As Director of the Institute for Marine Research on a small island in the Philippines, 24 year-old Chelsea Waters is living the Marine Biologist’s dream.

The Grapevine Club caught up with Chelsea to chat all things reef conservation, working in foreign cultures and why life experience is key to real career growth.

So how did she land such an awesome job? And what advice does Chelsea have about working in a specialised field?

You better buckle in team because this interview will have you career motivated in no time!

Chelsea Waters onsite at the Institute for Marine Research

Chelsea thanks for much for chatting with us. Let’s kick off with your role as Director of the Institute for Marine Research in the Philippines. What inspired you and your partner Raf to start the organisation?

Raf and I have spent a number of years working for non-profit research organisations in different parts of the world and realised there was a need for a more localised-approach to coral reef conservation.

We saw how important a localised and fine-scale approach was to preventing reef damage. Usually the more common broad-scale approach focuses on dealing with it’s aftermath.

We felt there was a real need to focus in on individual communities and help them prevent reef damage in their own local areas.

What made you set up shop in the Philippines?

Two key things. Firstly, the Philippines and its neighbouring island nations form the ‘The Coral Triangle’ and are an epicentre of marine biodiversity. Its home to 76% of global coral species and 37% of fish species.

Secondly, this incredible biological diversity is also home to some of the highest human population densities and growth rates in the world. This puts the area at high risk of things like overexploitation and pollution.

The issue is compounded further when you consider most of the islands are developing countries without the funds or know-how to drive conservation.

We believe the most effective way to positively impact these at-risk ecosystems is to provide localised support to individual communities to help their businesses and other stakeholders operate sustainably.

Dauin coastline – photo via David Hettich
Chelsea post research dive – photo via the Institute of Marine Research

Reef conservation is a really specialised field. How did you get started and do you have any advice for people also pursuing really specialised work?

My journey has been based on gaining as much in-field industry experience as I can and I’d definitely give that advice to other people looking to niche down.

For me it all began with a Bachelor of Science at the University of Queensland, where I majored in Marine Science. At that time I also got my SCUBA diving licence and volunteered on different turtle monitoring projects.

I then locked in a postgraduate Honours degree that was research and fieldwork heavy and really started to focus in on coral reef systems. Before starting my Honours I had to wait six months and what followed was life changing!

Although I’d planned to use the time to work and save money, I quickly realised I was a fresh graduate in dire need of real life industry experience!

So I applied for an internship on the island of Utila in the Caribbean and spent three months interning, getting my Divemaster qualifications and forming a whole new perspective on marine conservation!

I returned home in time to complete my 12-month Honours year at Heron Island Research Station. After graduating from Honours I considered a PhD but still felt like I needed to do more and see more.

This time it meant becoming a Dive Instructor, working on the Great Barrier Reef, volunteering as a coral reef ecology lecturer for a non-profit in Madagascar and working as a project scientist in the Philippines.

I was mostly working six-month contracts and was only ever making enough money to buy a flight to the next destination. But while I was in the Philippines a good friend sought me out and got me in touch with the future Founders of the Institute for Marine Research and the rest is history!

Underwater benthic assessment training – photo via the Institute for Marine Research

What has your experience been like being a director of a non-profit at such a young age?

It’s definitely everything I ever wanted in a career. But it has been a huge personal journey more than anything else. This is not a job that has been handed over to me, but rather something that my partner and I have built together. 

Trying to effectively manage the direction the Institute is taking, as well as the different departments within the organisation has of course been challenging. But setting goals from the beginning, having a business plan, values and a strong mission is what has gotten us through many of the tough decisions.

What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve had to overcome?

Believing in myself and my skill set. This industry is constantly telling you that you need more field experience and more qualifications. Funding is limited and the competition for jobs is high so from the get-go you’re made to feel like your ideas don’t matter unless you have a PhD to back it up.

It’s almost impossible to believe in yourself and your ability to get a top position in the field. But for three years I gained invaluable professional experience that has shaped my career to what it is today. And it’s because I witnessed and learned from the good and the bad. It took witnessing failed research methodologies and poor distribution of funding to realise that multiple qualifications don’t always equal project success.

Chelsea Waters during a research dive

The Philippines is the third country you’ve lived in since 2017. How have you found all the relocating?

These days I feel a lot closer to home than ever before! I’m now a direct 8 hour flight from Brisbane compared to 20 hours of flight time from Honduras! And I am also (thankfully) in the same time zone as Perth which makes keeping in contact with family and friends much easier.

I’ve learned that relocating from country to country is about more than just adapting to the new culture. It’s also about completely uprooting from what was home and the friends that became your family while you were there.

My partner and I have been living in Dauin in the Phillipines for nine months now and we finally know our way around! We’ve built a great group of friends, are getting used to the customs, the traffic (and terrible drivers!) and now have two cats and a dog!

What does a normal day in the “office” looks like for you? Do you have one?

My work day starts at 7am, loading tanks and research equipment onto our truck for a morning of diving. The rest of the morning I’m underwater either on a research dive or training our new Research Assistants.

For every research dive it takes about three days to analyse the information we collect and that’s when the true ‘office’ works begins. I have a team of scientists that help me process the data and produce publications that are used to better manage our coastal ecosystems and marine parks.

Other than that, there’s admin and emails, attending meetings and coaching our Research Assistants. And even grocery shopping for the base kitchen!

More beautiful coastline near Dauin – photo via the Institute for Marine Research

How have you found working with with non-English speakers and people who have a different cultural background to you?

It has been a game of patience, adaptation, trial and error. Working with people who speak English as a second language has taught me the power of your actions. Which most definitely speak louder than words in most scenarios. You have to be patient with conversations to make sure your message is getting across.

Adapting to ‘island time’ has been the hardest for me. It means you have to make plans a,b and c. And you never ever try to work with a deadline outside of your control. 

But above all, working with Filipinos has been a beautiful experience. They remind me how important it is to slow down and live in the moment. And not to forget to prioritise family and friends over the daily grind to make money.  

What are you career highlights to date?

I have a few! Conducting my own research experiments on future climate scenarios and the effects on the Great Barrier Reef. Establishing Marine Protected Areas in the Philippines. Building coral nurseries in Honduras. Culling invasive lionfish in the Caribbean, and Crown of Thorns Starfish outbreaks in the Pacific. 

What does work/life balance mean to you?

I live at the Institute’s headquarters with my partner, my employees and our Research Assistants. We live, work, eat, and socialise together. And while I love being surrounded by like-minded people, work and personal can get blurry!

I’ve been slowly integrating ways to ‘switch off’ throughout the day. Things like a quick HIIT workout during lunch or a swim before dinner. It ensures my office hours are productive and that I’m mentally present.

Dauin Reef, January 2019 – photo via the Institute of Marine Research

What advice would you give to other young women just starting out in their careers?

Set goals and don’t just strive for comfort and monotony. Gain experience in as many different elements of your career as you can. Even if it means volunteering your time to determine if it’s a path that you want to pursue. Volunteering is the biggest test of character; its proof that you are truly passionate in what you do and not in what you earn! 

Do you have any work-related mentors?

Definitely! Our Founders have provided me with nothing but support and guidance through this whole journey. In both relocating to the Philippines and starting a business in a foreign country! (With a degree in Marine Science instead of in business!)

Creating a website, dealing with accounts, site construction, building a HR file – all of it was completely new! It was a huge seven months setting things up but I couldn’t have been surrounded by more supportive people.

Chelsea Waters during dive training at the Institute for Marine Research Phillipines
Chelsea Water during dive training

What has working in conservation taught you?

We live in a world with plastic oceans, rising atmospheric temperatures, depleting ocean resources and unresponsive world leaders.

For so long we tackled issues that man created, instead of changing man’s behaviours to prevent the issue arising.

The ‘global’ threats on our planet are just the accumulation of localised threats in every town and city. I’ve learnt that it’s the little things that each person can do that makes the biggest impact.

We’d be living in a much more stable planet if every person picked up rubbish instead of walking over it. If they car pooled and used public transport, used a ‘keep cup’ for coffees and ate sustainably approved seafood.

My point to all of this is that conservation and preservation requires a behavioural change. And if not YOU then WHO?

How can people get involved with the Institute?

Follow along on our journey on Instagram or head over to our website to learn more. We also run Research Assistant and Fellowship courses for undergraduate Marine Biology students from all over the world. 

A big thank you to Chelsea for sharing her career journey with us and best of luck to her mission with the Institute for Marine Research in the Philippines. For more career interviews head over to our latest interviews with Advertising Executive Kelly Nash and Mining Engineer Izabel Dickinson.

Until next time,
Madeleine xo