I always felt that the BV board of directors were setting targets and projects aiming at improving the way of life in the Velondriake region (and now looking towards similar schemes in Belize) rather than concentrating on putting projects together to attract more volunteers. Despite in some ways this making things harder for the expedition staff this is absolutely the correct way of doing things – it’s far more important to ensure that BV continues to be productive than lay out the content of an expedition on a platter for us field staff to work around.
As Expedition Manager, working in Andavadoaka is undeniably hard work, days are very full and it can be hard to schedule time for yourself (which is essential). Working with so many staff can also be hard keep up with – there were many occasions where I felt stretched in several directions at the same time; this highlights the importance of being organised. It’s impossible to keep current with all the projects that BV have going on in the region, so BV employ Project Managers. For day-to-day matters they manage their own teams which minimises your involvement, but the other managers frequently had to consult with me on operational matters (such as ensuring there is enough fuel/cash/materials available, keeping volunteers involved with their projects, coordinating transport for everyone on site, to name a few duties), and there would be occasions when I had to be involved other matters relating to the projects – I was responsible for paying salaries for all local project and expedition staff, for example.
On a day-to-day basis I was more involved with the expedition staff and volunteers. For the volunteers the expeditions should be mixture of work, fun and relaxation. The expedition staff are responsible for ensuring the schedule is an appropriate mix of these. There are certain commitments that have to be fulfilled, but outside of this there is a degree of freedom to tailor each expedition to fill the wants and needs of each group of volunteers.
It’s difficult to give a full job description for Expedition Manager – the work boiled down to doing whatever needed doing at the time! Having a job with such variety, especially during a period where BV has been evolving and expanding its projects, is very fulfilling. Each and every day is different with new challenges, but they are universally interesting and stimulating. Working so closely with a group of like minded ‘western’ staff, alongside committed local and national Malagasy staff, means life is never boring – the diversity in the staff group alone means that even after nine months I was still learning. You become very close to the staff, living and working in the same place and leaving such good friends was difficult at the end of my contract.
The position of Diving Manager in both Belize and Madagascar goes way beyond the average contract of instructing for a dive shop. I was relied upon to provide schedules for dive courses and activities, working to ensure that I was able to fit everything in for large groups of volunteers having several courses running at the same time, tying it all in with how the scientists wanted the volunteers to progress with their programmes. On top of this I was responsible for maintenance of the diving equipment, the compressors, the boats and their engines. The diving equipment was very hands-on, servicing regulators for example takes a long time and needs to be done regularly, according to fixed BV protocols. The boat and engine upkeep was more managerial – ensuring that they were being looked after by the captains, serviced by a local mechanic when necessary and making sure that overall maintenance was being completed.
The Diving Manager role is a managerial position, and anybody who dives with BV should be overseen by you; there were occasions when people needed to be reminded about the safety protocols and on occasion disciplinary actions needed to be taken. Whilst unpleasant this gave me good experience to go on to the Expedition Manager role, and without doubt the experience will also help me further in my career.
On a related note, the final major part of my job was ensuring that health and safety protocols were kept current and adhered to. Working alongside the Expedition Manager and the volunteer medics, it was our responsibility to do everything necessary to keep our working expedition bases safe.
The Diving Manager position takes a lot of time, is very active and hands on. However, there is time to join in with other activities, most parts of the expedition in fact. Your assistance is likely to be required on various trips and activities, so despite diving and everything that goes with it being the main focus, you will learn about the local culture, have time to see the wildlife for yourself, and ideally take part in the science programme to assist with training the volunteers (and staff) with their species recognition and underwater monitoring techniques. This keeps the experience pretty fresh for a long time; no excuses can be made for being bored.
The best part about instructing on an expedition is the time you have to tailor courses to the students. Rather than the conveyor belt of new students arriving for a week’s holiday and having to cram to finish their courses into this period, you have the luxury of being able to spread the courses over six weeks. How you fit it in is up to you and can be weather dependent but it is wonderful being able to choose how and when to do your courses. Inevitably people drop off dives from time to time (stubbed toes and dicky tummies being the main culprits) but it’s easy to catch them up with a quick one on one session without holding the rest of the group back. Having the time to really get to know the students gives you the opportunity to become a popular member of staff and have a great time in the process.
Personally I feel that I have now spent almost three years contributing towards the successful running of a conservation model which empowers local people to look after their own marine resources. BV now casts its net far further than that, helping to create alternative livelihoods, offering health services to populations who need it most, and creating structured education programs so that future generations may have opportunities their parents did not. As Expedition Manager everything I did contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, towards BV’s operations in the region. As Diving Manager I held an essential position in accomplishing the goals of the expedition. The feeling of pride and fulfillment apart, there can be very few contracts that offer such an unusual life experience.
The highlights were definitely my interactions with the local community and staff. The majority of people employed by BV in the region are local and I have got to know people from such an unfamiliar culture, a privilege that most people at home in more ‘traditional’ careers will never be likely to experience. Other elements of the work – trips with the volunteers, sailing lessons, parties and ceremonies with the villagers, and of course the diving, whilst technically ‘work’ sometimes left me with the feeling of disbelief that I was actually being paid to do this!
Looking to the future I can now say that I have managed a working field base of around forty employees and volunteers. The diversity of the work gives me important work experience in numerous fields. Should I want to work in marine conservation again then having held this position puts me in a great position to apply for future jobs, both internationally and back at home in the UK. I increased my dive numbers by roughly one for each day of my contract as Expedition Manager, and slightly more than double this as Diving Manager. My French improved, both written and oral. I learned about Yamaha outboards, health and safety procedures and how to successfully manage a large international group. I have absolutely no regrets about working for BV and recommend them very highly as both employers and as a volunteer experience.