Navigating My Path: Balancing Academic Pursuits, Diving Passion, and Marine Conservation

By Sophia Schmalzer.

My journey from exploring the world to finding my passion for marine conservation

I am the kind of person that feels like their stomach is turning every time people ask me about my nationality, because I don’t have a clear answer to that anymore. What I would normally reply to is that I was born in Austria but raised around the world. I started to fall in love with travelling when I was 13 years old, on a trip to Italy. As Austria is a landlocked country – no to confuse with Australia- I was never really exposed long enough to fall in love with the seaside. Little did I know that only a few years later, I was sitting on an airplane, with a one-way ticket to South America. What was meant to be a maybe 6-month trip, turned into a 4-year journey full of wild adventures, incredible landscapes, the kindest people, and most importantly – finding my love for the ocean.

I took my first breath underwater on my 20th birthday in the Tayrona National Park, Colombia. After a scary encounter with gigantic green moray eel (yes, I know it looked bigger than it was), I was hooked by the incredible feeling of total freedom. I knew that this was something I wanted to learn properly. I started to work for a local dive center and used every minute out of the office to go diving.

My adventurous spirit felt immensely driven by exploring the uniqueness of each dive. No matter how often I have been to the same dive site, there was always something new and unexpected to see. Diving became the wood that let the fire in my soul burn higher. Being surrounded by knowledgeable instructors, tec-divers, and marine biologists, my life soon began to spin only around diving. It amazed me how vast and complex the ocean is, how little we do know about it and the interconnectedness of it all. Diving really humbles you to the core, it teaches you that the mind is very powerful, and good preparation and continuous education is key to a successful dive. Most importantly, through diving I found a new way to genuinely connect with people, create core memories and find support within the dive community network.

After working as a Divemaster and a couple of dive-honeymoon-like-state of years in Colombia, I felt it was time for a change. Unknowingly what will happen with the world in 2020, I decided to return to Austria and embarking on a new three-year journey called university. It was a hard decision to make, and I remember being full of doubts and internal conflicts. Nevertheless, I decided to pursue a degree in Tourism Management to deepen my understanding of the hospitality industry. Despite the change in environment, my passion for the ocean persisted and became so deeply engraved into my DNA that study colleagues knew me as the “crazy scuba girl”, always twisting projects into sustainable diving tourism related topics.

I also developed a stronger interest in academia during my university years and being able to research destinations, topics and issues that I have encountered and experienced myself during my travels. After being “locked” to my desk during the pandemic, I knew that after my graduation there was only one true plan for me: exploring Asia, and after that continue with my studies and moving to Sweden to start my masters.

This resulted in another internal conflict and personal challenge. My love for marine conservation grew so string that I somehow felt I wasted my university degree and felt limited as I have not studied marine science. My brain was full of limitations that I set myself, of other people projected on to me, when asking questions such as “If you are so passionate about the ocean, why do not study marine biology then?”. Questions of doubts aros, such as: Why did I study tourism management, if I want to work in marine science and conservation? How can I combine my professional diving skills with academic research?

I kept those questions in the back of my mind when moving to Sweden and started to study Sustainable Destination Development. During cold, dark, long and cave-mode Swedish winter months, my skin felt in urgent need of vitamin D, my tissues screamed NITROGEN, my lungs longed for compressed air and my soul was dreaming of a white hammock between palm trees, barefoot on a bike, salty hair, volcanoes, sharks, coral reefs and a small island paradise.

During one long day at the library, I came across a post from Gili Shark Conservation. Fast forward, I am in my last week of the research assistant program. It feels difficult to grasp how FAST time is passing by on Gili Air.  Throughout the program, I delved into a versatile palette of experiences and learning opportunities. To name a few: scientific diving, coral reef and seagrass restoration, conservation diver courses in ecological monitoring, shark & turtle ecology and supporting the island-wide plastic-free-paradise campaign und Unite Gili citizen science data collection on sharks and rays.  I really enjoyed gaining hands-on experience in marine conservation and underwater data collection, via roving diver surveys, photo ID and coral watch surveys.

My time here at Gili Shark let me come to the realization that my dream of combining scuba diving, education and sustainable island destination development was within reach. Finding this alignment between my passions and career goal was a personal milestone for me which I will cherish forever.

If you are reading this blog post, and currently might navigate similar paths or doubts, here are my three advice for you:

1. Surround yourself with people who share the same interests as you (to find them, you need to go to places YOU would also go to, these are the places where you find those special tribes)

2. The dream sets the path! Hold on to it, and never let anybody limit you, especially from people that have not done it themselves.

3. There is not only one way to start in marine conservation! It is not a linear process, it’s a highly personal and curvy process, so enjoy each step of it.

My path in marine conservation is just starting, and I am excited to see where life will bring me!