Conservation careers: Changing with the tide

Marketing graduate Naomi Biggs tells Kate Hilpern how a reef conservation project shifted her ambitions
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The Independent Online

When Naomi Biggs, 26, got back from her expedition with Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), she was so sold on the idea of protecting coastal regions that she decided to completely change her career path. "Like many graduates who go on an expedition with CCC, I was only away for a matter of weeks," she says. "But the work we did in the Philippines to protect crucial environments and with local communities who depend on them for food and livelihood, was a life-changing experience."

Her favourite moment involved taking some local school children snorkelling. "I can still see their amazed faces when they saw the starfish. It was sad to think they lived so close to the water, yet they'd never seen this kind of thing - but wonderful and humbling to be part of changing that," she recalls.

She remembers looking up and seeing a line of envious looking teachers. "So we took them in too!"

Having graduated in 2001 with a degree in marketing, Biggs got a job with a PR agency. "After a couple of years, a friend mentioned that she wanted to go on a marine trip and because I'd always enjoyed water sports, I thought I'd join her," she says. "Coral Cay Conservation seemed to be the cheapest way of doing it and they were nice to speak to, with a good website. So we decided to go with them to the Philippines in 2003."

Whilst Biggs had to give up her job to go on the trip, many graduates go directly after university. "You need to raise the funds to go first, of course," says Biggs. "The amount varies depending on the trip and we each needed £1,200 to go on ours, so we gave ourselves six months," she recalls. "We did everything from running belly dancing classes to having a cream tea afternoon in a friend's garden. Other things we did were an Easter egg hunt, cake sales and a wine and wisdom evening. We even got publicity in the local press, which helped."

Her motivation was to have a good time, she admits. "Also, I wanted a diving qualification."

Biggs remembers the day she arrived in the Philippines well. "The dining room was outside on the beach. It was so idyllic that I could hardly believe it."

Her first week was spent gaining diving qualifications. "It was quite intense," she says. "Some people had never dived at all and a couple were pretty nervous. But by the end of the week, they loved it as much as we did and we all passed. What's brilliant about it is that you have the diving instructor there 24 hours a day, whereas at a normal dive school, you only get an instructor for a few hours a day."

Then came the science training for a further two weeks. "We learned all about reef ecology and how to identify different species of fish, algae and coral, as well as how to do the surveys ourselves. One day, we had a test underwater where we had to write on a float what we thought certain species were. Where else would you get to do that?"

Now ready for the actual expedition, Biggs and the other volunteers started collecting the scientific data. "We'd go out on the boat every day and do two dives, depending on the weather. Because it was such a remote project, you really felt like you were in the wilderness."

Having returned home to the UK with a passion for all things coastal, she discovered the Thanet Coast Project and decided to get involved in events such as beach cleaning. "After a year of volunteering, a job came up running a scheme to get local people involved in surveying our coast, as well as raising marine awareness among the local community. I didn't think I'd get it because I didn't have enough qualifications, but I did and I absolutely love it," she says.

Not everyone who goes on a CCC expedition to places such as Fiji and the Philippines moves into this line of work. But the experience of surveying some of the world's most endangered coral reefs and tropical rainforests in some of the most beautiful parts of the world is something that all the volunteers gain from.

"Although we don't just take graduates, they're an audience we particularly appeal to because it's such a great opporutnity to build up new skills, meet new people and experience new cultures," says CCC spokewoman Tanya Blackburn. "It's something very different to put on your CV."

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