Coolest Job Ever: Globetrotting Biologist and Tour Leader (Plus Amazing Photos)
In the photo above, a group is being taught how to measure leatherback sea turtles, thanks to a couple human volunteers. And, the photo above illustrates a lot of what Wayne Sentman does as a biologist and tour leader with Oceanic Society, a nonprofit conservation group.
Traveling the world, Sentman takes small groups of people ("voluntourists" with Oceanic Society) everywhere from remote atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to wildlife reserves in Kenya, teaching participants about the wonders of the natural world and engaging them in field work themselves.
Here's Sentman in his business suit:
I first met Sentman at the airport in Honolulu. A friend and I were picking him up on our way to another airport, this time for a plane taking us all out to Midway Atoll. During the week I spent with Wayne, throwing question after question at him and hearing not only interesting answers to the questions but stories about his travels and studies as well, it occurred to me that this guy really has one of the most amazing jobs in the world. So, putting aside questions about endangered sea turtles and monk seals for once, I asked him about his job.
So, you have one of the coolest jobs in the world. You travel the globe with Oceanic Society teaching groups of people about amazing ecosystems and conservation efforts to preserve them, from Midway to Belize to Kenya. How did you land this gig?
A bit of luck and a lot of post-undergraduate, poorly paid seasonal wildlife biologist jobs.
Right out of college I participated in a School for Field Studies Wildlife Management semester in Kenya program. It was here that I really understood that I wanted my "office" to be outdoors, and that I wanted to work with on the ground conservation programs. Next I ended up working as a kayak guide in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico for a wonderful group called Sea Quest Expeditions where I first had the opportunity to share my love of the outdoors with groups of "eco-tourists." Leading week long self-contained kayaking trips in the Sea of Cortez, having fin whales glide under my kayak, only cemented my desire to figure out how to keep doing this kind of work.
Finally in 1998 I ended up moving from San Francisco to Hawaii, helping to monitor endangered Hawaiian monk seals on remote Midway Atoll for the National Marine Fisheries Service. It was here that things all started to come together. Oceanic Society had worked out a partnership with US Fish & Wildlife Service to utilize paying tourists or eco-volunteers to assist in monitoring the monk seals on Midway. I was finally able to combine my love of science and research with education.
Over the last 14 years, with Oceanic Society I have been able to use my background in the conservation of marine ecosystems and human-wildlife conflict to travel to a variety of locations around the globe helping ecotourist groups get out and see firsthand the beauty of nature and the challenges we all face in trying to promote its conservation.
What's the most fulfilling part of your job?
There are two things that I find most rewarding. The first is helping individuals that might be a bit scared of certain parts of nature to start to feel comfortable, relaxing enough so they can experience their connection with nature. On some trips in the past we have even had silent days where no one in the group says a word for the first half of the day. At these times the group is forced to truly experience the smells, sounds, and sights of where we are. It can be a powerful experience on many levels.
The second most fulfilling thing is helping people on our trips be better consumers when they return home. To have them start to connect their experiential travel to their habits at home is wonderful. If you like sea turtles then how can you go home and pig out on shrimp, an industry that kills thousands of turtles? If you go to Midway and see an albatross carcass full of plastic, you will never look the same way at a plastic lighter again.
Leading trips for so many years I am lucky enough to have the same individuals do multiple trips with me, I have been able to see how collectively their experiences have inspired them to look beyond their own backyard and strive to live more responsibly as part of an international community.
What's the most frustrating part of your job?
How sometimes people allow the inconveniences of travel (delayed connections, bad weather, simple food, crowing roosters) to detract from the important part of what they have come to experience. Sometimes you have to put up with the mosquitoes, 6-hour canoe ride in the rain, and 4-day diet of rice and a "meat" in order to see something incredible. In fact many times it is exactly because it is so challenging to get to that some of these natural areas still exist.
How has your outlook on conservation been altered by the work you do with Oceanic Society?
In working with Oceanic Society over the years I have helped to develop a variety of "voluntourism" research programs. Many of these programs have taken place over 10 years or longer. Because of this I have been able to repeatedly return to areas and see them succeed or fail in their conservation efforts.
One of the things I have learned is how valuable an organization like Oceanic Society can be to International research programs by committing to these efforts not just for the term of a Master's degree but for multiple years. I have also witnessed how sharing these remote places with a concerned and interested group of people can often lead to fortifying an international constituency for otherwise "invisible" efforts.
Finally returning to sites year after year has allowed me to see the benefit to local people that having the opportunity to share their culture and "backyard" nature with tourists can provide. The ability to share their nature (and occasionally benefit from that sharing) sometimes engenders a unique perspective about what it is that people have that is "valuable." Many folks that we work with in other countries go on to start or grow their own in-country businesses directed at conserving nature. As I return to these places the ones that successfully find a path to solve their conflicts always have committed local individuals that have devote great portions of their life to the effort.
What's the best comment you've ever heard from someone on an Oceanic Society tour?
"I cannot believe I paid this much money to be so nervous" - Oceanic Coral reef monitoring volunteer just prior to her first Fish ID "check-out" snorkel.
Whispered around 2:00 AM: " So you mean this leatherback could be older than any of us in this group?" Reply from one member of a group of four sea turtle nesting volunteers (all 65 or older) filling out a data sheet for a nesting Leatherback in Suriname.
"That was the highlight of my life! If the rest of this trip goes to hell I would not care!" - Remark from a 71-year-old Oceanic member after feeding a liter of milk to an orphaned Rhino in Kenya.
Group member on an 11-day snorkeling trip in Micronesia
Day 1 - "I really do not want to see any sharks, I will probably get out of the water if we see one."
Day 2 - "DID YOU SEE THE SHARK IT WAS SO COOL"
Day 8 - "I was trying to swim closer to the shark so I could get a better look at it."
If you'd like to take part in an Oceanic Society Expedition (and you should!!) then check out the list of Expeditions they have around the world and pick a date. From Baja to Antarctica, from Midway to Kenya, from Tonga to the Galapagos, you can be part of an amazing adventure while at the same time helping to protect and preserve the places you're visiting.