Kirsty Magson: Reef Conservationist

By Haley Vogel

This week we chat with the wonderful Kirsty Magson who spends her days swimming with whale sharks, helping rescue turtles, restoring coral and educating people about the ocean.

Kirsty Collecting Crown of Thorns Starfish

Kirsty Collecting Crown of Thorns Starfish

Thanks for chatting with us Kirsty, lets start by introducing yourself.

I’m a 30yr old Marine Biologist/Zoologist living and working on a small island called Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. I have lived here for 4 years teaching marine conservation to scuba divers and living the island life. I love taking photos underwater and have gained the nickname Shark Mama and Turtle Mama because of my work with and love of both species.

Your life has been built around the ocean, what drew you to it in the first place?

Some of the earliest memories I have are of sitting with my Grandad watching Discovery Channel and every ocean related program. From the age of about five I was adamant that I would do what the people on screen were doing, live and breathe the ocean, combine this with the lack of women in these programs and I was even more determined.
For Christmas I was asking for books on sharks, dolphins and marine life, I still own one of the first books I was bought and still reference a section on octopus in my lectures today! Sharks and cephalopods (e.g. squid and octopus) especially had me transfixed. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be afraid of these creatures when you saw how amazing and important they were in the marine ecosystem. Cephalopods just left me mind blown with how beautiful, intelligent and determined they were.

Your career now involves you spending a lot of time underwater, tell us about the path you took to where you are now.

Whilst I always knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, certain events in life lead me away from the path for a few years. Upon finishing high school I took a few years out and didn’t return to higher education until I was 22, this gave me a greater appreciation for the subject and a determination to succeed. I graduated in 2014 and immediately started applying for volunteering programs as I couldn’t afford a masters. I came across New Heaven Reef Conservation Program, applied for a 3-6 month internship, was offered a job and I never left.

Ultimately I would love to be able to do a masters but at least for the moment I am focused on the teaching and field work element of marine conservation.

Tell us What a day in your life looks like?

For someone that was never a morning person that definitely changed with island living! I usually wake early check my emails, and enjoy some time in my hammock before heading to work.
We meet up at 9am to prepare gear for the day and meet any new students before starting lectures. Midday we head out for a dive and this can be anything from coral restoration, coral predator removal, giant clam surveys, mooring line installation, seahorse surveys etc. The benefit to this type of diving is our sites are usually no deeper than 12m so our dive time can be up to 2 ½ hours depending on the activity.
In amongst all of that is spending time with my dog, monitoring the baby sea turtles in our head start program, whale shark identification, snorkelling with green sea turtles and blacktip reef sharks and delivering sea turtle lectures to the local community.

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Tell us about your work with New Heaven Reef Conservation

NHRCP is a conservation program that has been running on Koh Tao since 2007. Started by Chad Scott and Devrim Zahir, it was designed to get divers and dive professionals involved in conservation and teach them about marine ecology. What started as a 3-day course in 2007 with a few locals each time, has over the years evolved into a 1-day course right through to a 3-month internship with around 160 people completing courses every year.

My biggest focuses are Shark population monitoring and identification, and Sea turtle head starting, stranding and ecology. We each take turns in giving lectures but as we all have different focuses and different backgrounds it’s a really nice mix of topics and knowledge given to those taking part.

This program has also given me the opportunity to expand my knowledge in the field and meet some interesting people, species and critters along the way.

That sounds amazing! How can people get involved?

For anyone wanting to join us or just find out more information about what is available to you, can find out more on our website www.newheavenreefconservation.org or drop me an email on kirsty@newheavendiveschool.com.

The benefit to the program is that you don’t have to be someone that has a background in ocean science or someone that is doing this for work experience. We welcome people of all ages and backgrounds to learn more about the marine ecosystem and what they can do to help.
Due to the nature of the work we do we do require participants to be minimum of ADV open water but as we are based out of a dive school, dive course can be completed here on arrival before joining the program itself. We offer courses for those just wanting to do something different or for anyone wanting to do masters or thesis work.

Do you have any other endeavours or dreams that you are currently pursuing?

I am currently working on a whale shark ID project in the Gulf of Thailand and looking to do DNA work and or tagging of individuals in the future.
Outside of ocean science, you can find me atop a view point watching the sunrise, snorkelling with sea turtles or photographing the many marine species we have locally.

Which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?

Anything shark related, flamboyant cuttlefish, mimic octopus and too many other species to list. Whilst I have seen them already, whale sharks have yet to leave my bucket list.

How do you hope your voice and work will influence others?

Education and raising awareness is key in working to protect and preserve our oceans, I hope that anyone that comes through the program or visits our turtle head starting centre is able to learn something, if they can remember one thing and that one piece of knowledge can be spread to their friends and family, we are making a difference.

Whilst I knew I wanted to work in the field of ocean science, I can say this still surprises me every day. So for anyone wanting to get involved you can do it, work hard, volunteer and spread the word about our oceans. Together we can protect, preserve and restore our oceans. As the motto of the program says, it’s our ocean, our responsibility.

What is one thing you wish someone had told you/taught you a long time ago?

That life doesn’t always go the way you hope or the way you plan and that it is ok to fail. There will be times when you fail or can’t do something, but if you fight through those times the success that follows is of a greater value.  

What is your most memorable experience in the work you currently do?

For me it’s the inspiration that we give to our students, when I hear about how being here has changed their perspective on things. Whether they adjust things within their current lifestyle to reflect the new found knowledge they have, or for others its complete changes from their lifestyle previously. It’s great to look back on them as students and interns and see how they have grown, how they have changed and the life they are working toward. Also working with the people I have is something I will never forget, to be around such likeminded people all aiming for a common goal. Every day is different and there are always new challenges and things to address, but we are still here and still fighting for the future of our oceans.

If you could teach someone something about the Ocean what would it be?

It still to this day shocks me that we know more about space than our own oceans. I would say that no matter how insignificant something in the ocean may seem they all have a place and a reason for being there. Whether its microscopic or megafauna, each should be marvelled at for the role in which they play.

Along those same lines, it’s hard for just one person to make a difference but every person has their role and together we can work to preserve the world’s oceans.

Follow Kirsty @kiki_wonderland

Follow New Heaven Reef Conservation Program @new_heaven_reef_conservation