How to Scuba Dive Into an Epic Ecotourism Job
The ethos of ecotourism is about sharing the beauty of the natural world and the creatures within it. It should cultivate understanding, appreciation and conservation of the environment and culture. The outcome being tangible benefits for conservation and for local communities.
In some parts of the world, this takes form in the shape of scuba diving and swimming! This is the case for Mark Ferguson, co-owner of Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks in Western Australia, alongside his wife, Debbie.
Read on to hear all about Mark’s journey in ecotourism, and how to get a job scuba diving and swimming with whale sharks. Kickstart your marine conservation career into a dream job!
How did your ecotourism story start?
It started as a hobby. I learnt to scuba dive and started diving around Fremantle and Rottnest Island, near the city of Perth in Western Australia. An opportunity came up to buy a charter boat. A group of us who used to dive together regularly decided to go and start our own business. That was 20 years ago.
We built it all up from there – running charters to Rottnest Island, doing diving and snorkelling and tours. We started off with four partners, but eventually, I ended up buying the business out and working alongside my wife, Debbie.
Debbie and I came to Exmouth for our honeymoon. We did a whale shark swim and enjoyed it so much. We’d been up a few times, so it was always a place in the back of my mind.
One day, a friend called and said there was a whale shark license going. We decided to have a look and then decided to jump in! That was 9 years ago.
How does the whale shark licensing work?
Parks and Wildlife manage the licensing for the whale shark boats. There’s a max of 15 licenses in the Ningaloo – 12 in the Exmouth area. To be able to operate a whale shark boat you need a license.
The business we bought was an existing one – it was run down and the previous owners wanted to quit. The whale shark businesses were already quite well established in the area at the time.
The licensing program protects the whale sharks from boat traffic. It stops the place where they congregate each year getting overcrowded with boat traffic and people.
Why do you work in ecotourism?
My love of scuba diving is definitely one aspect. But it’s also about going to areas of nature where you know you’re in a different realm. You can get away from everything – and that’s especially the case with scuba diving.
There are no mobile phones. You’re escaping the man-made world!
It’s got lots of aspects – the beauty, nature, and the adventure. In these wild environments, you have no control over everything!
There’s a freedom about being in nature. You don’t know what’s going to happen next – could be fish, whale shark or turtle that come along next! It’s so good to have those surprises.
What aspects of conservation have you been involved with?
I’ve been involved with various scientists throughout my time working in ecotourism which has been a big part of my contribution to conservation.
I was involved in seagrass transplanting with Murdoch University for 6 or 7 years. I’ve helped a few universities do water quality monitoring too. I’ve helped take scientists to desalination plants so they could do the sampling.
I’ve worked with a museum protecting sites and wrecks. I’ve helped with rehabilitation projects, and bird surveys for Parks and Wildlife. I was also involved with research around fish-attracting devices for recfishwest!
We’re involved with conservation every day. When we take our boats out for scuba diving and whale shark swims, we collect data and submit it to citizen science projects. For every whale shark, manta ray and humpback whale we see, we gather information. Our staff take ID photos, collect tags, and document things like sex and size. We send our data into Project Manta and whale shark research centres like EcoOcean.
All the whale shark boats have to do it as part of their license. The information goes to Parks and Wildlife, and an international database.
Our customers get involved too – it’s an education and helps them to appreciate the ocean and what lives in it!
What’s working in ecotourism like?
You do it because you love it, not for the money. You do long hours and deal with the public all the time which is enjoyable. There are lots of idiosyncrasies.
What are the main activities in your job?
Generally, the day starts with organising everything for our customers. We have all the lunches organised, then we pick everyone up. Then we drive to the boat and load it up! It’s a lot of organisation and being well-prepared.
Throughout the day, it’s all about entertaining the guests. Telling them what they’re going to see and what they’re going to do. Sharing the history of the local area with them, and some cultural aspects. There are lots of briefings and then it’s time to go out and do the fun stuff!
At the end of the day, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do. Equipment, boats, and putting things away etc. Finally, we get ready for the next day! We make sure all the information is correct and we’re ready to start again bright and early.
From the management side, there’s a lot of paperwork! Making sure everything’s streamlined. Making sure licenses are good – from whale shark licenses to scuba diving. Then there are the boat operations, vehicles and everything else – ensuring everything’s up to date! Plus all the government procedures – tax and all the rest. It’s a full-time job!
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Occasionally I get to skipper the boat or guide a dive! That’s awesome. The best thing is hearing when people have had a great day and their stories about what they’ve seen.
Seeing the big-ticket items is fantastic. Whale sharks, humpbacks and mantas. Every day is like an adventure. You never know what you’ll find. The other day we saw a hammerhead! Last week there was a pod of three humpback whales sleeping right next to our boat. There are so many great surprises. Plus the water’s warm!
Customers leave feeling uplifted and happy. It’s a nice feeling. Generally, you’re dealing with happy people which is great. You’re dealing with people who are out to have fun!
What’s the worst part of the job?
When people are finicky and problematic – it can be hard to deal with. The general public doesn’t realise how many people you’re dealing with. They’re not always appreciative of what’s involved.
What key steps have you taken in your conservation career?
Starting out, it was all about getting a lot of experience and getting the basic licenses. I did my DM then Instructor course. I did my Master Class 5 Skippers ticket. You have to have three years of sea time experience so that took a while, plus an 8-week course.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Be patient. Make sure you take the time to gain the experience you need. Get the relevant qualifications. Spend the time and the money on doing it properly.
Get everything you need, then the job! If you’re a carpenter you get a saw, then you get a job. If you want to do it, get the tools – get your Divemaster or Instructor qualification, and get your insurance.
Try to be multi-talented – it’s not just about being on the boat. You have to do the other stuff too! Be proficient on a computer, and at other things that can be helpful. Like dealing with people. Thinking outside the box to deal with situations. Being reliable, honest and on time is key. If you have a marine biology degree that’s great, but you need the other tools too!
Scuba dive with mantas and swim with whale sharks
Get a job scuba diving and do your bit towards conservation by sharing the love of incredible animals in the ocean!
Explore all your options for jobs in marine conservation and dig in deeper to ecotourism jobs! Do a training course, and check out all the opportunities on our jobs board.
There are many types of careers in ecotourism. From guiding people in the water to sailing to beautiful parts of the world.
Find out more about Exmouth Dive and Whalesharks. Follow their Instagram and Facebook for daily updates of whale shark activity and perfect turquoise waters. Or go see what all the fuss is about for yourself up at the Ningaloo Reef!
Main image: A whale shark swims under the Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks boat. Credit: @kissthedolphin.