Coming out of her undergraduate degree, Fiona had no idea what to do next. Having volunteered and worked with Frontier in Madagascar from 2015 to 2016, she has now joined the Frontier team as a volunteer coordinator in the headquarters in London. Read about her personal journey, from her volunteering experience in Madagascar (stay tuned for whale sharks) and how that year ended up rerouting her whole career trajectory.
Frontier: You have been in Madagascar with Frontier for one year. How was it?
Fiona: Amazing! How do you explain Madagascar? Madagascar is just the most beautiful country. It’s so unique. You see animals that you don’t see anywhere else. And they are everywhere. In some countries, you have to go to a National Park to see animals, whereas in Madagascar, on Nosy Be at least, you walk around and walk past a chameleon or a lemur sitting in the trees- or snakes on the floor! I mean, it is just the most beautiful place. It has a whole feeling to it.
What did you do on site?
I had been initially hired as the Marine Assistant Research Operator for six months. I was responsible for training all the volunteers in their species ID and survey techniques. Sadly, after six months, our principal investigator had to go back to Australia last minute and Frontier asked me if I could run the project until they found someone new. So, I did it for another six months.
Did you think you would stay a whole year?
To be honest, on the very first day I arrived in Madagascar, I knew I was going to extend. All the other staff didn’t believe me and said that I would get tired. I never did.
What is your most vivid memory from your time there?
Swimming with whale sharks. It was amazing. There was a lovely tour company that did whale watching tours. They set up in Madagascar at the same time we did; we got to know them, and they gave our volunteers a group discount and took our staff out for a whole afternoon. As soon as we got close, we turned our engine off and slipped into the water with our snorkels really quietly to get a closer look. I slipped in and looked down and there was a 30 feet whale shark beneath me. I honestly just screamed into my snorkel. It was so amazing. They are so beautiful. And it was great to do it with friends.
So, your friends joined you on the project?
No, it was with the friends I made there. That the nicest thing about the Frontier camps. You just become a massive family. A very dysfunctional loving family. In any job at home you don’t necessarily meet people that you would hang out with in your normal life. Here you spend 24/7 together and work as a family, as a unit. You eat, sleep, dive and hike together. You don’t have mobile internet or computers and technology. So, everyone just hangs out and you actually spend time with people, playing games and talking. I think you gain a lot more from it than just the animals and the diving. It really is living in a community.
Are you still in touch with other volunteers?
Yeah, I am still in touch with four of my staff members. George, who was the Forest Principal Investigator at the time, is now one of my best friends. We travelled to South Africa afterwards. Tom, who was the Forest Assistant Research Officer, actually lives close by. I'm seeing him next week for drinks. We live all over the world, but we meet up to see each other.
How has it been to see so many volunteers come and go?
It was amazing. A lot of young people volunteer with Frontier, but there are people of all ages. We had someone who was 54 from New Zealand and we had an old English couple. You get a mix. You get people from all backgrounds, all nationalities and all religions living together in a camp through all situations. That is very valuable.
How were the living conditions on site?
It is basic but it is comfortable. I had a bed and I had my little hut. You have food, there is a kettle. You can have tea or coffee and you can get a snack from the village shop close by the camp. I used to do scouts as a kid, I spent every possible night out of the house. So, for me, there’s so much more value when you strip back the things that you don’t need. You have so many things you stress about like phone bills or food shops. Once you are in Madagascar, that stress is just gone. Yes, the camp is basic. You get your hands dirty and the work is hard but so rewarding. When you wake up in the morning and step out of your hut, the ocean is there. Literally right there. There are palm trees and chameleons. How can you not like it?
What were the volunteer activities on site like?
There were so many fun activities. Every now and then we used to do the sunset island tour. We simply got a taxi driver and said we wanted to do a tour around the island. They take you to the beach in the north, which is beautiful. Then we went up the hills. There are lakes that have alligators and crocodiles in them. You can go on the highest point in Nosy Be. It has a 360-degree viewing platform. You can go up there and see the sunset. That’s very beautiful.
In terms of scientific activities, lemur boxes are so much fun. They’re set up like a bird box but for lemurs in the forests. They set them in the primary forest (the healthy forest), the secondary forest (the okay forest) and the degraded forest. They put up around 30 to 50 boxes to see if the boxes in the unhealthy forest were becoming more inhabited. Of course, they were, because there weren't enough habitats for the lemurs. When you survey the lemur boxes, you essentially take these long 5km walks through the beautiful national forest check on the boxes. You climb up the tree and look into the boxes to see if there is a lemur in there- you have to record if they are occupied or not. It is really fun and really cute, because the lemurs just sit there and look at you with those massive eyes. Some of them are really goofy looking.
What did you learn about the Malagasy culture?
The Malagasy are some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. They’re so welcoming and so respectful. They are fun. They love dancing and music. Get any music on and they will be dancing for 48 hours. They will literally have weekend long parties where they dance, go back to sleep, get up and keep dancing. I’ve been to carnivals with them. They taught us their traditional dances and we did the whole carnival experience of dancing and walking through the streets.
What did you take home with you?
My career. My life. I went to Madagascar having come out of my undergrad university doing Archaeology and Anthropology; I loved my course but did not know what I wanted to do as a career. I loved diving, I was a dive master and I wanted to get a job in conservation. But as I don’t have an A-level in biology or a degree in zoology, I didn’t think there was much of a chance. Still, Frontier hired me as a Marine Assistant Research Officer, because I could dive, and I loved animals. In those six months, I learned how to survey and identify all the species. From Madagascar I went straight into my Masters in Conservation and Biodiversity with a marine focus. Moving to Madagascar made me realise exactly what I wanted to do.
You stayed with Frontier. Now you are working in the Frontier Headquarters in London. What are you doing here?
I am the volunteer coordinator. It is essentially my job to make sure that from the minute a volunteer decides they want to do a project, they are supported all the way through, from booking flights to looking for insurance. I am here just to make sure that they have all they need and to make sure that when they need help, they know we are here. So, when they go on a project, they are good to go and have an amazing time.