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#SeatizenSunday: Samantha Craven, The Reef-World Foundation

When children see and experience amazing things with wide-eyed wonder and boundless curiosity, that sense of awe stays with them. These eye-opening experiences could even lead them towards their career path. This is where the story of Samantha Craven, Project Manager at The Reef-World Foundation, begins.

Having grown up in metropolitan Singapore, Sam did not have a lot of encounters with wildlife. At 11, she went on a field trip to Malaysia, where she first snorkeled in coral reefs and mangrove areas. This inspired her to study Marine Biology in college, and went straight on to a master’s degree in Applied Marine Science.

Initially, gaining work experience was a struggle for Sam. Sam hustled through volunteer experiences and expanding her network. Having proven her mettle, this former city dweller has become an active marine conservationist with a slew of leadership and project management positions in the field.

What led you to your current work?

Through connections, I ended up working with the same company that took me on that fateful field trip in 1997. I spent the first four years of my career with them. I became more familiar with the threats to the oceans and found myself wanting to work directly in marine conservation. As a field known for being tough to break into, many of us [conservationists] have had to volunteer and do internships and basically pay our dues before acquiring paid work. I volunteered for the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation project.

Eventually, I underwent the Zoox Experience Programme, which is an 8-week intensive practical course in marine conservation highly focused on professional development. Apart from technical knowledge needed to work in marine conservation, they also teach the necessary ‘soft skills’ – people and team management, project management, working with local government, to name a few.

I must have impressed Zoox because they immediately hired me as the first member of their staff beyond the founders! I found myself teaching again, helping early-career marine conservationists break that chicken-egg situation of needing experience to get a job, but needing a job to get experience. Zoox volunteers get their experience by lending themselves as manpower to a UN Environment initiative, Green Fins. Green Fins is coordinated by The Reef-World Foundation, a UK charity that are the same people behind Zoox. Over time, I took on more and more Reef-World and Green Fins work, which now take a majority of my time.

Tell us about your current work. What do you do?

I manage a small team that supports national governments in eight countries to implement the Green Fins initiative. I don’t have a regular schedule or a regular workload! I could spend a month in the office and not spend more than two weeks in a row at home for the rest of the year. Sometimes I’m in the field, diving and assessing Green Fins businesses on how responsible they’re being, sometimes I’m stuck in traffic in Manila on my way to meet the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) who are our main partners for Green Fins in the Philippines. Other times, I’m flying off to other Green Fins countries to train up Green Fins assessors to work with their own tourism industries.

When we’re in the field working with our main stakeholders, the diving industry, I’m up early to make the first dive. I usually have a working breakfast to plan my day, where I need to be, and when the team might need my input.

When I’m office-based, I try and get up early and make some time for myself – a good breakfast, meditation, exercise or lazing in bed if I feel like it. I’m not the best at it, but I love getting to work and sitting at my desk ready to start they day without feeling like I have to rub the sleep out of my eyes.

What can people do to help your cause?

Be responsible tourists. Tourism has the potential to be a truly sustainable industry to support communities by using the natural resources without extracting them. It’s renewable – unless you’re standing on coral, feeding fish, or utilizing unnecessary trash like plastic water bottles. The community isn’t going to be able to support itself if the reef is dead, or the beach is littered, and no one wants to come back.

Support responsible operators. Green Fins dive and snorkel operators, or what we call “Members” are working to reduce their impact on the environment. It’s important to show that there’s a demand for being an environmentally responsible business. Tip the guides who help you not to damage the reefs and pay compliments and leave excellent reviews for good environmental operators. We need to build this movement together from every angle.

What three pointers would you provide for people who'd like to start an environmental lifestyle?

The most productive thing is to recognize that as a consumer, your pesos have power. Start asking yourself how that product got to be there and if you really need it. For example, a straw created from oil derivative products which had to be drilled from the earth, manufactured in a factory (and all those environmental impacts associated with that), and be shipped (hello carbon footprint) to the restaurant where you are. And you’re just going to use it for 10 minutes before throwing it away to be a useless plastic tube polluting the environment. Once you start thinking it through, it’s a lot easier to make environmentally-minded decisions.

Don’t beat yourself up if you forget or you do something “wrong.” Start small, and once you create a good habit, tackle your next challenge. Allow yourself to fail but don’t give up.

Take fewer flights and offset your carbon footprint. The two previous points will help reduce our daily impact, but we need to start taking responsibility for our carbon footprints. There are lots of schemes out there, we need only research which cause we’d like to actively support.

Fun fact about the environment or a species that you think people should know

Octopuses have three hearts. We should all be more like Octopuses.

What is your why - why you do what you do?

I don’t want to be part of a species that is so collectively stupid that we destroy the very system in which we need to survive.

What lifestyle changes have you made for the environment? Was it hard/easy? What convinced you to make these changes?

Giving up unsustainable seafood was difficult, especially in SE Asia where there are few labels and programmes you can trust. It’s basically meant I’ve given up seafood. It started with tuna (which I adore) and learning about purse-seining techniques and bycatch. I decided I could live without that. Then came shrimp and the fact that it’s sourced from either cleared-mangroves or trawlers, often with heinous slave-like conditions for the crew. Once I got the information, the decision wasn’t difficult, it just become something that I wouldn’t do. It’s never not been a struggle, but having the foundation of my decision so clear has grounded me.

What makes an ideal leader?

Leadership is often thought of as loud, giving directions and pushing people to where they want to be, but I think the most effective leaders are the ones that listen, plant a seed for you to improve, and let you find your own path there.

Follow Sam on Twitter @madasamarinebio, on Instagram at @madasamarinebio, and visit her website, Mad as a Marine Biologist.

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