An Interview with WiseOceans… Dr Dan Exton from Operation Wallacea

We have been lucky enough to chat with Dr Dan Exton from Operation Wallacea this week.  As Head of Research Dan has a wealth of experience and is a great believer in practical experience being just as important as academic ability. You need to get out there and get that experience and get known.

Name: Dr Dan Exton

Job Title: Head of Research

Organisation: Operation Wallacea

  • What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?

I’ve always loved being in and around the ocean, which started at a young age on family holidays in France. But it wasn’t until much later that I realised you could actually make a career out of marine conservation, and from the first time I ever saw a coral reef up close aged 19 there’s been nothing else I’ve wanted to do.

  • What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?

I followed quite a classic academic route, going straight from undergraduate to masters and then PhD, but I was always careful to focus on a different area of marine science each time, in order to broaden my horizons as much as I could. I’m also a great believer in practical experience being just as important as academic ability, and so I got involved in remote fieldwork wherever possible, whether that be as a Divemaster, a field scientist, or an expedition leader.

  • How did you land your current job/position? 

I actually joined Operation Wallacea as a student volunteer for my undergraduate dissertation many years ago, and stayed involved as a voluntary field staff member for the following five years. I guess I annoyed them sufficiently throughout this time as once I completed my PhD they offered me a position managing their marine research program and my job has grown from there.

  • Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?  

One of the real benefits of working within the volunteering sector is that we are not restricted by traditional grant funding. This flexibility allows us to think outside the box and direct our attention towards the issues we feel are most important

  • Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’? 

The projects themselves are an obvious candidate, especially those with a clear conservation implication, and I’m lucky that my position means I’m involved in all of our projects to some degree which is incredibly fulfilling. But the educational and training aspects of our expeditions are just as important to me, enthusing thousands of budding marine scientists, perhaps to explore a career in conservation, but at least making them think differently about how we interact with the ocean.

  •  What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?  

I guess the realities of day to day marine conservation. At university so much emphasis is placed on learning Latin names and other core skills, which can be daunting to a lot of students (especially those with poor memories like me) but I can’t remember the last time I needed to identify a species in the field!

  • Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?  

I think what surprises most people (myself included) is the sheer breadth of skills needed in marine conservation! While sound science will always play a crucial role, successful conservation is often much more about the human element, and working with a diverse group of stakeholders with vastly different perceptions of the world. I work with politicians and businessmen just as often as I work with other scientists!

  • What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

Put yourself out there – it gains you relevant experience while also developing a network of contacts, both of which could prove invaluable as you look to get your career up and running. Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone, and when an opportunity does come along, sit down and think about every possible benefit you can get from it, and then do everything you can to make sure they happen. It’s a competitive field, but success favours those willing to persevere, be bold and prove themselves through hard work.

What is your favourite marine creature and why?  

For me it has to be the Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola), as I had an amazing experience in the water with one in Indonesia back in 2006. Anything that big and charismatic always takes your breath away, but there is something about the elusiveness of sunfish that makes them extra special.

  • What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

I was fortunate enough to be invited to dive a newly discovered reef system in Honduras a few years ago. I will be the first to admit that the signs were not promising, with the conditions that greeted me a poster child for everything coral reefs hate! As I descended through the murky water expecting a wasted trip, I will always remember my first sight of the reef as it emerged below me and it took my breath away. The reef system is called Banco Capiro, and it has become one of the most fascinating coral reefs I’ve ever been lucky enough to work on


Thanks Dan, brilliant advice and great to hear from your own experience how you have got to where you have.

If you are wanting to gain experience then explore our Wise Work pages for opportunities that might help you land your dream job. Don’t forget to sign up to our weekly job alert email for the latest marine conservation opportunities straight to your inbox every week.