Nakia Cullain: Founder of Ocean Action Research

Ever wondered about starting up a conservation organisation? Well get out your notebook and pen, because I’ve interviewed a lovely lady who’s done just that, and much more… Nakia is a Canadian marine biologist who now lives and works in Mozambique, running the Zavora Marine Lab, and her conservation organisation, Marine Action Research!

Her main focus is Manta Rays, but projects also run covering a wide range of marine life, from small nudibranchs to large humpback whales!

You’ve built your life around the ocean, what drew you to it in the first place?

Interestingly enough, I didn’t actually grow up on the ocean. Despite growing up inland, everyone that knows me knows I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was about 5 years old. I can’t pinpoint where my obsession began, but I was drawn to the ocean by documentaries, movies, and books. My bedroom walls were covered in pictures of whales, dolphins, and sharks, and many of my days were spent daydreaming about the sea.

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Coud you Describe the path you took to where you are now?

I knew in my heart this is what I wanted to do with my life, and I never let go of that feeling. It pushed me to work hard in high school to get the grades I needed to get into university, and through the 6 challenging years that it took me to get my BSc and MSc in marine biology. These degrees, along with volunteering around the world, allowed me to pursue a career in research and conservation. As I was finishing up my MSc, an opportunity presented itself to take over a research station in Mozambique. Even though I thought it was way out of my league, I applied. And here I am now. It goes to show you, you’ll never know if you don’t try!

Sounds awesome! So what does a typical day in your life look like?

Every single day is different for me, which is why I love what I do. Typically, I wake up around 5am (for no reason other than I’m an early bird!), I answer emails and do admin until we go diving at 8am. Depending on interns/students, the dives will be planned based on what data needs to be collected. On the days when we can’t dive, we do beach clean-ups, rock pool surveys, and land-based whale surveys. Most days finish with a sunset beer and a 9:00 bedtime. It’s a pretty simple life, but I love it!

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

I love showing interns the way of life in Zavora, and teaching them what I am passionate about. From mantas, to nudibranchs, to scientific diving, there’s always something to learn. Each person gets something different from the program, and that makes me feel like I’m doing something right!

What challenges have you faced while starting a conservation organisation? Do you have any tips for others wanting to do the same?

Starting Marine Action Research, was definitely one of the most challenging things I have ever done. Starting up a conservation organisation is difficult no matter where you are, but doing it in a developing country, where you don’t speak the language, adds a completely different spin on things! It cost me a lot of my time, money, energy, and tears, but once everything was official, I knew I made the right decision. I put my heart, soul, and (all) my money into this organisation, and I would do it all over again if I had to. The biggest tip I have is don’t give up. Be persistent. It may take time, but it will all be worth it.

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Which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?

If I had to choose a species that I haven’t seen before, it would probably be orcas in the wild. My hope is that one day they surprise me on a dive!

Whose work has influenced and inspired you?

What I have realised is that the people around me are the ones influencing me on a daily basis. When you surround yourself with like-minded, passionate people, it's hard not to be inspired!

Where do you hope to go from here?

I have been fortunate enough to end up exactly where I want to be in life, though not from lack of hard work and dedication! My plan is to continue to work hard to protect Zavora and its resources, by working with the local community, and securing a sustainable future here.

If you want to follow Nakia’s journey in conserving the Zavora region’s beautiful marine life, you can find her on Instagram @_sea.slug_