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News > Life After Yarm > Nina's Journey into Wildlife and Conservation at Sea

Nina's Journey into Wildlife and Conservation at Sea

Nina Herbert, has had an exciting start to her career which had a bump due to the pandemic but her passion for wildlife, geography, science and conservation have remained constant.

Whilst at Yarm. Nina was regularly seen on the stage in Dance Showcases as well as school musicals. She played Cha-Cha in Grease and in the production of Fame she took on the elected role of Dance Captain. One of Nina’s favourite memories was performing a dance routine with friends to Footloose at Lower School Prize Giving.

Nina spent 7 years at Yarm, leaving after her A Levels in 2015. Her A Level subjects set her up for her degree in Physical Geography at the University of Leeds.

After university, Nina took up a paid employment post as a Strategic Sourcing Executive, whilst also volunteering with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. She was then able to fund a research internship in Wales with the charity Sea Watch Foundation. After concluding her internship she gained a role with ORCA as a Wildlife Officer, where Nina was due to travel across the Bay of Biscay to Santander, monitoring cetacean distribution and behaviour whilst on Brittany Ferries. 

However, due to the pandemic and the temporary suspension of the tourism industry, Nina adapted and retrained to become an assistant ecologist, focusing instead on one of the smallest mammals, bats! During her time as an ecologist, she secured a class 1 survey bat licence, spending many an hour watching buildings in the dark! 

In September 2021, Nina was finally able to take on her Ocean Conservationist role for ORCA and spent the following two years travelling around the world on cruise ships and research vessels monitoring whale and dolphin behaviour. 

Nina now works as a freelance expedition guide, giving lectures and workshops on wildlife, geography and science, on board expedition ships all around the world.

When did you first discover your passion for conservation and specifically marine conservation?

It will come as no surprise, but I’ve always loved dolphins from a very young age. I spent much of my childhood exploring the Cornish and north east coastlines and have always been drawn to water and blue spaces, so working in marine conservation became a dream of mine. My passion and fascination for aquatic life grew into something tangible when I secured a research internship with a marine charity in Wales after graduating from university. I spent two months conducting small boat transect surveys, observing and monitoring the distribution and behaviour of bottlenose dolphins and developing a photo identification catalogue of each individual dolphin. Every day, come rain or shine, I was out on the water, watching dolphins bow ride our small boat, leap out of the water and sometimes even play with jellyfish in front of us. It was an incredible few months and I gained so much invaluable theoretical and practical experience, as well as having so much fun in the process. 

After my time in Wales, I definitely knew I wanted to work outdoors and forge my career around education and exploration. 

What does a typical workday/week look like for you?

No two expeditions are the same but a typical working week as an expedition guide consists of giving wildlife lectures, practical science workshops and guiding on RIB tours. As a qualified zodiac driver, I can be driving guests around anywhere from the beautiful Scottish Isles or through the fabulous Norwegian fjords. If I am not helping deploy the underwater drone to look at life below the tideline, I am analysing plankton under microscopes in the onboard science centre or escorting hikes and other excursions on land. 

What have been the highlights of your working career so far?

Having spent two years working exclusively at sea, I have been fortunate enough to visit some incredible places around the world. I’ve seen hundreds of dolphins interact playfully with ships, humpback whales launch themselves out of the water off the coast of Maui, and thousands of green turtles in the Pacific, en route to Mexico. These have all been highlights whilst working as an Ocean Conservationist, but one of my many highlights has to have been when I visited South Georgia and Antarctica in 2022-23. It was a childhood dream of mine, something I thought I’d only experience vicariously through an episode of David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet. Witnessing the white continent in all its majesty was something to behold - a truly ineffable environment. 

It is hard to choose a certain highlight from that trip alone because there were so many amazing moments. From seeing several penguin species for the first time, to huge, towering icebergs spanning the horizon, including the largest in the world at the time (Iceberg A76A). One of my most memorable highlights from the trip was when I saw over one hundred fin whales (2nd largest whale on earth) congregating in a feeding frenzy around Elephant Island. Blows littered the horizon in every direction, making the sea look like it was boiling. Several surfaced so close to the stationary ship that I could even see down their blowholes! 

Have you faced any challenges / tough moments during your career so far? 

One of the most challenging moments during my career was obtaining my STCW-95 qualifications in order to become a certified seafarer. A particular element of the training includes fire-fighting and fire prevention which involved two and a half days of intense theory and practical training. The assessment included a real-time fire rescue scenario where you enter a building which is actually on fire. I volunteered to lead my team through the simulation and had to relay information to them via clear commands and signals, whilst wearing a full fire suit, oxygen mask and tank. I really pushed myself out of my comfort zone in order to safely lead my team and secure this vital qualification. While it was nerve-wracking, it also ended up being a lot of fun!

What’s your favourite thing about your job/role? 

My job provides me with opportunities to follow my passion and share unforgettable wildlife encounters with people on a daily basis, whilst also allowing me to facilitate change. By raising awareness about the importance of maintaining healthy oceans, we can help safeguard wildlife and their habitats for future generations. My favourite part of my job is having enriching and inspiring conversations with like-minded people. I also love the practical side of my job, for example, data I collected in the Southern Ocean has been used to inform government policy and has contributed to setting up geofenced marine protected areas to help protect large baleen whales around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 

What would you say to someone (especially females) looking to get into a STEM career? Do you have any advice for anyone looking to go into conservation?

I am hopeful that, as a woman of science, I can encourage others to take the leap and pursue a STEM career. There are a wide variety of STEM roles available which can be incredibly rewarding. My advice to someone looking to get into these sectors would be to take every opportunity thrown your way, or even better, do everything you can to make these opportunities for yourself. Whether that is volunteering with a relevant local charity or researching topics to reduce your own knowledge gaps, it all helps shape your experience and develop you as a person. 

Don’t be afraid to apply for a vacancy, regardless of whether you have every single prerequisite they are looking for, because a lot can be learned from how you carry yourself in interviews and your online communication outside of the application process – it certainly isn’t all about what is written on your CV! I’d also encourage people to widen their skillset as much as possible – I completed several additional qualifications like my RYA powerboat handling level 2 licence, STCW-95 certification and a first aid course, to help secure my current role. I hope my work continues to inspire the next generation of budding ocean ambassadors and STEM enthusiasts!

How do you see your career developing? What are your 5/10 year goals?

In terms of looking to the future, in the short term, I’d love to work towards an expedition leadership role, with particular focus in exploring the polar regions. I’d also love to contribute further to cetacean research worldwide, for example contributing to Alaskan humpback whale research or the resident orca population in the Pacific north west. Maybe even one day, I could narrate a wildlife documentary! 

In the long term, I hope to help shape the cruise industry and encourage a shift towards sustainability. I would love to facilitate change in a way that encourages sustainable travel, while simultaneously protecting our wildlife and environments.

Are there any skills / experiences you gained whilst at Yarm that have been invaluable in your career?

Two invaluable skills I built upon whilst at Yarm as a House Captain for example, were leadership and communication. This particular role helped me liaise and build a rapport with my peers, students and teachers. This responsibility helped me forge the confidence to build relationships with different stakeholders and communicate effectively in various outward-facing job roles throughout my career. 

If you had your time at Yarm again, would you do anything differently?

I’d certainly get involved in more activities if I had my time at Yarm again. I would have loved to have founded some kind of society, perhaps one which was geography or nature-related. I would have also advocated for more of a focus on sustainability and our environmental impact at the time. Finally, I would have liked to have tried rowing and got more involved with a water-based sport!

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