Julian Leon - Marine Animal Rescue - An Interview with WiseOceans

This week on ‘An Interview with WiseOceans’ we spoke with Julian Leon, a Marine Animal Rescue Specialist 

Name: Julian Leon

Role: Marine Animal Rescue Specialist 

Company: Marine Animal Rescue

Top Tip: Great communication and leadership skills are vital when working in marine conservation

Quick Fire Questions

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

From the moment my grandmother gave me one of my first stuffed animals as a child, I was always intrigued and fascinated by animals. I deepened my fascination by reading every animal encyclopaedia and watching every nature documentary I could get my hands on.

Seeing my heroes like Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin getting out in the wild and sharing their amazing experiences with animals inspired me to want to do the same one day. Unfortunately there weren’t really any wild experiences that could mirror the experiences of my heroes while living in the inner city of Los Angeles. Consequently, I spent a lot of time running around chasing bugs and pigeons. Thankfully my mother encouraged me to volunteer at an aquarium. After feeding some sharks, octopuses, and other creatures as well as educating the public on a daily basis, I knew that I wanted to study the ocean for a living

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

Getting that volunteer aquarist job at the roundhouse aquarium was a huge step. That one experience was the first stepping stone that would eventually shape my career and my life for what it is today. I was told that to achieve my goals that I would need as much experience in the field as possible.

When I entered into college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I immediately got my scuba diving certification and started working at various laboratories to get research experience. After graduating with my degree in Marine Animal Behaviour, I went on to work different jobs as a marine science instructor on Catalina Island, a fisheries technician in Alaska, and as a marine animal rescue specialist.  It was my time at the Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) that gave me the most essential skills. The leadership, teamwork, and effective communication skills that I gained there are probably my most valuable assets. At first, I was so keen on getting all these dive certifications, boating skills, and laboratory skills but all of that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t work as a team, communicate effectively, or lead people

3. How did you obtain your current position? 

My current position required someone to be knowledgeable about marine animals of course. That isn’t anything really special though. Apparently a lot of people who have applied to the job in the past had the passion for the ocean and were knowledgeable about its organisms but what really sets you apart is having field experience and athleticism. Obtaining laboratory skills and other research skills can be very important for doing science, but for some jobs in order to get the data you need you may have to wrestle a shark so you can attach tags to it, or in my case you may have to put an injured 300lbs sea lion in a net and get it into your truck so it can be taken care of. It’s a weird combination of being a very athletic nerd that I think helped me land the job for sure

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

I really like being able to be in the field. In many roles, there is an element of not being in the field. For example, data analysis. My job definitely makes me feel like a superhero for the ocean and that’s always been a childhood fantasy of mine

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

I really feel like I’m making a difference with every sea lion or marine animal we work with. We’ve seen many animals entangled in fishing line and all kinds of other plastic around. When we get to rescue and rehabilitate these animals and return them to the ocean, it’s so rewarding.

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

I wish I knew how little pay there was in this field. I have been privileged enough to not really have to worry about money. All throughout my childhood, I had parents that took good care of me and we never worries about making it through the end of the week financially. Even when I was in college, I had no concept of how much a 50k a year salary really meant.

I’ve been finding out that if you live on the coast where marine life is, the cost of living is always much higher. Even with jobs that require a PhD or other higher education, in general you still might not be making that much money. Also, this field can be tough because if your job is to help take care of animals, most of their money might go toward taking care of the animals. Consequently, they may not be able to afford to have a lot of staff – meaning hours can be long. Also, people trying to get into this field who didn’t start volunteering early might be really discouraged. This is due to the fact other candidates volunteer in this field before getting a job.

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

Like I said, my time at the Catalina Island Marine Institute gave me these amazing social skills that I didn’t think I’d need.  Since working at other different jobs I have seen people who have amazing field skills but lack these skills struggle to progress.

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

Start as early as you can by volunteering in in your spare time. Definitely work on public speaking, communication, leadership, and teamwork skills.  Find hands on field experiences that can set you apart from other applicants. Think carefully about what animals you want to study. This is because it may dictate how much funding you might get, how much salary you might be paid, and even where you might live

9. What is your favourite marine creature and why?

My favourite marine creature is definitely an octopus. Their cognitive abilities just always astound me and we still have so much that were trying to learn about them

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

One of my most unforgettable moments at sea was when I was driving the boat one night on Catalina Island. I was on my way back to CIMI when some dolphins started swimming along with my boat. There was a lot of bioluminescence that night so the dolphins were shimmering with glowing plankton. As they swam through the ocean like comets through the night sky. I have never seen something so beautiful and graceful and it was a night I will never forget

My job definitely makes me feel like a superhero for the ocean and that’s always been a childhood fantasy of mine

Julian Leon

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