An Interview with WiseOceans… Tristan Brown from Coral Cay Conservation

This week we’ve been chatting with Tristan Brown of Coral Cay Conservation.  Tristan has always known that marine conservation was the career path for him but read on for his advice on working hard, expanding your skill set and paying attention in class…

Name: Tristan Brown

Job Title: Head of Operations

Organisation: Coral Cay Conservation / Adventure Lifesigns

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

I have always had an interest in the marine world from a young age.  I remember when a teacher asked me at primary school what I wanted to be, even then my answer was a marine biologist (although if I am being honest I didn’t really know what one was, I just knew there had been one on a David Attenborough documentary and it looked fun).  The idea though stayed with me throughout school and when it came time to go to Uni, it was an easy decision….Marine Biology.

At this point I hadn’t really ever thought about conservation specifically and it was only when I finished Uni and signed up for a volunteering programme in Madagascar that I truly found what I wanted to do with my career.  Within the first few days of my 6 week trip I knew that this was the job for me.  Seeing the impacts that declining reefs and fish stocks were having on, not just the environment, but also the people that rely so heavily on them made me realise just how important this work was.  I was hooked, there was no turning back and for the last 10 years I have working in marine conservation.

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

Experience and qualifications are the two main areas that I worked on.  Getting my PADI Divemaster and Mountain Leader opened so many doors for me.  Likewise building skills in areas that although they are not directly part of the roles I have been going for but are still things that made my CV stand out and show that I would be a valued member of a team in remote areas.  In particular, First Aid training and getting professional qualifications like Off Site Safety Management and Risk Assessment experience.

My next step is going to be my PADI Instructors along with looking at more advanced Health and Safety courses.

  • How did you land your current job/position? 

It was a combination of hard work with a lot of luck thrown in.  For years I had been building my experience in any way that I could by working for a range of companies around the world.  I started in Madagascar, spending about a year there before moving to the Philippines to work with Coral Cay Conservation.  By this point I had been living on expedition sites for about 19 months and so applied for a job as a Marine Biologist on a tourist dive boat in Northern Queensland.  It was great to work as a commercial dive guide as my previous experience on expedition sites was very different and so I had to completely change my way of thinking about dive profiles and how strict you can be with guests!  After about a year though I really missed the simple life and got a job on another expedition site, spending the next 13 months on the Yucatan in Mexico.  After being away for the best part of 4 years I came back to the UK to try and find a “proper” job.  This was where the luck came in.  1 week after getting back the Head of Operations job for Coral Cay was advertised.  Having already worked for them in the Philippines I had a good understanding of how they operated with the added bonus of the fact that I had got to know the person who was now interviewing me for the role.  It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right person.

After getting the job, less than a year later Coral Cay was bought by the Lifesigns Group and I became the Head of Operations for the group.  This has meant that my role has now diversified and although I still get to be involved with marine conservation projects I also get to help plan and run trips that take people all over the world.

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

Overall it is the fact that I know I am making a positive difference to the environment and playing a vital role in the conservation work that we undertake. On a much more selfish level, the travel is a definite perk as well!

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

Whenever I get the chance to go out and spend some time on the project sites, the reception I get, especially in the Philippines where everyone on Leyte seems to know what we are doing, makes me realise just how much of a difference these management plans and education work really make to the communities that rely on the environment so heavily.  Also, when I hear stories of our ex-scholars who have gone on to set up their own companies and projects utilising the skills and knowledge that they have gained during their time with us.

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

I wish I had known how competitive the industry was and how transferrable skills are.  During Uni I would have made the most of the cheap courses that were on offer and I would have paid a lot more attention in my early morning stats lectures.

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

Mechanics.  Trying to keep engines going in remote, tropical, humid, salty conditions where there is a very limited pool of trained mechanics and/or parts has meant that I needed to pick up some extra skills.

  • What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

All of the hard work is worth it.  It’s all about building up your experience so do not turn down any opportunities that come your way.  Even if they don’t completely fit with your plan, you never know what they can lead to.   It is a hard career path but one of the most rewarding.

  • What is your favourite marine creature and why?  

It would have to be nudibranchs.  They are such a diverse group of animals that have some really amazing tricks…. some even eat hydroids so that they can recycle the stinging cells, incorporating them into their own defence mechanisms.

  • What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

It has to be the day when I was travelling out to a tiny island, on a small, rickety, fishing boat, barely the size of a canoe to do some exploratory diving on a new reef that as far as we knew had never been dived on.  It was one of those days where everything seemed to be on our side, the water was calm, it was a clear blue sky and when we were about half way we saw the spray from a humpback whale on the horizon.  We decided to turn off the engine and see if it would come any closer……it did!  We would see the spray and then have an anxious wait for a few minutes hoping that it wouldn’t have turned off, then the spray would come again and it would be closer.  We realised that it was swimming straight towards us and when it was within a few meters we saw that it had a calf with it.  Diving again, almost in touching distance, it swam straight under us and you could see its silhouette as it dwarfed our boat.  This was my first ever whale encounter and to this day still one of the best.  After it had swum off we then dropped in for our dive and to top the day off, we not only found a beautiful reef but also could hear whale song so loudly that you could almost feel it vibrating in your chest.  All in all, not a bad day in the office.


Thanks Tristan, the humpback story blew us away.  What a fantastic encounter!

As Tristan has demonstrated, it is vital to get experience in the field and it can be very useful to gain contacts within the industry.  If you would like to follow in his path, have a look at Coral Cay Conservation’s expedition page and get involved.


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