Interview with Deborah Burn, Marine Biologist and Environmental Officer at Gili Lankanfushi
What do you do and how did you get into the industry?
Hi, my name is Debs, and I am the Marine Biologist and Environmental Officer at Gili Lankanfushi Resort in the Maldives. My role is a busy one, where I run both the guest awareness program and supervise the sustainable projects on the island. One of my favourite parts of the job is to create and run unforgettable guest experiences such as guided snorkels, dolphin cruises and educational presentations. Equally as exciting is our Coral Lines Project: I manage our unique reef rehabilitation project, which is not only a great guest experience, but also a huge research project where we are growing corals on ropes in a bid to restore degraded areas of coral reef. Finally, I am the resort’s Earth Check Coordinator, where I collect data from each department to determine our environmental footprint, as well as helping with sustainable initiatives such as renewable energy projects and beach nourishment.
I knew I wanted to be a Marine Biologist from the age of about seven, and I can even pin-point the exact moment I decided. Every year I went on holiday with my family to Anglesey, a small island in Wales. My mum could never tear me away from the rock-pools where I was fascinated by the sea anemones and starfish I found. One day I asked my mum if there was a job I could do that was similar to rock-pooling, and she told me (half joking) to be a marine biologist, and that was that- decision made. I completed my bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology at Newcastle University and completed my dissertation on coral disease in Caribbean Venezuela, after meeting a coral disease researcher in a pub. That same researcher, Dr Michael Sweet, offered me a position in the Maldives straight after my graduation to work in a Coral Reef Research Lab called KorallionLab as the Scientific Officer. After six months on the small uninhabited research island, I moved here to Gili Lankanfushi to work as a volunteer Marine Biologist. One year on, I have gained promotion and now work as the full time resident Marine Biologist and Environmental Officer.
Share with us an interesting story from behind the scenes.
We have a good population of turtles on the reefs surrounding Gili Lankanfushi, and a consequence of this is that sometimes they get sick. Occasionally we have to deal with sick or injured turtles that get brought to us. Due to the nature of most of these situations, we have to act quickly, and so guests very often don’t see it happening. A few months ago one of our gardeners brought us a small Hawksbill Turtle who was not swimming very well. She was found struggling on the Eastern reef flat close to our over water villas. We took various measurements and photographs for identification purposes, and inspected the turtle’s health before taking her to the turtle rehabilitation centre on a nearby island. The turtle was severely malnourished and very thin, so we left her in the care of the experts at the rehabilitation centre. Hopefully she will make a speedy recovery and we will be able to release her back onto the reef!
What's the best/ worst part of your job?
It’s really difficult for me to choose a single part of my job that I love the most! I think the best part is that I get to be in the water so much. Most rewarding are the reactions of guests who see things for the first time, whether it is a pod of Spinner Dolphins playing on the bow of our boat, or simply seeing the coral reef and colourful reef fish for the first time. It’s easy to become desensitized to these things when you see them every day, but the reaction of a guest keeps me excited!
Whilst there are many amazing aspects to what I do, anyone who works in conservation will tell you that there are also a lot of sad things that we witness. Snorkelling over a coral reef that has bleached a ghostly white due to a rise in sea surface temperature, and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop those corals from dying, is one of the worst feelings. However, I think one of the worst parts of the job is having to rescue turtles who have been caught in discarded nets. Discarded fishing gear, or ‘ghost nets’ floating on the surface of the water act as shelters for animals living in the open ocean such as Olive Ridley turtles. These animals often get entangled within the nets and drift close to shore with the current. The turtles we encounter in these nets are often badly injured and malnourished. Their limbs and necks are often so tightly entangled that we have to carefully cut away the netting from deep wounds. It is quite a distressing sight, and something I would class as the worst part of my job. Luckily for us, this is a rare occurrence, and being able to release the turtles almost makes up for it.
What's one of the wildest/ craziest/ scariest/ funniest/ most outrageous (choose an adjective or pick you own) things you've seen behind the scenes?
I’m going to choose ‘scariest’, even though it encompasses all those adjectives really…
There is not a lot that I do behind the scenes, so I have chosen an experience that only happened to me once whilst I was with one guest.
At the resort, we run night snorkelling trips with blue torches where we get to see corals fluorescing. It really is an amazing excursion, and one of my favourites to guide. On this one particular night I only had one guest with me and the tide was very low. The trip was amazing, and it was time to return to the island. We follow a narrow sandy path flanked by corals to get back to the island from the drop off and due to the low tide, there was probably about 50cm between me and the sandy floor. I quickly checked behind me to make sure my guest was following, and when I turned back around I came face to face with a 1.5m wide stingray! He was HUGE! I hadn’t thought that other creatures might use this sandy path, and I realized my guest and I had nowhere to go but forwards. Whilst they’re not aggressive animals, stingrays do have poisonous barbs at the base of their tails, so I didn’t want to startle him. I quickly pushed my guest out of the way and made like a floating starfish so he could pass slowly beneath me.The experience was incredible and my guest was so excited about it afterwards. The initial shock and the size of him really took me by surprise, but the experience really goes to show that these animals are not aggressive and are simply amazing to witness!
The perfect day off would be...
Living on a small island might sound boring, but it is far from it! There’s nothing like starting your day with a morning SCUBA dive in clear warm waters, followed by a tasty local breakfast of mas huni. After breakfast I would head out for a quick windsurf in the lagoon and then grab my snorkelling equipment and try to refine my underwater photography skills! A relaxing Balinese massage at the spa would go down a treat for the afternoon, and in the evening I would set up my TV on the host beach area so my friends and I could watch a movie under the stars with a beer.
A day in the life of a marine biologist in the Maldives is...
One thing I love about my job is that each day is different. My day typically starts with a guided snorkel tour to our house reef or on the boat to another location. The afternoon, if not booked with guests, is the time to complete other tasks such as coral reef and beach erosion monitoring, coral nursery maintenance, or disseminating various data and report writing. Our evenings are also busy. If I am not joining a dolphin cruise, or presenting an interesting talk in the bar, you can find me mingling with guests at the weekly cocktail party or still in the sea guiding an exciting night snorkel!
What do you do for fun?
I love SCUBA diving, and I like to travel to new places when I get the chance, and when I’m not on a deserted island I play field hockey.
What's something you'd like guests to know about Gili Lankanfushi?
That we are not just ‘environmentally friendly’ on the surface, we actually do work really hard, to the core of the resorts operations to implement as many eco-friendly initiatives as we can to reduce our footprint on our surrounding environment. Come and find me in the dive centre and ask about our projects!
Check out Gili Lankanfushi and some of its incredible marine life via this link.