Case study

Coral reef ecologist and dive operations manager — Neil Cook

After studying tropical coastal management in the UK, Neil decided saving critically endangered coral reefs in Tobago was his dream

How did you get into marine biology?

I studied marine biology at Swansea University and then did a Masters in Tropical Coastal Management at Newcastle University with a research placement in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. I also did two years' volunteering between my undergraduate and postgraduate degree.

I'm now a coral reef ecologist and dive operations manager at the Environmental Research Institute in Charlotteville, Tobago, which is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works towards sustainability for the people and ecosystems of northeast Tobago.

How relevant was your Masters to your job?

Learning about tropical reef ecology and fisheries was helpful because small islands like Tobago need coral reefs for food sustainability. That being said, you don't have to study a marine biology degree to get into the field.

Postgraduate study specialising in one particular area is usually needed to progress as it teaches you how to implement your undergraduate understanding, as are professional qualifications in areas such as environmental biodiversity and tropical coastal management.

What are your main work activities?

We work directly with fisherman in vulnerable communities and empower them to be involved in the management of resources so that they can stand up at local government meetings and represent their interests as key stakeholders.

My job revolves around fieldwork. Some days I spend seven hours underwater tying coral fragments into a coral nursery to try and increase their rates of growth and survival. I also teach people how to dive, use baited remote underwater video to survey sharks and rays to improve conservation management, train with local community members, analyse and evaluate data, engage in outreach work and write up reports for community councils, governments, funders and local organisations.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

I've gone from being a research assistant to leading conservation and research projects around the world and developing national frameworks for research management.

I'd like to continue doing overseas fieldwork, with a view to move into high-level NGO operations somewhere like Conservation International. I'd like to stay involved in grassroots level operations and still get my hands dirty though.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I know I'm making a positive change. I also see and experience things that most people can't even imagine.

What are the most challenging parts?

Fieldwork is demanding so you have to be physically fit and be game to muck in. You can also be far from family and friends and the lifestyle can be minimalist.

The contracts are often short term (one or two years). Mine is a one-year rolling contract and job security often depends on how good you are at your job.

I usually start work at 7.30am and finish at 8.30pm with a day off every two months, although this is quite extreme. Change doesn't happen by itself. It's a lifestyle and that passion to make a difference can make you more vulnerable when you see ecosystems you love slowly dying.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

Marine biology is competitive and you need to stand out so be inventive in your applications. Find placements with marine laboratories and gain voluntary experience and fieldwork in different places. The Marine Conservation Society is a good starting point, as are wildlife trusts, which you can find in every county. Having a grasp of different languages can be important if you're working abroad.

The hours vary. Generally, contracts are around 40 to 50 hours a week but the work never stops. If you're working on a fieldwork project, hours are dictated by the tide, but if you're based in a university or in an office of an NGO, hours can be more structured.

There's no immediate return for marine biologists as you're building a future for a generation that hasn't been born yet, so remember your passion and don't expect to be paid very much.

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