A deep dive into working in marine conservation with Kate Sheridan
Originally from the UK, Kate Sheridan is a conservation biologist and scuba diver, living and working in the Maldives for a coral restoration and research project, Reefscapers. Although everyday life looks like a tropical dream – marine conservation set in island paradise – we discuss some of the hardships of creating a long-term career in conservation.
In this interview, Kate shares her journey on how she became a marine biologist working in the Maldives, as well as her top tips on how to overcome some of the major hurdles surrounding a career in conservation, in order to live your dream life working with wildlife.
Kate Sheridan (pronouns: she/her) always wanted to work with wildlife. Over the course of many years and discoveries, she ended up studying conservation biology in pursuit of a career in conservation
Kate grew up just outside of London and always thought the only way you could work with animals was to be a veterinarian. Kate explains:
“I had absolutely no idea there was an entire booming industry of conservationists, researchers, all kinds of jobs related to wildlife that weren’t being a vet.”
A defining moment for Kate was visiting Kenya with her family at 16. She shares:
“I was just blown away. I was just in my element. I need to figure out a way for this to be my life.”
The following summer, Kate travelled to South Africa for the first time by herself without her family to volunteer on a conservation project.
“And that was when I really discovered that conservation is a career and that you don’t have to be Steve Irwin’s kid to be a conservationist.”
“And I think before that, I just never believed it was something that, you know, anyone could do.”
Kate finished her undergraduate degree and then moved to South Africa to study a masters in conservation biology.
“That was a really game changer for me – and it all snowballed from there. Going to Africa and meeting people who are working on the front line of conservation, that was the realization that it’s a career, it’s a job. And you need people with all different skills, all different backgrounds in this field”
It’s an incredible feeling when you realize your dreams that you’ve always held at arm’s reach are totally tangible! Following her master’s program, Kate found herself back in London where she began applying for jobs in the conservation field.
With COVID causing problems all over the world, Kate felt trapped and compelled to find work as soon as possible, even applying for jobs and internship programs she had no interest in! While she waited, Kate began focusing on her passion for wildlife photography and growing her social media accounts on Instagram and TikTok.
Although challenging, Kate continued applying for work and waiting to hear back when she saw what would become her dream job advertised – a coral conservation biologist in the Maldives!
Without hesitation, Kate applied for the role and within a few weeks, she was boarding a plane with a one-way ticket to the Maldives!
Periods of unemployment are so challenging in the conservation field, but they happen to everyone! Sit tight, focus on staying positive and busy with your hobbies and side projects, and eventually, your dream job will show up!
A day in the life
Working as a marine biologist supporting a coral conservation project may sound like a dream job for you as well as Kate! But what does this job actually look like day-to-day? Kate explains:
“I always say my favourite part of the job is that no two days are the same.”
Kate is a conservation biologist working in coral restoration and research with Reefscapers. Her main work is managing a coral restoration project on one island in the Maldives.
“We’re restoring coral largely through propagation – mostly hard corals – that we propagate in the way house plants are propagated: taking a small piece, planting it on a metal frame, where it can grow into a new colony and create an artificial reef.”
Corals can reproduce asexually: when small pieces of corals break, they can start growing into new colonies, and the previous colony simply regrows that branch. In this way, the restoration technique uses that natural regeneration process and many small coral pieces are attached to metal structures that are submerged, creating the foundations for future reef.
“As they grow into bigger colonies, they create habitat for the marine life. Coral reefs are an amazing ecosystem to work in because they’re the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world – 25% of all marine life dependent on coral reefs but they cover less than 1% of the ocean floor!”
For Kate, this means that on one day she could be scuba diving to survey the reefs or deploy parts of the reef they are creating in areas that have suffered a loss of coral. The next day, she might be onshore, working to attach pieces of coral to the metal structures or analysing data. And of course, a large part of Kate’s work is underwater, allowing her to experience the magic of the marine world – whether it’s the tiny colourful fish of the coral reef, or pods of dolphins swimming past. For more visual inspiration of Kate’s role, check out her Instagram account @conservation_kate!
All over the world, we’ve seen huge levels of mortality in coral reefs around the world – and in the Maldives alone, about 90% of shallow reefs have bleached and been lost in the last two decades.
“It’s obvious, everywhere you go, you see the impact, the devastation where the reefs are just not as vibrant. And the problem with losing the corals is the knock-on effects for the 25% of species that are relying on the corals – all the fish, the rays, the sharks, turtles up to your cetaceans, your dolphins and whales”
“It’s a very crucial time for coral reefs the next 5 to 10 years – but it’s also a very kind of exciting time to be working with corals, to be researching corals”
Kate’s work has two main pillars: coral restoration and also coral research – learning more about coral biology and how they are faring. And this work has huge flow-on benefits not just for the ecosystem, but also social and economic benefits.
“The reason the Maldives is so picture perfect is because of the white sand and the blue water – both of which come from coral. So, whether you’re just lying on a beach, or snorkelling in the underwater world, you’re appreciating the coral reefs!”
There’s definitely a huge like economic benefit of having healthy coral reefs in the Maldives!
The challenges of living and working in paradise
So many conservation jobs are based in remote, wild places – like the Maldives! And while at a surface level, so many of these destinations appear to be paradise – these positions and placements certainly come with challenges. Kate explains:
“It’s a very cool experience to have and I think I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself… but it definitely has its challenges as well.”
And for this reason, we discussed some of the less discussed realities of living and working in small communities and remote locations – all part of the job as a remote-based ecologist.
But when you live in paradise, it’s hard to share when things are difficult or exhausting or challenging.
“I am incredibly grateful and absolutely love my job and the pros definitely outweigh the cons but at the end of the day, a job’s a job and no job is perfect, no situation is perfect – and there are so many extenuating factors that play into it.”
But it’s important to have these discussions and share these realities so we can normalize conversations and solutions around burnout, compassion fatigue, low pay, long hours and these challenges common in passion-motivated roles like wildlife conservation.
“You don’t go into conservation for the money. You don’t go into it really for any reason, other than it’s your passion because it’s very competitive and difficult to find paid work.”
For this reason, Kate is a huge advocate of practicing self-care whilst in the ecology space.
“Because you are driven by your own passion, it’s easy to overwork yourself and not even realize that you’re doing it. But when you take a step back and compare your work to more traditional jobs, you see you should be able to switch off from your job and you should be able to work normal hours and not feel guilt or responsibility that you aren’t doing enough.”
“Self-care is a very important part of being a conservationist. That’s one that’s definitely overlooked and not talked about enough.”
Self-care can be a bit of a pop-word in today’s world but what does that look like in reality? Kate shares how she practices self-care as an ecologist:
“For me personally, I think it’s about giving yourself a break and so I try to allow myself time where I switch off from the whole world (and the news!) and just relax. And in the Maldives, that definitely takes the form of reading on the beach, being by the ocean, reading and trying to just switch off entirely.”
“I definitely think on a wider-scale though, self-care is about making sure that you are in a position where you actually can help and that you are looking after yourself.”
As long as you’re giving yourself mental and physical space from work, self-care can take many forms – whether it’s walking in nature, reading on the beach, having a hobby or doing something you love.
And on a broader scale, as an industry we need to take opportunities to push for improved working conditions and stronger boundaries to encourage a healthy work-life balance. This can include less reliance on volunteer experience to enter the industry, higher levels of pay, more flexible time off to facilitate travel home or to/from remote field sites and more respect for distinguishing work and home time, especially when living at field stations as Kate does!
Chasing a career in conservation
And so, what about stepping into your very own mermaid-like career in conservation marine biology? Kate has some top suggestions on where to start:
“The first thing to do is to think about what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing, and then think about how that could fit into conservation, because I guarantee it will.”
Once you have found that, that’s your unique selling point! After all, there are so many ways you could use your skillset to benefit wildlife conservation and create innovation in this space.
But in terms of more practical tips for people wanting to go down the more scientific, conservation biology route, Kate has the following advice:
- Building experience is key (and considering what kind of job might suit you best)
“Focus on getting as much experience as you can so you know what you like and you know what you don’t like as well. That experience can come in the form of internships, actual jobs or even just visiting the places, reading about them or watching documentaries about them, to see if anything particularly piques your interest.”
- Grow your network
“Utilise the network you already have or approach people on social media or at events. But definitely trying to meet people, ask questions, speak to them and connecting can be super valuable”
- Immerse yourself in the conservation bubble whilst making time for self-care and have fun!
Whether you’re following conservation accounts on social media, spending time in nature or lending a hand to local conservation projects – the time you spend in this space will help you build your knowledge, your experience and your network, and may inspire your next steps in this space!
Keep in touch
Want to hear more from Kate Sheridan? You can follow her adventures on Instagram & TikTok @conservation_kate. You can also find out more about Reefscapers on their website or Instagram @reefscapersmaldives.
To learn more about Reefscapers, you can also check out the story Restoring reefs from little pieces. If you’re passionate about marine conservation or restoration, you’ll probably enjoy our ultimate guides Marine conservation jobs, How to become a marine biologist and Careers in restoration and rewilding.
And for a discussion on wellbeing in conservation, check out our webinar replay ‘Wellbeing in Conservation’ as a member of the Conservation Careers Academy.
Author Profile | Susie Stockwell
Susie Stockwell (she/her) is a field ecologist, science communicator and creator of the blog and podcast, #itsawildlife, a platform to support people on their journey to work their dream job in wildlife science or conservation. Based on beautiful Menang country on the south coast of Western Australia, Susie is passionate about finding novel solutions for wildlife conservation and opening up the space to promote engagement and involvement for everyone interested in pursuing this career.