As many of you will have discovered already, getting a career in marine conservation can be difficult without the right education or experience. At WiseOceans, we believe that an excellent way to gain experience is to volunteer on a marine conservation and research expedition. Expeditions can have a huge impact on people’s lives, whatever stage of life they are at. Often you do not need to have any prior qualifications to join up, you work alongside experienced and qualified marine scientists / conservationists and are taught a multitude of skills necessary for a future career. Marine expeditions tend to be in beautiful locations around the globe, giving you the opportunity to travel and meet likeminded individuals, all ready to learn new skills and have great fun doing so!
Over half of team WiseOceans (past and present) have been involved in marine research expeditions at some stage in their career and this blog highlights the profound and lasting effect these experiences have had on them.
LINDSAY (WiseOceans Director of Resort Marine Education & Development) – For me, my first marine conservation expedition was literally and simply life-changing. It was a few years before then when I tried snorkelling and diving for the first time while visiting Australia that the spark was first lit. But it was January 2006 on a 10-week expedition in Mahahual, Mexico with Global Vision International (GVI) when I made the firm decision that my fledging career in financial services was not the future for me. I was 25 and I loved the ocean, but I had never considered a career within it, it simply hadn’t crossed my path or entered my head. I had a BSc in Mathematics and had completed financial services exams; I knew next to nothing about coral reefs, marine species, or any kind of research or conservation at all. But in Mahahual I was hooked immediately, suddenly hungry to learn and resolute that this was the way forward for me.
And so it was! I made amazing friends from all over the world, learned more than I’d ever imagined I would – and not just about marine life but also about expedition life, life in Mexico, and a multitude of skills both water and diving related, and absolutely random (I can still make a mean guacamole!) – all things that working in financial services in UK cities couldn’t have taught me. How could I look back?
From Mahahual I went directly on to another 10-week expedition with GVI, a little further up the Yucatan east coast, in Pez Maya, where I completed my PADI Divemaster certification and continued to learn about marine and coastal species, scientific surveying, project management and the conservation of species, habitats and ecosystems. Although expeditions are incredible fun, hard work does pay off – I worked my bottom off for 20 weeks with GVI in Mahahual and Pez Maya as an expedition volunteer, and was rewarded with an invitation to return to Mahahual as an intern or scholar, i.e. an unpaid member of staff.
Just these few months in Mexico and I was transformed. I was a strong reef diver, I could identify and survey Caribbean marine species, I understood the threats facing reefs and had an insight into ocean conservation and its management. I was absolutely a different person when I returned to the UK in October 2006, and although I re-entered financial services for a brief spell, less than a year later I was a ‘mature’ student at Plymouth University doing a MSc. in Applied Marine Science at the age of 26. Now, in 2017, I’m looking back at a 10-year career in marine conservation and education, that has taken me to Zanzibar, the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and to vital marine conservation projects in the UK too. I don’t think that the value and impact of expeditions can be understated, and I would advise anyone with the means to join one to do so without hesitation. You can’t even imagine what it might lead to.
CHARLOTTE (WiseOceans Education & Communications Officer) – It’s fair to say that going on a marine research expedition changed my life. It was the start of a career change that saw me swap a life in music and academia to one that involved diving, snorkelling and sharing my love of the marine world.
With just my open water dives under my belt and looking to do something different with my life (although at this stage I had no idea marine education would be where I would end up) I arrived on the GVI Marine Conservation Programme in the beautiful Seychelles. Very quickly I got to be a proficient diver. I also got training in coral and fish identification and turned into a complete coral nerd. After my three months as a volunteer I was invited to become a Scholar (like an intern) and I joined the staff team. This meant more dives, more learning and also starting to teach some of the skills I’d acquired. I was giddy with the excitement of learning so much about the marine life.
Being on the expedition gave me a stripped back, simple lifestyle – you learn what’s important to you. I can honestly say, despite some inevitable hardships when living in a remote location, I spent some of the most contented time of my life there.
A testament to the training I received at GVI Seychelles was that, when a job as a Marine Educator came up with WiseOceans I had gained the knowledge required to be a successful applicant. So a three-month volunteer position ended up being three years in Seychelles and working in marine education, not music education.
I met people from all kinds of backgrounds on the expedition from recent marine biology graduates to ‘oldies’ like me looking to experience something different and I think everybody came away with something that took their lives forward in some way, even if it wasn’t quite as dramatic as a complete career change!
GEN (WiseOceans Wise Work Administrator) – It wasn’t until I volunteered with GVI Seychelles in 2007 that I knew marine conservation was an area I wanted to be so involved in. All I had was my PADI Open Water and absolutely no clue about coral or fish, or anything else marine related for that matter! From the very beginning I was hooked. I loved living in a remote location with a bunch of other people, spending our days being taught so many amazing things from diving skills to the structure of a coral polyp to breadmaking and cooking for 35 people! Putting it all into practice, reaching personal goals and achieving SO much in such a small space of time is what gave me the desire to stay for as long as I could. I applied for what was known as an internship at the time, and was invited to stay on after my 12-week volunteer period as an unpaid staff member. Helping a new group of volunteers to achieve all the things I had as a volunteer.
I was an intern for 6 months before being given a paid staff position which eventually progressed on to Base Manager over time. So my 12-week trip ended up lasting almost 4 years… and now I’ve been working for WiseOceans for over 2 years as well. It goes to show that you never know what you will love doing unless you give it a go. It certainly changed my life!
GEORGIE (past WiseOceans Marine Educator & Reef Restoration Project Officer) – In 2006 I joined a Coral Cay marine expedition in Fiji. I was taking a gap year to travel before I started a degree in Environmental Science and was keen to gain some experience in reef monitoring before hand.
The expedition camp was basic, they usually are, but I knew what I was coming to and didn’t mind roughing it. It’s funny how quickly you adapt to a different way of life, rainwater showers, early morning breakfast chores, bugs, bucket flush toilets and island time. Communal living can be hard, but also great fun and you won’t come out without some cracking memories.
The small isolated island the camp was based on was beautiful, we didn’t have far to roam around but the beach was amazing and there were a great gathering of boulders at one end that made a perfect spot for sunset beers (limited to one a night with our dive heavy schedule). I remember the surreal situation the first time I went up there, seeing banded sea snakes sliding over the rocks. I was told not to worry, they may be deadly, but their mouths are so small they can only get you between your toes and fingers. So I spent the night clenching my toes together.
One of my strongest memories of time on camp is of my first scuba dive. This is often an amazing experience, the feeling of weightlessness, of being able to stay down there and breathe is great. Couple that with learning to dive on a coral reef and you’re hooked. On my first dive a large eagle ray serenely circled us while we were kneeling on the sand doing skills. I kept getting distracted by all the diversity life around us and forgetting I should be concentrating on our skills. I had a great dive instructor though, he was strict on safety and made it fun too.
I joined this expedition for the skills; getting survey experience and gaining ID skills, and I’m so glad I got these, but the other experiences were just a valuable. Learning to live and work with a diverse group of people, budgeting, connecting with the local communities, working as part of a tightly coordinated survey team. And having masses of fun, making friends, coming up with silly ways to entertain each other in the evenings, boat rides to dive sites, getting to live and work in a wild beautiful place. I would do it all again.
BEN (Manager of WiseOceans Seychelles) – Before working at WiseOceans I was a Science Officer at GVI Cap Ternay in Seychelles. Being at GVI was my first professional position in marine conservation. Previously, I had several other conservation volunteering positions gaining various skills and knowledge but it wasn’t until I became a Science Officer that it all came together, allowing me to progress and provided me with a springboard to my current position at WiseOceans.
When I was at GVI there are the key obvious skills you build, such as teaching marine identification, improving volunteers’ SCUBA skills, many hours driving the diving boat, gaining nearly 300+ extra dives, developing teaching skills and most of all developing your own science knowledge and advancing the scientific research. However, through a position like this with GVI you also gain skills that aren’t always obvious, like people management, motivational skills, logistics and planning; how to be innovative, spontaneous and cope under pressure; how to be a good role model and mentor; a recycling warrior; how to interact with other NGOs, media and government agencies; how to organise crazy fundraising events; how to develop relationships with the local community and finally a sense of pride knowing you were part of bigger scientific project which you helped continue and progress. Not only was this position a good way to bring skills and knowledge from previous work experiences or from academia in a scientific marine conservation environment together, but it is also great fun and you meet some awesome people whilst having the time of your life.
ABBIE (WiseOceans Founder & Managing Director) – I think it is fair to say that I firmly believe in the value of marine research expeditions, I’ve certainly been involved in a few over the years! I had always been lucky to know that it was conservation that I wanted to work in, I just wasn’t sure in what form it would be. For me it all properly started back in 2000 when I joined a Greenforce expedition on a very remote and tiny island in Fiji – no electricity, no communication with friends and family for 3 months at a time, outdoor showers and long drop loos coupled with pure glorious remoteness, an unbelievable local community to live alongside, stunning reefs barely dived before and friendships that have remained 17 years on!
I’d signed up to 10 week expedition as a volunteer and loved every moment so when the opportunity for someone to be chosen to stay as a trainee member of staff I jumped at it and was lucky to be chosen. Such an opportunity enabled me to develop my ID skills, learn how to teach others about marine environments and its inhabitants. I clocked up the dives and became a confident diver. This first taste of a marine research expedition and the skills I gained lead to the next five years being spend out in the field working as staff on various expeditions.
I spent more time in Fiji, working with Coral Cay Conservation as their Science Officer and Expedition Leader. Going from a volunteer and intern to a member of staff was a leap but one that provided so much for me. I was responsible for the co-ordination of marine research programmes and expedition logistics, managing staff and volunteers and liaising with local partners for scientific and operational purposes, organising and maintaining fuel budgets, accounts, and scuba equipment, conducting, establishing, managing and reviewing science programmes, dive planning and underwater surveys, including volunteer survey training, maintaining and over-seeing survey data entry and analysis and actively being involved in community work and diver workshops.
The next step in the expedition life for me was to help set up brand new projects which is what I did in 2004 when I was part of the five person team setting up the GVI expedition in Seychelles. My role was Head of Science and it was a fantastic opportunity to be responsible for the formulation, co-ordination and efficient running of the marine research, science training, survey methodology and expedition logistics, whilst also running the everyday science/expedition scheduling, management of volunteers and liaising with in-country partners.
How many jobs enable you to gain and develop so many skills? Expeditions are an unbelievable experience for so many reasons, from extensive in-water experience, developing life skills, networking and being part of hands on marine conservation. Marine research expeditions are also what you make them and if you want to get the maximum out of them then you can, be the one chosen to stay on as an intern, gain the skills to stay on as staff, build friendships that will last a lifetime and take all of that to lead towards perfect future job(s). I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without the expeditions I was involved in, it was certainly worth working crazy hours in multiple jobs at every opportunity when I was back in the UK to enable to volunteer or boost the often less than bountiful pay that comes with a way of life that is unique to expedition and unbelievably special.