career to conservation ‘trends’. The training was intense – a lot to take in, but when the programme finished I realised the point wasn’t to remember every piece of information, but to allow my new general knowledge of the sector to ground me as a professional.
At this point we still had six weeks to go! We trained up as Green Fins assessors – and got dropped in the deep end. That is after all where you grow the most. We had to assess dive centres environmental impacts, consult with managers to change company policy and reduce any damage caused, give training presentations to the staff and write it all up in reports. Our team did 25 assessments and trained 161 people! I was visibly shaking for my first solo consultation, but with no time to let the nerves get the better of me, it soon became second nature.
On top of this we were each assigned a personal project that was our responsibility to plan, execute and deliver. Suddenly we were conservation project managers with real responsibilities, and this was a volunteer experience! I was tasked to work with the local government fisheries officer, Grace, to design and deliver environmental training workshops for snorkel boat guides – chosen for me because I had identified working with local government as experience missing from my CV. I wrote and got feedback on a practice funding proposal for the event, I organised regular meetings with Grace to align our objectives, and designed a presentation and break out discussions that covered basic biology, ecology and how to brief tourists to prevent direct damage to reefs. I scouted the workshop locations, met village leaders, and snorkel tour guide associations. After four years, I still remember my two greatest fears; that no one would show up, and/or there would be a power cut (pretty common out here). The only things out of my control! Luckily the team was incredibly supportive and were on hand to help run the events. I ended up running three workshops over two days, reaching 182 people. There were no power cuts, but in one workshop we had 80 people in one tiny village hall with only a couple of fans. It was hot and humid and one of the warmest, fuzziest feelings of my life. It cost a grand total of GBP £14.
In our last week, our trainers and the Zoox Directors Chloe and JJ sat down with each of us individually and gave us a Professional Development Feedback session. They translated job description terminology, explained how well we did at certain skills, highlighted our professional weaknesses and gave constructive feedback. For example, I should push past the tendency to procrastinate, and work on my poker face. I keep this advice with me daily.
It was completely overwhelming how much we had learnt and achieved in two months. My biggest takeaway points beyond my feedback was to align my work to the directives of international conferences and agreements and to always, always, always customise my job applications. Of all the volunteer work I had done, this was the most self-serving. When Chloe and JJ invited me back as their first member of staff, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to help build the new generation of marine conservation professionals.
I wondered if I would feel a conflict of interest writing this blog to you all. I volunteered with Zoox, and now I work for them, managing the training and experience programmes. However, working in marine conservation is not easy. Most people, for many of the right reasons, maintain a professional front but we all go through the struggles of getting these dream jobs. The more we can share about our stories, our nerves, our learning curves, the better. I believe this is an honest account of my volunteer experience (as much as my memory will serve!) and I am honoured and proud to be training, guiding and supporting our volunteers through the same steps I took.
The Zoox Experience Programme designed to offer selected individuals the unique opportunity to blend on the job experience with professional training in marine conservation. Volunteers should be certified divers with a minimum of 50 dives. If you would like to know more, please visit www.zoox.org.uk or contact them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.