So you want to be a marine conservationist? Consider these realities before diving in

This blog has been adapted from the original version published on the MareCet Medium page (Flukes for Thought).

When it comes to jobs relating to wildlife and the environment, conservation always seems to be the “it” thing to do. Conservation Careers names marine conservation to be the most ‘in demand’ job type to be listed on their site, making it a difficult field to get into.

As marine conservationists working at MareCet (an NGO dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals in Malaysia), we’ve put together our thoughts on what marine conservationists do, why we do it, and how you could too (if you harbour ambitions to do so).

Why get into marine conservation?

Conservation isn’t always the glamour and glitz you see on documentaries. It isn’t quite for everyone and if you aren’t truly passionate, the chances are you won’t last long in the field. So, why get into conservation? Really think about the cause you’re choosing to work for. Anyone can say they want to save the animals, but there really is more to it than that.

What’s a normal day of work for a marine conservationist?

If you asked any of us here at MareCet, giving people a clear idea of what we do on a day-to-day basis is difficult because it really is so varied! There isn’t much of a normal day at work and that’s because conservationists wear many hats, especially when the organization is small and often run on a shoestring budget.

Most of us learn new skills on the job – for example, one of our colleagues, Ng Jol Ern, recently learned how to operate and pilot a drone – and while that might sound intimidating, it is often very rewarding.

Our job doesn’t just involve science, and it doesn’t only involve working with wildlife. It also encompasses communications, policy, marketing and strategy, project management, fundraising and more.

At MareCet, we perform research on marine mammals in Malaysia and try to convey our findings in many different ways. This may include infographics, talks—even this blog! We also try to convey our findings to policy makers and government officials, working together with them to further protect our marine mammals and their habitats.

What’s often the best part about the job? Any highlights that stand out in this line of work?

Yes, it can be a demanding job, but it is one that reaps its rewards in the long run. Especially for a wildlife enthusiast, nothing beats working to protect the very thing you love. For most of us, the key highlights always include the animals, but it is also in the unexpected things, like seeing places most people don’t get to, or meeting different people that share a similar passion – making the job all the more worthwhile.

“I remember the first time we encountered a super-pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in Langkawi with up to 100–150 individuals, and I had never seen anything like that before. I’ve seen Bryde’s whales bubble net feeding, and even a herd of dugongs from up in the air as we flew over in a Cessna plane during an aerial survey. These are just a small handful of instances but each one just as special as the other.”— Ng Jol Ern, MareCet’s Outreach and Education Co-ordinator

If there are highs, there must be lows too?

Well of course! No job is a constant high. Everything has an ebb and a flow (pun intended), and with any job, challenges are bound to be aplenty. It is no different in marine conservation.

We often run into a long list of problems. This may include (but is not limited to) people thinking our work isn’t scientific or even many undermining our quality of work since we’re from an NGO. Often, these problems we run into stem from a misunderstanding or misconception of what a conservationist is and what we do.

While some might wonder what problems animals might offer (that’s a story for another time), it’s usually people that may bring about the challenges. Many often think that by working in conservation, you never have to deal with people. Quite the contrary!

It is people who are at the very heart of conservation. Whether it’s the conservationists or the communities and other stakeholders we’re working with, people are the constant.

“Personally, I would say the main challenge would be keeping yourself motivated, especially when everything and everyone feels like they are going against you. There are moments of self-doubt and sometimes, keeping yourself hopeful and passionate can get quite difficult.” – Sandra Teoh, Project Leader for MareCet’s Langkawi Research Dolphin project.

How does one get into the field? Was there a key step you think brought you to where you are today?

Any conservationist will tell you it isn’t always an easy start. The field of conservation, especially marine conservation, isn’t a clear-cut pathway or career option. It often means forging your own way and creating your own opportunities. But there are lots of different ways one can get their foot in the door. Most involve volunteering or interning as a way to start.

I think the hardest part is getting your foot through the door. It took me months after graduating from university before I had a breakthrough. But as I continued to apply for jobs, I tried to look at the required skills section of other job openings to see what it was they were looking for in their candidates. So, I tried to learn or pick up skills that I thought would be helpful.” – Dhivya Nair, Coordinator for the IKI (International Klimate Initiative) Seagrass Ecosystems Services Project.

Conservation needs everyone

While we hope to have shed light on people’s perception of marine conservation, we also hope more people see the value and importance of conservation work. Just about anyone can contribute!

It is often a misconception that you need to have studied biology or environmental sciences to be involved. But as the field moves forward, it is more apparent now that this isn’t the case. Artists, teachers, programmers, engineers, psychologists, kids, retirees and even lawyers can all make a difference. Even scientists have shared how their work, despite being from different fields within science, can contribute to improving conservation efforts.

On that note, we’ll leave you with some additional tips and thoughts to ponder.

  1. Think outside the box.
    Take whatever skillset or talent you have and put that to use. A great example of this comes from a recent collaboration between MareCet and local artist Celine Tay for the Art for Marine Conservation Online Charity Auction. Using art, Celine helped fundraise for MareCet during World Ocean Day 2021 and the auction was a huge success!
  2. Network and let your interest be known.
    You can use social media to network and look out for opportunities, and connect with other conservationists. There is a huge community of scientists and marine conservationists online, all advocating for their own causes, and it could also help you find your own niche.

  3. It’s all about communication.
    Conservation is all about the CONVERSATION and how you have those conversations. This is an important thing to keep in mind, whether you’re an aspiring conservationist or someone who has been in the field for years. Conservation is all about conveying findings to a large audience base, and there are so many ways one can do this! Think blogs, podcasts, posters, infographics and YouTube videos. Find your niche and advocate away!

Lastly, there is a plethora of resources and communities online, all focused on the topic of conservation and advocacy. From webinars on a conservation job searching platform, to short online courses like this one from the National Geographicarticles with fantastic tips from fellow conservationists. There is an ocean of information out there!

About the authors

Ng Jol Ern is the Outreach and Education Coordinator for MareCet. She graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Honours) degree, where she majored in Environmental Biology. Jol Ern leads MareCet’s Sea, Science and Schools marine education programme, and has conducted the programme in 21 schools since 2017. She also leads the Whales-On-Wheels programme as well as other larger-scaled public outreach events such as the World Ocean Day exhibitions.

Sandra Teoh is the Project Leader for the Langkawi Dolphin Research Project. Sandra graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree from Universiti Malaysia Sabah. She joined MareCet in 2016, starting her journey as a volunteer for the Matang Dolphin Research Project, which eventually spurred her to pursue a doctoral degree in the social ecology of dolphins. Sandra is a Conservation Leadership Programme alumna and National Geographic Explorer.

Dhivya Nair is the Coordinator for the IKI (International Klimate Initiative) Seagrass Ecosystems Services Project. Dhivya graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Marine Biology. Dhivya joined MareCet in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a fresh graduate. She considers herself a newbie to this field of work and almost every working day has been an ocean of discovery for her.


Featured image credit: MareCet.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Communicator, Fundraiser, Policy Advocate, Project Manager, Scientist, Marine Conservation Jobs, Wildlife