Manon Fontaine, from arts to wildlife conservation
After a long and successful career in arts design, Manon Fontaine changed the brushes and the puppets to binoculars and animals’ tags. Keep reading if you want to know why and how an artist in her 40s managed to turned into an international all-round wildlife conservationist.
Who is Manon Fontaine?
I am a very curious, optimistic, and a keen learner. Nature and outdoor life are a big part of who I am, as I grew up in a remote area of Canada. I also love diving because I am fascinated by the greatness and the beauty of the ocean.
When did you start diving?
In the Philippines in 2005. I was completing my MA in museology (the study of museums), and I decided to travel with my partner around South Korea in the winter for few months. My partner needed beach time in the Philippines before flying back, so I began with the Open Water diving course (starting course). Diving had always fascinated me, but I had never tried it before since I generally took time off for hiking. From that moment, I just fell in love with diving.
Why do you work in conservation?
I love conservation because it involves working outside. I especially enjoy the direct contact with nature, wildlife and the physical field work. I like hiking in remote areas, traveling at sea, and working to protect environment and wildlife.
What were you working on before switching to conservation?
In my first career, I worked for about 20 years in theatre and the movie industry as a scenic artist, designing and constructing puppets, props, costumes, and sets. At some point, I developed some occupational health issues and I decided it was time to change. I am a lifelong learner and never stopped studying, so the decision to go back to school in a nature related program was quickly taken.
How did you manage to make that change?
First, I focused on what I really wanted to do. I like working outside in direct contact with nature, and even if it may look like as a drastic change, over the years I have never stopped studying the subjects that interested me. It slowly built up a clearer view of my new goals, and once I discovered the type of work I specifically wanted to do, I followed the appropriate steps.
I did not want to go back to university to get an office job but I wanted to become a field technician. I decided to study renewable resource management and conservation in the Yukon (Canada), where I started working in the field.
Up north, fieldwork is seasonal, so during the off-season I continued my training, updated my certifications and started volunteering for international conservation projects. It gave me a lot of hands-on experience with a wider variety of terrain and species.
What were the main difficulties you encountered and how did you overcome them?
It was quite hard to get the first working contract. I was a newly-trained technician trying to get hired in a physically challenging domain in a northern and remote part of the world. I had to be self-confident, well trained, very competent and keep very fit. I had all the required certifications and a great sense of humour, which always help.
What was your first paid job in conservation?
My first paid job was as a student co-manager of a conservation hatchery. We were working together with a local First Nation to restore a population of Chinook Salmon in one of the Yukon River tributaries. This position was supervised by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which helped me to gain enough experience to apply and get hired as a DFO aquatic science technician.
I worked in that position with 4 species of adult Pacific Salmon returning to the Taku River, a transboundary river flowing from Northern Canada through Alaska. During those years I participated in a long-term mark and recapture program, doing surveys, monitoring (ex. size, age, weight, etc.), opening/closing camp, driving jet boats, maintaining equipment, vehicles, etc. Overall, things got much easier when people started knowing me and I was getting valuable field experience.
Where in conservation have you worked during these years?
As I came out of the Renewable Resource Management program, I worked in the Yukon and Alaska. I had my first international volunteering experience in wildlife conservation in Costa Rica, collaborating on two projects: the first one involved working with adult turtles to record their biometrics and remove parasites; in the second one, we worked on birds and wild cats. A year later, I volunteered on a PhD project in the Sonoran Desert (Arizona) gathering information on wildlife (burrows, tracking, scat).
I participated in a few scientific diving projects, which allowed me to get numerous training and certifications. In Mexico, I monitored juvenile fish and lionfish; in the Philippines, I surveyed seagrass and fish while doing my dive master, and in Indonesia I studied marine science and was trained as an eco-diver.
Later, I also studied ornithology in college, but it took many years before being able to work with birds. My first bird-related contract was in the Yukon, followed by two different PhD projects, one in Argentina near LaPlata (flickers and song birds), and the second one in the Bohai Bay area in China, surveying shorebirds.
For the past few years, I have mostly been living on the southern West Coast of Canada in British Columbia, where I have been working at sea or underwater. I was recently certified as an Occupational Diver and an at-sea fisheries observer. I am presently looking to volunteer in diving and bird projects.
Are most of these jobs or internships paid?
Most of the experiences abroad are not paid, though they usually cover lodging, food, training and sometimes transportation. The work I do in Canada is paid.
Which kind of jobs and main tasks have you performed?
- Identifying, counting, measuring and recording data of birds, fish and wildlife.
- Monitoring environmental data in the field
- Writing reports, preparing protocols and liaising with governmental agencies, local First Nations and conservation organisations.
- Performing scientific outreach, building up partnership, and networking are also important aspects of my work.
What are you currently working on?
Now, I am seeking for new jobs. My last job was as a Scuba Claus on Christmas, in which I was diving in the Georgia Straight Exhibit of the Vancouver Aquarium. One of the main tasks was to introduce the local marine life to children.
Which jobs are you planning to apply for now?
I already started applying for commercial diving and wildlife technician-related jobs. However, I would like to find a position that would be at least 80% on the field, in contact with, wildlife, and a combination of land, underwater, and at sea work.
What are the best and the worst parts of your job?
The best part of my work is to be outside in direct contact with animals and like-minded optimistic people. The worst part would be the politics, budget cuts, and short-term vision.
Which key steps have you taken to be successful in your conservation career?
When opportunities arise, I just go for it. I do what I love to do, and I am really involved in what I am doing when I am doing it. I believe everyone must find their motivation and passion. I also try to look at both, the big picture and the smaller details to better understand the issue and what I can do.
What recommendations would you give to someone who aims to switch from a different professional path to work in conservation?
I think the main thing is to find what your personal best way is. For example, as a lifelong learner, I love being trained, trying new things, and reading scientific papers.
So, for me enrolling into a program with hands on training and fieldwork volunteering are just my way to go. Find what you are passionate about, be curious, get informed, and always keep on learning. If you see a position you are interested in, look at the prerequisites, see what is missing for you and find the way to get the right training and experience.
As a 51-year-old occupational diver and fish and wildlife field technician, I know I have to be very fit (I run, do strength training, Qi Gong etc.), up to date with all of my training and certifications (SVOP, First Aid, Swift water Rescue, Diving…), and expand my expertise. So next I want to learn more about marine mammals and get the proper training to do surveys.
Do you now feel more confident to start and pursue your career switch into wildlife conservation? If that is the case, visit Manon’s LinkedIn profile where you can directly contact her for some feedback and advice. Also, do not forget to explore the Conservation Careers website, especially jobs for careers switchers. Your wildlife dream job might be a click of distance from this blog.
Author Profile | José Francisco Bergua Canudo
José is a Spanish biotechnologist with expertise and a great interest in marine wildlife conservation. He recently obtained his PhD developing cheap and easy-to-use tools for water quality monitoring in the field. He has also performed coral reef restoration and mangroves plantation in Indonesia and works with several environmental agencies writing about marine biotechnology, biodiversity and climate change in Spain and abroad.