Adventure Dream Jobs: Shark Researcher

Jess Cramp created her own route to a job as a marine conservationist, with a focus on sharks.
Marine Conservationist Jess Cramp with Silvertip Shark
Jess Cramp prepares to tag a silvertip shark © Andy Mann
By Kitt Doucette

The path that landed Jess Cramp in her current dream gig as a Marine Conservationist, Shark Researcher and Emerging Explorer for National Geographic was anything but easy. It started with her quitting a high-paying job in California, volunteering in Haiti after the earthquake, moving to Central America, then jumping on a sailboat across the South Pacific. Eventually, she arrived in the Cook Islands and sunk her teeth into establishing one of the world’s largest shark sanctuaries.

With her hard work and success in the Cook Islands, along with a healthy dose of determination, Cramp turned her passion into a career where adventure is a part of daily life. From freediving with sharks to month-long research expeditions in exotic South Pacific island chains and working with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio to protect the world’s oceans, Cramp’s life is far from ordinary. When she isn’t traveling, she still calls the Cook Islands home and is currently pursuing a PhD on top of her work in marine conservation. What do you do for a living?

Jess Cramp: I would probably be best described as a marine conservationist, although I wear many hats! I have an NGO called Sharks Pacific that focuses on research, outreach, education and advocacy for sharks and the fisheries that affect their plight. To inform this work, I’m completing a PhD at James Cook University to better understand shark movements with respect to large protected areas. And, as a result of having some policy success in the shark conservation world, I am lucky enough to work with National Geographic as one of their Emerging Explorers.

How did you get the job?

I suppose I created my job by being incredibly resilient (or stubborn, as some would say). I chose to leave a full-time, well-paying job as a research biologist in the US to try to find a way to utilize the scientific part of my brain while satisfying my desire to make a positive impact on the environment.

I volunteered for a number of organizations in Haiti, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala before sailing across the South Pacific and landing here in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. I spent over two years here volunteering for a local marine conservation organization while working nights to pay the rent. The director of the organization had a dream to help create a shark sanctuary in the Cook Islands and I was committed to seeing it through.

The breaking wave flipped our Zodiac, sending gear and people in every direction.

We were successful in the creation of the shark sanctuary in 2012. While ecstatic about the sanctuary, I realized that it was just a first step in reducing mortality of threatened sharks, and that many gaps existed in shark research and conservation. I made a conscious decision to commit myself to filling that niche, and a conscious decision to continuously better myself in order to give my projects the best chance of success. The dedication has absolutely paid off, but I had a plan — and I stuck to it.

If someone else wanted to do this job, my advice would be to have a hard look at what you are good at and where you need work. Create a plan to gain the skills you are lacking, even if that means working for free or working two jobs. Most importantly, keep going!

Marine Conservationist Jess Cramp with Silky Shark
Jess Cramp swims with a silky shark © Neil Gelinas

What’s the best part of your job?

Research expeditions. They are a culmination of months of hard days spent behind a computer, and they’re when I feel I am making the biggest strides in my career. On expeditions, you are on boats all day long, collecting data to inform the direction you’ll take for future research — and you have the time and headspace to think constructively about your approach. You are engaging with local communities, diving and exploring. You feel good about taking a moment to photograph the sunset. You are generally away from communications and able to focus on being present, while having to rely on your team and your creativity to address the problems at hand.

The worst?

The hours and hours spent in front of a computer. Writing manuscripts, data analysis, grant proposals and emails. Marine science and conservation, sadly, is not all about playing in the water!

What was your wildest day on the job?

I spent the month of December on expedition with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas team in the Galapagos. During our first trip to shore from the main research ship, we mistimed the set waves heading into the bay and were caught in the worst possible place. The breaking wave flipped our Zodiac, sending gear and people in every direction. Thank God for dry bags. The hilarious part was that while I was searching for gear on the sea floor, I saw sea lions, turtles and my very first marine iguana!

What would you be doing if you didn’t have this job?

I have no idea. I have fantasies about having only one thing to focus on, like surfing or playing the ukulele. The easy, fun things I wish I had more time for.

To keep up with Jess, follow her on Instagram.

Next Story