In the fifth instalment in our series of Q&As with Blue Ventures staff, we ask Annabel Bennett, our Expedition Manager, some searching questions about science, conservation and superpowers…
What is your scientific background?
I have a degree in marine and freshwater biology, a bit more than half of a graduate medical degree, and nearly ten years working in health. During that time I worked in a range of roles from commissioning community health services, to commercial health research looking at new technologies and markets, to operational management of urgent care and sexual health services.
More recently I worked in the NHS’s sustainable development unit which supports other NHS units to understand climate change issues and to develop more sustainable practices, as the name suggests. I also spent time in Egypt working with another marine conservation NGO, and as a divemaster for individuals and colleges with a particular interest in learning about the marine environment.
Why do you do what you do?
As cheesy as it sounds, I have always worked and studied in areas where I feel like I might possibly be making a difference, albeit a tiny one – hence the medical studies, working in health, and my lifelong fascination with nature and the environment.
In Blue Ventures I have found an organisation that is involved in both health and the environment and a lot more besides. It is an organisation which I believe understands the fundamental concept of sustainable development: the ‘triple bottom line’ in corporate speak, which is that it must take account of social (people), economic (profit) and environment (planet) factors in order to succeed. I love that BV has education and health programmes to address social issues, and alternative livelihood programmes to address economic issues, alongside environmental work including scientific monitoring programmes like the longest-running reef survey in the Western Indian Ocean which my team is heavily involved in.
I hope that I have found a role within this great organisation where I bring value from my diverse range of experiences. Feeling like I have done a good job is very important to me.
What is the best/worst thing about being a conservation scientist?
I’m not really a conservation scientist – I’m BV’s expedition manager here in Madagascar – but I help facilitate conservation science through the surveys and work that our volunteers do! I guess the best thing about working in conservation is being surrounded by like-minded, passionate, intelligent people and hopefully making some small difference.
The worst thing is the frustration of knowing that there are individuals out there who could make a huge difference because of their positions of power, but who don’t and don’t care. The politics and unethical money-making in a country like Madagascar start to get you down too. How is it right that in a country with oil, sapphires, gold, and in fact just about every precious substance imaginable with the exception of diamonds and jade, 90% of the population still live on less than $2 a day while access to education, healthcare and clean water is still patchy?
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I’m extremely fortunate to have an amazing group of people on my team who make a very busy and demanding job, very manageable and enjoyable. They are passionate about Velondriake, the locally managed marine area in which we work, the people who live there and the environment, and it shows.
Then there are the people in the surrounding communities who are amazing, so welcoming and accommodating, and make me feel like I now have a very large extended family in this beautiful part of southwest Madagascar.
Last not by no means least, my job means that I get to work with our wonderful volunteers – groups of incredible people who often sacrifice very rare and precious time off to come and spend six weeks of their lives with us learning how to survey the local reefs, amongst other things. In the time that I’ve been here we’ve had volunteers aged from 9 to 65 from Hungary, Malaysia, Canada, Japan, Turkey, New Zealand… the list goes on and on. They come from from an amazing variety of backgrounds: marketing and PR consultants, IT whizzes, doctors, teachers and students, and every one adds to my experience and leaves a little bit of themselves behind here in Andavadoaka.
What is your favourite species or group of species and why?
Obviously it would have to be something marine and it’s hard to decide. One of my colleagues already said rays, but they would be up near the top of my list because they’re so graceful and elegant, basically everything we humans are not in the water.
I think however I’ll cheat slightly and pick an order rather than a species, and choose cetaceans. Although Manatees and Dugongs are pretty cool, I think the most amazing experience I’ve ever had was snorkelling with a pod of about 200 Dusky Dolphins, including mothers and calves, in the bay at Kaikoura off the east coast of New Zealand. Being eye-to-eye with one of these most playful and intelligent of creatures is incredible and slightly terrifying at the same time. I also saw a Blue Whale with her calf and several Humpback Whales on that trip. A marine biologist’s heaven.
I’m looking forward to seeing some more Humpback Whales here in the next couple of months as they migrate along the west coast of Madagascar.
What would your science superpower be?
To swim underwater to whatever depth I wanted without needing to come up for air and without the pressure affecting me, so that I could explore the deepest parts of the oceans. When I was doing my degree I wanted to go to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the US and be part of their programme that uses submersibles to explore places like the Marianas Trench.
I don’t think that there are many truly remote unexplored places left on earth now, but the deep ocean still feels a bit magical and mysterious.
What is one of the strangest things that has happened to you while working on conservation?
Gosh so many strange (or rather funny) things have happened to me during my career. It’s hard to pick just one. I guess I’m always quite clumsy on land so a recent funny story that springs to mind was getting on one of our dive boats to be a boat marshal rather than dive and ripping the bottom out of my shorts whilst getting on the boat. I had to spend the next two hours with my knickers on display!