Hi! My name is Jenn, and I am the new Reefscapers Marine Biologist at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa, working with the Marine Savers team. I have been incredibly lucky to land this job (and keep it!) in the midst of the global pandemic. Although I have only been working here for 3 months, I am very excited to share my Reefscaper’s journey with you so far in terms of my job role, experiences, thoughts and feelings, which were a rollercoaster long before I set foot on this tropical island paradise!

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

Hello from me, on my first day on the job

PART 1: THE COVID CONTEXT

At the end of February 2020, I was deep in the throes of my Master’s in Marine Ecosystems Management at the University of St Andrew’s (Scotland) – excitedly preparing for a research trip to Antarctica (concerning penguin surveys, measuring oceanographic variables, and working on my thesis research in microplastics). Yet something weird was happening; there was a new disease called COVID starting to spread throughout Asia.

Fast forward 2 weeks to March 2020, and we were hurled into a global pandemic, lockdowns, quarantines, travel bans and of course an end to my Scotland life and Antarctic Master’s research. Over the summer, I tried to begin my thesis again, conducting ecological modelling on existing datasets. It was during this time that my best friend on my Master’s degree course sent me a job application (actually, I had also just seen it advertised a few minutes before!) It was for a marine biologist position in the Maldives for a year… my dream grad job!

I remember reading the required qualifications and simultaneously thinking ‘I can do this!’ and ‘my experience is not good enough for this’. For reference, I did an undergraduate degree in Zoology, with unusual modules in computational mathematics, Mandarin Chinese, and British Sign Language. I took field courses in Costa Rica to study frogs, and lived in the deserts of South Africa and Namibia for a year, tagging small mammals and monitoring their populations during droughts. It was only in my final year that I really homed in on marine sciences – completing my PADI Divemaster certification and multiple tropical ecology / ocean science internships in the past summer holidays. So, I would definitely be an unusual and unique candidate to apply!

The next few months (from June to August 2020) were certainly stressful, joyful, and devastating – with multiple interviews, a job offer from Reefscapers, and a COVID-fuelled delay to all international travel. My contract was put on hold for an indeterminate time, and I felt like I had lost sight of this amazing experience.

I worked at home as a Starbucks barista in the meantime, which actually turned out to be a very good thing as I used all my earnings to buy my very first underwater camera and housing (an Olympus TG-6) in preparation for working in the Maldives (which I have now used to a great extent – check out my photos!)

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

Wild on the reef: Clownfish (above) and Hawksbill turtle (below)

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives
Reefscapers coral frames and reef restoration Maldives

Reefscapers coral frames – propagating coral fragments to create artifical reefs that attract a myriad of marine life

PART 2: QUARANTINE AND THE FESTIVE SEASON

And then suddenly, I received the call from Reefscapers – I was to fly out to Maldives … finally! Notices were handed in, PCR tests secured, and flights booked… and then the UK went into a second national lockdown, and all paperwork changed in an instant. Before I could process what went wrong, I was about to board flight number 2 (out of 3) to get to the Maldives, but was refused entry at the gate, and left stranded in London for a stressful night.

The Marine Savers team were amazing in helping me secure another flight, and only a week later than planned (and safely out of the UK lockdown period!), I was quarantining in a fabulous water villa at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa for two weeks. Whilst the 14 days were spent adjusting to the new time zones and the heat, I was also doing as much as I could to help my new work colleagues – namely, by starting to learn the marine presentations I would be giving to guests, and even making fancy-dress turtle costumes! When I finally emerged from quarantine in the middle of December, the workload jumped from 0-100 straight away, for I was a new employee starting during peak holiday season: Christmas and New Year!

I spent my first few weeks working on all sorts of celebratory activities with Marine Savers and Four Seasons: participating in a festive parade, a fashion show, my first turtle release, and transplanting coral onto a Christmas tree frame. The assistant marine biologist (Maani) and I also prepared 3 marine conservation storylines, that we performed at the Kids Club, with great success! These included a puppet show, a ‘Greatest Showman’ themed animal presentation, and at our peak: dressing up in giant home-made turtle costumes to talk about the effects of ocean plastics (check out more photos!)

During these times of COVID, Four Seasons and Marine Savers are operating a bit differently than normal. Masks are mandatory and are worn at all times by all staff. Numbers of guests on excursions are limited, and bi-weekly PCR / antigen tests are the norm. Both guest and staff occupancies are limited too, however, this still means the staff-to-guest ratio is the same, so festive season was still super busy for everyone! During these peak weeks, all staff had to take on extra roles, so that meant serving guests at the amazing NYE buffet all evening, stopping just before the truly phenomenal firework display. As everyone from the different departments pulled together, it was at this moment I really appreciated the ‘Kuda Huraa family’ mentality here!

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

The beautiful big blue: Pilot whale (above) and Eagle rays (below)

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives
Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

Fun & festivities: Santa helps out with our annual Xmas coral frame

PART 3: IMPOSTER SYNDROME AND THE FUTURE

The first half of January brought an end to the festivities of Christmas and New Year. With the Asian Lunar New Year calendar looking less busy than normal due to COVID, there was enough time to spend 100 per cent of my energy on training!

As the resident Marine Biologist, I was to oversee all guest excursions (Dolphin Cruises, snorkels, the Junior Marine Savers programme), as well as assisting on the turtle rehabilitation and coral propagation projects.

It was at this time that my “imposter syndrome” hit hard. I was only 23, with less than 100 scuba dives under my belt, and had only free-dived a few times before. I was replacing Felipe, who had worked here for 3 years, and the coral biologist was an experienced Divemaster with over 1000 dives. Maani had also been here for a previous marine biology internship, so had to teach me what to do… I certainly felt like I should be her assistant, as she was so amazingly helpful!

Due to my prior degrees, I was learning new species and facts every day, but still felt that I was not good enough and progressing too slowly. I think it is particularly good to talk about feelings in the workplace, especially on a small island such as Kuda Huraa with our work all around us!

During this time, my manager (Ale) was very supportive, encouraging me to not run before I could walk, and slowly building up my training. A massive thanks to both Ale and Maani, for their encouragement, support and training!

Currently it is the end of February, and of my first 3 months here. I can 100 per cent say that I have become a lot more confident in both myself and my abilities. I have successfully been authorised to run guest excursions, maintain the Cetacean ID Database, and can give presentations/briefings to large groups of guests.

I have also been starting to help with turtle monitoring, coral propagation, aquarium maintenance, and am finishing up my third monthly report concerning our activities.

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

Valentine’s hearts (above); Maldivian fish soup (below)

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives
Biofluorescence Maldives beach bioluminescence

Bioluminescent plankton washed up on the beach … a magical sight! (Landaa Giraavaru, Maldives)

Recent special events have included more coral maintenance, and a Valentine’s Day coral-planting dive (more photos). Indeed, Maani and I have been getting more hands-on with the Reefscapers coral propagation project too. Freediving down to the reef, whilst carrying and manoeuvring a giant coral frame and making sure it doesn’t flip over, is simultaneously stressful yet super fun!

Overall, work is busy but always rewarding – it makes my day when the guests tell me how their snorkel excursion was an epic experience! Daily, I am constantly reminded how grateful I am to be here – to see all this amazing wildlife, and scuba dive with the Dive Team on my days off! Over the next few months, I am excited to explore the scope for developing new Marine Savers projects, as well as improving my underwater photography skills.

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

Transplanting unique heart frames, to mark Valentine’s Day 2021

During my time here, I have talked to many guests from the UK – either stuck here due to the UK lockdowns, or those that have extended their stay to enjoy this COVID-free microcosm. They always say the same thing:
“I can’t believe you secured such a dream job… You are so lucky to live in the Maldives!”
This, I know for certain! 😊

Bye for now
Jenn 🐠 💙

Jenn starting work as marine biologist in the Maldives

Goodbye from me, on one of my days off (enjoying a recreational dive with a nurse shark)

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