An Interview with WiseOceans… Tom Burd from Manta Trust

A passion and skill for underwater photography and manta and mobula rays has enabled Tom to land a dream job in the Indian Ocean working with manta rays and “nothing beats being amongst groups of feeding mantas as they dance around you.” Tom suggests once you’ve found the creature which makes your mask flood from smiling so much, then you know you’re on the right track!

Name: Tom Burd

Job Title: Project Representative (Athuruga, Ari Atoll, Maldives)

Organisation: Manta Trust (Maldivian Manta Ray Project)

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

I’ve been scuba diving since the age of 15 and am always at my happiest in the water, watching the marine world go by. However, whilst finishing high school I started to become aware of the problems facing the oceans, and hated knowing that the places with which I had such a strong connection were being slowly destroyed. At that point I started volunteering, campaigning and redirecting my pursuits towards conservation. Also around that time a couple of very passionate documentaries emerged, such as “The Cove”, which certainly pushed me in my current direction!

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

I decided that I wanted to spend as much time underwater as possible whilst becoming more educated on the conservation issues at hand. So over the past 5 years I have and currently still am working towards this goal. First I studied Marine Biology at Stirling University in Scotland, which gave me the backbone of my understanding about the oceans. Throughout the summer breaks I would work as a dive guide in the Azores, spending many hours in the water observing (and falling in love with) blue sharks and sickle fin devil rays! This became a huge part of my life, teaching me so much about marine life, boats, diving equipment, customer expectations etc.  After graduation I helped to run numerous conservation projects throughout Central America, involving mangroves, manatees and sea turtles in particular. Gaining hands-on experience with wildlife, in a scientific context, has played such a valuable part in boosting my CV. Whilst all of this was going on I’ve also tried to nurture one of my greatest passions, underwater photography, which I believe to be of huge importance to marine conservation efforts. I currently write articles whenever possible for diving and underwater photography magazines, as well as for my own blog, and am always trying to persuade editors to let me talk about conservation issues! The rest is work in progress!

  • How did you land your current job/position? 

Through my photography actually! When I initially approached the Manta Trust to help out with their work, they noticed my photos of mobula rays (the smaller cousins of mantas) from the Azores. At the time they were pushing for international trade regulation of all 9 mobula species (which was successful!), so they asked to use my photos for their outreach materials. One thing led to another and now I’m currently working full time on the Maldivian Manta Ray Project. Of course, it was a very tough decision to come and work on a sandy piece of paradise in the Indian Ocean!

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

The answer to this is without a doubt being in the water with the mantas! Of course there is always the thrill of finding a new manta when looking through identification photos, but nothing beats being amongst groups of feeding mantas as they dance around you! I also love having so many incredible opportunities to practise my photography, as I’m in the water most days one way or another. Inevitably, the more time you spend at sea the more exciting things happen and my time here so far has been incredible!

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

A big part of our project is education outreach and it is so satisfying to see the enthusiasm on both adult and children’s faces when you talk about these incredible animals. Once you’ve got them hooked it’s easy to start teaching about other marine threats, linking issues together to explain what changes need to happen and how to make them. Drawing people in with a charismatic creature such as a manta is a great way to create a sense of connection and responsibility for the oceans. Hopefully by being aware of the issues, people will champion our cause and give the conservation community the momentum to push for greater environmental protection and legislation.

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

That there was no set path to getting involved in this field. I always used to feel pressurised and worried about not immediately pursuing a typical academic route, but I can see now that my fears were unfounded. Everybody brings something different to the table, which is one of the things that makes working in this field so interesting.

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

For my field, an understanding of basic oceanography, currents and tides has been so helpful. I picked these up through the diving industry and also from my boat handling training, but it’s exciting to put them to use on a daily basis when studying and trying to understand manta ray movements. I also didn’t think that I would need as much snorkelling stamina either, but it turns out to keep up with the rays in a current requires a pretty high level of fitness!

  • What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

Discover what you are passionate about first of all, before jumping into the major costs involved with higher education. Once you’ve found the creature which makes your mask flood from smiling so much, then you know you’re on the right track! People who love what they do will inevitably transmit this enthusiasm to the general public, which is so important when highlighting a conservation issue. Don’t be afraid to spend time volunteering with NGOs and pick up as many different skills and contacts as possible, for they will always come in useful at some point. Research the projects well beforehand however, as there are unfortunately some poorly run ones out there which possibly do more harm than good. WiseOceans is a great place to start your search!  Finally, knowing multiple languages is extremely helpful, as projects are often in far-flung places, so try to pick up as many as you can! This will often put you ahead of other candidates for a job.

  • What is your favourite marine creature and why?  

Of course my official answer to this would have to be mantas, but off the record, I can say that mobula rays have always held a certain fascination for me. The main reason being the mystery which surrounds their lives and the fact that we know so little about them (even less than mantas!). Each encounter that I’ve had with them has been one of pure excitement and wonder, as they are incredibly beautiful animals to watch. I am in constant anticipation of our next meeting and thankfully we are lucky to have quite good numbers in Ari Atoll!

  • What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

From a myriad of incredible encounters, one that stands out above all others was witnessing a wall of thousands of schooling scalloped hammerheads in South Africa. There are no words to describe the feeling, so I’m afraid you will have to go in search for them yourselves! That being said, many of my best moments have been completely unexpected. I’ve had sailfish gate-crash a shark dive, seals torpedo through my torch beam at night and a whale shark tap the back of my scuba tank when I wasn’t looking! You just never know what will make an appearance out of the blue, which I believe is the true magic of the underwater world.


Thank you Tom for sharing your great advice and awesome photos. You can check out more of Tom’s photo:

You can have a taste of Tom’s job as The Manta Trust are currently taking applications for their 2017 volunteers programme in Maldives.  Find out more & apply now!

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