This week on ‘An Interview with WiseOceans’ we spoke with Holly Dunn, Project Officer and Researcher from Sea Trust Wales

Name: Holly Dunn

Role: Project Officer/Research

Company: Sea Trust Wales

Top Tip: Obtain practical experience, volunteering and interning as early as possible

Quick Fire Questions

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation? 

I have always loved animals but ever since my dolphin & snorkelling encounters in Australia as a child, marine life has always fascinated me. Though I diverged slightly in my teens towards a law degree, I soon realised that wasn’t the career path for me. So, I started a new degree in Animal Behaviour & Welfare, it was here that started to understand animal research and conservation. However, regardless of how much I loved learning about a variety of animals, I was always drawn back to marine life. The more I learnt, the more I realised how little we know about the marine environment, as well as how essential it is to the survival of our planet. I saw how conservation efforts were unsuccessful without research and public support behind it and that’s what pushed me into the career I’m in now

2. What steps did you take or are you currently taking to achieve your career goals?

After my U-turn in career choice from becoming a barrister, my previous grades and subject choices were not enough to get me into a Marine Biology bachelor’s degree at university. However, I was able to get a place with The University of the West of England (UWE) on their Animal Behaviour & Welfare (BSc) course.

At the end of my degree, I was quite sure that I didn’t want to continue into higher education. I did some travelling, but I wanted to travel with some purpose, so I signed up for some internships. The first was a diving & research internship in Madagascar, the second was in South Africa with Oceans Research. These really built up my appetite for a career in research. In the meantime, I had a job at a zoo, it was a dream job, working with animals every day, but I still couldn’t shake that research bug and wanted to learn more about marine life. So, I finally decided I would go back into education and do a master’s degree. I got onto a Marine Biology course with Bangor University, and it was the best thing I ever did for my career

3. How did you obtain your current position? 

I started at Sea Trust in 2017 as a project coordinator for the porpoise photo-ID project. Thanks to my master’s research project studying the distribution and habitat use of harbour porpoises in similar environments and my photo-ID experience from my internships, I got the job. The post was only for 3 months originally, however as the project and my role within the charity grew, we were able to secure more funding to keep it going. Five years later, the porpoise photo-ID project is still going strong, and I am now one of the lead researchers within the charity

4. Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?  

The practical side of the research is always the most enjoyable for me. You can’t beat sitting on a clifftop counting and photographing porpoises, dolphins, whales and all the other amazing wildlife we see here in Wales. There’s not too much waiting around either, there is always something to see, even in bad weather

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

A big part of my job is raising public awareness of the local marine environment. I believe there is simply no point in trying to conserve something without the support of the public. As a charity we have that public face, that perhaps the big research institutions and universities don’t have. We are the perfect messengers to deliver those important scientific findings in a way the general public can understand. To achieve this we use our visitor centre, the aquarium and through our schemes. Scheme include the recycling of end of life fishing plastic. Without the backing of the public those important conservation decisions we are working towards will never happen.  

We also use local volunteers in all aspects of our work but especially with the porpoise project. Watching someone see a porpoise or a dolphin for the first time, in an area they have lived in their whole life, is really the best part of my job. It may not be a big difference on a large conservation scale, but it makes a huge difference to that individual

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

I wish I knew that the setbacks I had would push me the most and make me stronger both personally and professionally. After I failed my biology A-level I was told that I wouldn’t have a career in biology. When I declined my law degree offer I felt a sense of shame. I thought after not enjoying my bachelor’s degree as much as others had, that further education wasn’t for me. I thought working in several unrelated job roles was just moving further away from my career goals. But, all these roles cemented my aspirations, and made me more self-aware. They also taught me skills that I now use every single day whilst running the porpoise project and working for a charity

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

Applying for and securing funding. I only manged to keep my job and extend the project past 3 months because I learnt about funding streams. My colleagues helped me immensely with this aspect of the job because I was a complete novice when I started

8. What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

Get the practical experience, volunteering and interning as early as possible. It’s frustrating and feels unrewarding at times but you will get the experience you simply cannot get in the classroom. Push yourself in all areas of your life. Even if it is in your part-time job, do the supervisor course, you may just pick up a skill that you will use for the rest of your career

9. What is your favourite marine creature and why?

It’s got to be the harbour porpoise. They are always overshadowed by the bigger more showy dolphins and don’t get the recognition they deserve. Yet, they are our most abundant cetacean in the UK and are just as fascinating. Something we are finding out everyday thanks to the porpoise photo-ID project

10. What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?

It’s hard to pick I’ve been so lucky to have so many to choose from! But, I think my favourite would be when I was in South Africa. We were towing seal decoys whilst researching great white sharks and their breaching behaviours. Sometimes you can tow a decoy for hours and never have a breach and sometimes you have multiple breaches within minutes. Either way, you have to keep your eyes peeled because a breach can occur at anytime.

So, we’d been towing for about an hour and my eyes were getting tired watching the decoys. I looked to my right for a second and just as I did, I saw a humpback whale breaching really close. I shouted “WHALE” and pointed which made everyone else on the boat look to their right. However, by the time they looked they had missed the whale and just seen the splash. As everyone turned to the whale, I looked back at the decoy just as a shark breached fully out of the water. I shouted “SHARK”, but again everyone else missed it! So that day I managed to be the only person see both a whale and a shark breach. It was unbelievable, although I did feel a bit bad for the rest of the team!

I wish I knew that the setbacks I had would push me the most and make me stronger both personally and professionally

Holly Dunn

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