How would you describe a conservationist? Would it be someone with a biology or a master’s degree? Or do you see a conservationist as someone who works in a natural environment for days and nights in a row?
As a Dutch Engineer, Wietse van der Werf had none of those characteristics, yet he is truly a conservationist. The same goes for Cultural Anthropologist Sophie Hankinson and Graphic Designer Dan Benham. As the founder of Sea Rangers, Wietse works together with his team – amongst them Sophie and Dan – to save the ocean. It’s a complex collaboration between numerous parties, but the Sea Rangers make it work!
Sometimes all you need is a new perspective to get started. For Wietse, his background has everything to do with where he stands today. As an engineer in the maritime sector, his knowledge of boat life and marine research was growing day by day. The real mind shift from being an engineer, to working in conservation, came during another job, where he was an undercover investigator on boats. Standing shoulder to shoulder with coastguards and fisheries inspectors, it soon dawned on him that there were so many rules on paper about how the ocean should be protected. However, there were not enough people to tackle the people trespassing those rules.
Besides that, he realized that the highest rates of unemployment were seen in the coastal regions and harbor areas, right where they needed the people to protect their backyards – the ocean. The high rates of unemployment could be explained, due to the lack of shipbuilding in recent years. However, he was sure this could be turned around with a new approach in the sector.
One day, he read about the great depression. Roosevelt mobilized 3 million men, under the coordination of the army, to establish national parks, tackle wildfire, and more. It was an example that immediately spoke to Wietse. In times of despair, Roosevelt realized a situation in which nature was restored and people were given jobs and hope for a better future. Could he find the answers to our future in our history?
As an engineer, Wietse was used to the fact that he had a different perspective on conservation than the people in the field did. Because of this, he had a broader view, which enabled him to connect the dots. The interdisciplinarity between all that he knew allowed him to think about the solution to the problems he registered. With his everlasting love for nature and his diverse experience in the maritime sector, he started to write down his ideas. Rangers on a boat could be the eyes and the ears needed to tackle problems at sea. At the same time, he could mobilize people from coastal regions and provide them with new, impactful jobs. This is how Sea Rangers was born.
Even before the first launch of Sea Rangers took place, Wietse won the Future for Nature Award. That was back in 2016. The award – which consisted of money – wasn’t enough, so he went to several investors. He knew that he received a good amount of money to start with, but it wasn’t enough to realize his plans. However, the founder of North Face stepped in and doubled his award money. That’s how Wietse could eventually get started.
With a roaring start and many successful years, Sea Rangers has proven to be useful, efficient, and cost-effective with their work. To learn how the company runs nowadays, I talk to Sophie Hankinson. As a Cultural Anthropologist with a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development, her background is not directly linked to marine conservation. Nevertheless, Sophie acquired a spot on the team through the bootcamp.
Each year, everyone under the age of 30 is invited to sign up for the bootcamp. First, a cognitive test has to be done online. If you get through, a selection day with physical tests will be done. Still in the running? Then an 8-day mental and physical bootcamp under the surveillance of veterans will show your true character. Here, the questions ‘How do you hold up when things get tough?’ and ‘How do you respond when you have to work together in a team?’ will be answered.
After that, only a small selection of participants is left from the group. They are invited to join the boat and to experience the real life of a sea ranger. For Sophie, this meant experiencing sea sickness firsthand. “Do I still want to do this?” Sophie kept asking herself. “They haven’t hired me yet and the others are also very good candidates, so I would understand it if getting seasick would be a reason not to hire me.” Even though these thoughts went through her head, she continued the trajectory. Thanks to the promising words of the captain: “You’ll get used to it”, she decided not to quit. For Wietse and his crew, it took a little while to decide who would get the job offer, but Sophie was thrilled when they chose her.
As a result, Sophie now works in one of the teams. The captain, two senior rangers, and four first years are on the boat together for two entire weeks. They work hard, but according to Sophie, the physical aspect is not as bad as it was during the bootcamp. Most of all, it’s very interesting and a lot of fun.
The projects at sea vary each and every time. Mostly, they are the ‘eyes and ears out at sea’. Both Wietse and Sophie use this phrase when they explain what they do. In collaboration with other organizations from the Netherlands, they keep an eye out for what happens. For example, they monitor shipwrecks in the North Sea. Even though they can’t and don’t dive in the water themselves, they check if divers behave how they should behave and if they don’t take anything from the shipwrecks.
Another one of their projects is based more on biodiversity and nature conservation. In collaboration with Project Seagrass from the UK, they will restore seagrass meadows in the North Sea. In the past years, Project Seagrass has been studying their seagrasses and they have been breeding them in their nurseries. Sea Rangers has the workforce to implement whatever they want at sea, so the connection was made easily. But before being able to do that, numerous things have to happen.
First of all, they start with mapping the seafloor, to see where the meadows can be effective. Secondly, they need to know where they can create nurseries from which they can harvest the seeds. Then, they decide where to start planting for active restoration. As soon as those steps have been taken, measurements and gathering carbon intake data can be started.
It’s good to know that increasing carbon intake – by planting more and more – can be damaging to the environment. It is therefore not a good idea to simply start creating meadows. A lot of factors are included in that process. One of the other reasons to create meadows is to tackle coastal erosion. If you take that into account, it is logical that we are also looking for different types of restoration in the future, such as coral restoration and oyster bed restoration. Every type will address a new problem or goal at sea, which accumulates into a better-conserved ocean area.
Once again, Wietse starts talking about Sea Rangers as an organization. The best definition of them is probably a conservation organization, but with a social approach. Their way of activating coastal residents into young employees and conservationists creates a healthy atmosphere where growth is always on top of mind. And, you don’t need to be a conservationist to work in conservation. It’s rather a mix of traits and qualities that you can use anywhere and everywhere, such as project management, working well in a team, and communication professionally, that’s what conservation organizations are looking for nowadays.
If anyone knows that to be true, it must be Dan Benham. As a relatively new employee, Dan still has some vivid memories of his first acquaintance with Wietse. He spent a full day in the Netherlands, visiting several locations to get to know the business. As a graphic designer, Dan did not have explicit experience with wildlife or nature conservation. However, he did have a very clear image of what he wanted to achieve with his work. In his years as a graphic designer, working for NGOs had increasingly gained his attention. Making a positive impact on businesses that worked for a better world, made his creativity spin. This felt like everything he should be doing. Both Wietse and Dan enthusiastically agreed on collaborating.
And I guess that defines the story of Wietse, Sophie, and Dan. All three of them play such a significant role in the Sea Ranger organization. They have their own background – none of them in biology or marine conservation – which is of great importance to what they do in their jobs nowadays. Just like them, you can start your career in conservation at any point, too. Just shift your perspective and take a leap! If you don’t take action, nothing will happen.
Wietse is a supporter of an active and assertive approach. Plus, he is always looking for good assets for the Sea Rangers. If you feel this is your calling as well, you can send him a message.