I am living proof that volunteering with conservation organisations like Wildtracks can help put you on the right track to achieving your dream job. For years, while I was studying and working in international development, I struggled to marry my passion for marine conservation and my work in natural disaster research. Most of the time I ended up spending more time and effort on my volunteer jobs outside of work than my actual paid job. One day, nearing the end of my contract, I searched an international environmental job website to see what kinds of conservation and research jobs were out there. I was so amazed and inspired to see all of these incredible positions as cetacean observers, project coordinators for coastal monitoring work, wildlife rehabilitation, research assistants in biological data collection projects, marine conservation advocacy, etc. I looked at all of these different types of dream jobs and studied the qualifications and requirements for each of them. I wanted to merge my passion into my profession but wasn’t sure how. After looking at the trends in the requirements, a mental light bulb clicked on - I clearly needed to get the relevant education and field experience in marine biology in order to get these jobs, instead of pleading with potential employers about my passion and transferable skills. That is how the simple activity of a job search inspired me to go back to school to get an MSc in Marine Environmental Management.
As a part of my graduate program, we were required to participate in a research placement. I have always been drawn to working in the Caribbean and Central America, so I did a wide-scale and detailed search of all the marine conservation organisations, labs, foundations and projects taking place in the region. That is how I found Wildtracks! I got in touch with Zoe, and she and Paul agreed to take me on as a visiting researcher/volunteer. I was extremely lucky that the timing of my visit coincided with the development of the Conservation Action Plan for West Indian manatees in the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. My research was to assess data and priorities of biological indicators in the protected area, work with manatee experts and local conservation actors, interview local fishermen about manatee bycatch and observations, and analyze existing data on manatees and their environments collected by Wildtracks or other government projects in the past. Additionally, I was able to lead education and outreach activities with local school children in the context of a football tournament in town, playing games and giving quizzes to the kids to teach them about marine conservation and manatees. To top it off, I participated in the hands-on rehabilitation work for two adorable manatees that were on the farm at the time – Twiggy and Duke. Nothing compares to sitting on the edge of the lagoon at 5am, while a manatee hugs your legs and happily takes down its banana smoothy breakfast from the bottle you’re holding! It was an incredible opportunity to do a crazy amount of things in a short period of time, and I loved it!
I definitely appreciated the diversity of experiences I gained from the volunteer opportunity with Wildtracks, which is often the case when you volunteer for smaller conservation organisations or biological stations. They are working to do so many things, usually with very limited resources, thus need all the help they can get from motivated people who are willing to learn. Since this was my first foray into biological field work, I still needed more field experience and relevant marine expertise in order to qualify myself for certain jobs in marine research. The job market was extremely tough those days, not that different to now, and without a degree in biology is was difficult to get my foot in the door. I finally came to grips with the fact that I needed to look for unpaid internships in order to get the targeted experience that I lacked.
My next step was to find a somewhat long-term internship that focused on marine biological field work, preferably in my region of choice. I found a great opportunity at a the Cano Palma Biological Station in Costa Rica (www.coterc.org). The station, located in a rainforest with access to the Caribbean sea, organized several types of research that included long term monitoring projects for nesting sea turtles, caimen, shore birds, terrestrial mammals, rainforest flora, and reptiles. As a volunteer there, I was able to learn about all of these projects, but became focused on and passionate about the sea turtle research. Within a short time of proving myself as a dedicated and hard-working intern on the sea turtle team, I was offered a position as the project coordinator for the following year. I would not have been offered this position without my experience as an intern there, so am very thankful that I decided to put in my time as an unpaid intern.
After gaining the valuable biological field and data management experience in Costa Rica, while making the most of the opportunity to be involved in several research projects at the station, I was able to show more depth in my resume as a marine scientist. This allowed me to feel confident in applying for other field jobs, and land the job I currently have as a project coordinator for Wildlife Conservation Society Nicaragua (http://nicaragua.wcs.org). Now I am responsible for a long-term hawksbill sea turtle monitoring project in the beautiful Pearl Cays, working with paid staff from local communities, helping in alternative livelihoods projects for ex-turtle fishermen, and focusing on biological field work, as well as the many other aspects of management required to keep a project going (financial planning, grant writing, working with local authorities and stakeholders, public outreach, data management, reporting, etc.). I get to work with sea turtles every day during the season – either observing the beautiful nesting process, collecting biological data and tagging individuals, helping to protect tiny hatchlings as they scurry to the sea, and working in the community to help ensure that these endangered creatures have a better future here. The project is a real conservation success story, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
I truly believe that none of this would have been possible without the experiences gained during my time as an intern a both Wildtracks and Cano Palma. So, if you’re thinking to yourself that it might not be worth it to take time out and invest money in volunteering, I would seriously advise you to think again. These kinds of unpaid opportunities offer you so much more than just the face value of being a volunteer on a certain project or within a particular sector. Having experience living and working in basic or difficult conditions, working with groups of people from different countries or walks of life, learning to be resourceful in achieving goals with a limited budget, having the opportunity to be involved in several different projects at one time, and maybe even improving a new language or cultural understanding – these are all things that potential employers value when looking over applications for research and conservation jobs. Volunteering definitely changed my life and propelled me onto this path to attaining a dream job for this point in my career – and if you’re dedicated and focused on making the most of your experiences, I’m sure that it could do the same for you!