Adventurer at heart: exploring the marine world with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic’s Alyssa Adler

If you think dream jobs don’t exist, read no further.

There are limitless reasons to set aside our true passions: the job market is too poor, competition is too fierce (surely no one can acquire that many degrees and that much experience by age 25?) and social pressure cautions us against idealistic pursuits. Safe decisions easily become best decisions when we’re daunted or unsure of ourselves.

But what if we didn’t rationalize away our dreams?

If you’re still reading, imagine waking up aboard a National Geographic vessel in a part of the world few will ever have the chance to see: Antarctica. You spend the afternoon diving to record underwater ecosystems, then compile photos and video footage into a presentation for the ship’s passengers, taking them on a visual journey of life beneath the waves.

For Alyssa Adler, this is a typical day as an Undersea Specialist with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. In an interview between trips Alyssa shared the highlights of her job and how she came to be paid to do what she loves.

An Aeolid nudibranch off Isla de los Estados, Argentina.

An Aeolid nudibranch off Isla de los Estados, Argentina.

A partnership in science and adventure

With a passion for exploration, adventure, discovery and conservation, Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic have partnered since 2004 to offer small-ship voyages to some of the world’s most remote and astonishing places. National Geographic provides the ships, Lindblad runs the tourism and together they take travellers and professionals to explore the world’s natural and cultural wonders.

Tourists have the opportunity to explore remote areas via zodiaks, sea kayaks, snorkels and more, benefiting from a team of on-board experts including naturalists, undersea specialists and National Geographic scientists, historians, photographers and explorers. Meanwhile National Geographic Fellows and other scientists can travel aboard the ships to remote locations, such as conducting killer whale research in Antarctica.

Undersea Specialist on board

As Undersea Specialist with Lindblad Expeditions, Alyssa acts as a scientific educator for ship passengers, diving or using an underwater submersible (ROV) to take videos and photos of marine life. “While everyone is touring the land, I’m touring the ocean. I go down and gather information and bring it back to show them everything they’re not seeing underwater.”

Alyssa operating the ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) off the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica.

Alyssa operating the ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) off the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica.

Alyssa’s role has taken her from French Polynesia to Antarctica and from Madagascar to Greenland, but four experiences stand out most: “Diving in the Seychelles was phenomenal. Being able to experience Greenland was very special, and South Georgia, because it’s so very remote and has so much history attached to it. But cold water diving in Alaska has my heart.”

Having grown up amidst the mountains in Oregon, USA, Alyssa found her passion for marine conservation on a study abroad program to Bonaire. She saw how healthy the island’s reefs were compared to the rest of the Caribbean, in part because they have been protected by a marine protected area since 1979.

“I realized how much we take from the ocean and how little we give back and that disparity is unsustainable. It’s a field that needs more attention.”

Making your passion a career path

Alyssa began diving while completing a B.Sc. in marine biology from Oregon State University, USA but never imagined working as a diver aboard National Geographic ships.

She had hit an all-too-common wall for recent undergraduates – lacking the experience employers expect. “After you get out of university as an undergrad everyone wants you to have experience and a degree – and I couldn’t get a job doing anything. So I decided I was going to travel for a year and be a Divemaster.”

Hiking around Laguna Quilotoa in Ecuador.

Hiking around Laguna Quilotoa in Ecuador.

The decision to try something she loves gave Alyssa just the right experience and connections to land her role with Lindblad Expeditions. She worked as a PADI Divemaster in Greece and Honduras, as a volunteer diver for a research station in Honduras, and most recently as a scientific diver for the University of North Carolina.

When a friend recommended Alyssa to her current boss with Lindblad Expeditions, Alyssa wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip by. “I didn’t leave her alone and kept suggesting, ‘Let’s chat!’ When she interviewed me over Skype I wouldn’t leave her alone for three weeks.” That passion and persistence helped Alyssa land a job that is often only available via word-of-mouth. 

Top skills for adventurers

Like many jobs, being a Lindblad Expeditions Undersea Specialist or Naturalist takes the right mix of education, experience and personality. Outgoing people with scientific backgrounds, a keen interest in the natural world and great communication skills are well-suited, Alyssa says.

“If you’re the kind of person who wants to sit up on the ship’s bridge and look for birds and say, ‘Ah! That’s a Wilson’s Storm Petrel,’ or ‘That’s a Wandering Albatross – let’s tell people about it!’ you’ll be a good fit.”

Scientific backgrounds can vary from a Bachelor’s degree up to the level of a PhD but lots of dive experience is essential (for Undersea Specialists) and the ability to drive a zodiac is a plus. Research experience and communication skills can be a great advantage for giving interesting talks and translating science into compelling stories.

“I’m communicating science in layman’s terms,” says Alyssa, who often presents to groups of 150 people. “I’m telling people about limpets or sea stars or kelp and I can’t say, ‘As everyone knows, the holdfast connects to the stipe and that’s how they photosynthesize. But it’s amazing how relatable scientific information is once you explain it in simple language.”

A view out “The Window” in southern Madagascar.

A view out “The Window” in southern Madagascar.

Having an extroverted side is important because alone time is scarce on the ships. Most waking hours are spent working and interacting with people, Alyssa says, and expedition staff work every day of their contracts (often six weeks). “Everybody’s so interested in everything so there’s constantly people asking you questions; if that’s the kind of thing that starts to irk you, it could be a real drawback.”

A team attitude and a spontaneous and flexible personality are also key. The ability to dive or operate the ROV depends largely on weather, sea conditions and time and sometimes weeks of work need to be filled at the last minute. “Whoever has this job is going to be well-equipped to have a non-stable life!” says Alyssa.

Unforgettable journeys

The most rewarding part of her work, Alyssa says, is showing people wildlife that they had never heard of and instilling respect for corners of the world that they had never imagined.

“It’s most interesting in the polar regions because the marine life is on a bigger scale than everything above water. In Antarctica, there’s not much entirely land-based life, but below water the kelp and algae are always impressive.”

“It’s really rewarding when you get people excited about things that it’s not easy to get people excited about – like small crustaceans. And personally for me, it’s a dream being about to dive all around the world and get paid for it.”

Like many true explorers, Alyssa feels “most alive when on the cusp of a new journey” but keeps all the places she’s visited close to her heart. “The more I travel, the more I find a love for places that I really want to visit again. There’s really nowhere I wouldn’t visit for the first time, and there are very few places I wouldn’t go back to.”

Check out Alyssa’s Instagram (@alyssamadler) for underwater wildlife photography and to follow ship locations and itineraries.

Read more about National Geographic in this interview with a NatGeo project manager.

Careers Advice, Mid Career, Expeditions, Marine Conservation Jobs