It was six years ago now that we first packed up our backpacks in the UK and jumped on a flight destined for South East Asia, and we’re still here! We left in search for new adventures and new experiences, not only in life and but in a particular profession. As marine biologists trained in the UK, myself and my partner JJ had a little experience of tropical marine biology and we wanted to expand our knowledge base. The lure of the coral triangle, the most biodiverse area of coral reefs, and arguably of all ecosystems in the world, was too great to resist.
Our first year was spent volunteering for various organisations and universities around South East Asia where we enjoyed some extremely valuable and some fairly dubious work experiences. Unfortunately, we were put in situations where we questioned the ethics behind some of the volunteer activities we were involved in and our lack of experience led us to not speak up as our hearts and heads were telling us.
Discovering Green Fins
By the end of this first year we struck lucky in Phuket, Thailand, and came across an incredible conservation project called Green Fins which promotes environmental standards for the diving industry to reduce impacts on the environment while using the diving community as a tool to access the masses with important environmental messages.
Having seen the destruction of the mass diving industry first hand, we thought the concept was brilliant but surely not unique. A few days later after sitting in sweaty dark internet cafes in Phuket searching desperately for a similar programme, we realised that it was indeed entirely unique and desperately in need of help and support. So we missed the flight we had booked back to the UK and stayed on as volunteers. It was the best decision we have ever made.
Two years later we were proud to be named the regional coordinators of Green Fins under the direction of the United Nations Environment Programme and through the UK charity The Reef-World Foundation. Today, our job as Green Fins international coordinators sees us living in a picturesque Filipino village, taking us to some of the most beautiful places in the world and allowing us to work with some fabulous people from all walks of life, from politicians and conservation leaders, to dive guides and local community heads, many of whom are now our very close friends. Every day is different and every day is rewarding in new and exciting ways.
Our journey hasn’t been an easy one and our success is based on a unique recipe; other people believing in us with a splash of luck, a dash of stubbornness and a big heap of courage. We recognised Green Fins as something we believed in, something we could see growing, and something that would benefit from our skills, expertise and dedication.
Unfortunately, a huge amount of passion and investments of potential leaders of environmental change are being wasted on fruitless quests to gain work experience. We were dismayed to hear that work experience with some organisations might actually end up working against you when potential employers see it listed on CVs. There are conservation initiatives being set up purely to bring in paying volunteers and so the conservation impact is washed down by the need to entertain and please the volunteers, because without them the projects would not continue. Why is it so hard to find valuable work experience in the marine conservation sector? Why do employers ask for so much work experience for arguably quite low end, start-up jobs?
And the seach continues
To answer this question, JJ and I traipsed around the leading marine science universities in the UK and spoke to the careers advisors and professors there. We quizzed the leading employers within the sector and we spoke to many graduates and people on their journey from education to employment. The answer we found was that while an academic qualification is a necessary building block in professional development, graduates lack vital practical skills and knowledge for employment and volunteer work.
Conservation projects like Green Fins often work on very low budgets. While the additional human resources of volunteers would be helpful, there isn’t the time or resource available needed to train and guide new inexperienced volunteers.
And so Zoox was born. We worked closely with the academics and the marine conservation leaders to develop a set of training modules and an experience programme which ensures individuals gain the professional skills they need for employment through working on the Green Fins project.
So Zoox was born
The eight week experience programme has a professional development module running from the first day which looks at the individuals experience and interests and identifies gaps which need filling. Specific projects are designed to develop the skills needed and intense training means that the volunteers can be entrusted to work very independently running Green Fins on a local level which is the best way to really develop those vital professional skills. This programme has been running since 2011 taking only small numbers of very special volunteers on. We have had a total of 20 volunteers with over 95% of them remaining within the sector today.
Globally, 60% of coral reefs are severely threatened by human pressures, the figure for South East Asia is 95%. Our oceans are in trouble, and we need passionate and dedicated individuals to help us to tackle this. Zoox has given me the opportunity to harness, nurture and encourage this passion. I can show people that a future in marine conservation is possible, give them some great advice and pointers and allow them to build the foundations of experience they need for their careers. Zoox is not the only organisation ensuring individuals walk away with as much as they put in and there are other fantastic volunteer opportunities around the world. But I ask you to choose carefully, contact past volunteers and ask yourself the question “is the project there for the volunteers, or are the volunteers there for the project?” The latter is more sustainable and will generally result in a better quality experience for all involved.
Don’t be scared to get out there and volunteer for the environment, but be clear about what goals you want to achieve and don’t shy away from questioning the unquestionable. The environment and you will be happier in the long run!