Chris Mason-Parker - Seychelles Country Director
Chris has long held a fascination for the natural world and in particular the marine environment. A degree in Aquatic Biology was followed by three years travelling and working in southeast Asia, and in 2009 he joined the GVI Marine Conservation Program in Mexico. A year later he transferred to GVI Seychelles where he remains today. When he’s not working Chris can usually be found in the water photographing the marine life of the Indian Ocean.
As Country Director of all GVI Programs located in Seychelles, Chris works to balance meaningful cultural immersion, professional and educational development, and simple times of relaxation for GVI volunteers in Seychelles. With a range of travel and conservation experience under his belt, Chris acts as a guide for volunteers to not only GVI’s programs but also to Seychelles itself, and his passion for conservation and volunteering helps him maintain successful, impactful programs in Seychelles for GVI.
What inspired you or led you to join GVI?
My two great passions in life have always been travelling and conservation, and I am a firm believer that through volunteering we all have the ability to make a difference. So, when the opportunity arose to join the GVI staff team on the Marine Conservation program in Mexico, I jumped at the chance. Six years later and I am still enjoying every minute working for GVI.
GVI has a wide variety of programs across the world, from wildlife and environmental conservation to community development. What makes GVI programs in Seychelles and the country itself so unique?
There is so much about the Seychelles that is unique. For starters, it contains the only oceanic granitic islands in the world and is extremely rich in endemic species. Volunteers joining the Seychelles programs will have the opportunity to work closely with flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on earth. Species like the giant Aldabra tortoise or the Coco de Mer; a palm confined to just two islands within the Seychelles and producer of the world’s largest seed. For volunteers joining the marine program, they will be contributing to a decade’s worth of coral reef data, coming face to face with reef sharks and endangered green and hawksbill turtles.
What characteristics does an ideal GVI participant possess in your opinion?
We receive participants from all over the world and from all walks of life. There are many qualities that make a great volunteer, but personally I believe there are three characteristics that really stand out. If they are open minded, adaptable, and enthusiastic they will definitely get the most out of their experience.
What is the most interesting program offered by GVI in Seychelles?
With so many interesting projects offered by GVI in Seychelles it is difficult to select just one but if I had to chose I would probably go for the Dive Master Internship. Volunteers sign up for a six-month program, with the first three months spent on the marine expedition base. During this time they are trained in species identification and taught how to survey coral reefs. At the end of the three months they are placed at a local dive center to train as a PADI Dive Master and build up their diving experience. It is a fantastic program for anyone looking to begin a career within marine conservation or the dive industry.
What is the most important thing participant should know about Seychelles before joining your program?
It is important that volunteers know that whichever program they join it is going to involve a lot of hard work. Whether it is trekking over Curieuse Island in search of giant tortoises or completing a full day of marine surveys, the days are long and the work can be tiring. This is why it is important for volunteers to have a good level of fitness before they join us. It is not all work though, and we make sure there is enough time to relax and enjoy the slower pace of island life.
If there is one thing that a volunteer should bring with them to Seychelles, what is it? What is one thing volunteers should leave at home?
The one item I would encourage all volunteers to bring to Seychelles is a camera. The islands really are one of the most beautiful places on the planet and around every corner there is another amazing photographic opportunity.
The one thing volunteers should leave behind is any preconceptions they may have. It is no coincidence that those volunteers who are receptive to new ideas and flexible in their attitudes tend to enjoy their experience the most.
What is a typical day like for GVI participants in Seychelles?
Whether it is on the marine conservation expedition or the terrestrial program a typical day usually follows the same format. We start early in the morning with breakfast and then head out into the field. This could mean fish/coral spots or survey dives, looking for giant tortoises, measuring Coco de Mer palms, climbing through the mangroves, or searching the numerous deserted beaches for nesting hawksbill turtles. For those volunteers who are not in the field, there are lectures or study groups to learn species identification and survey methodologies.
It is then time for lunch before heading back out into the field. Before duty groups get together to prepare the evening meal, there is usually some free time to lie in a hammock and read your favorite book, or to take a dip in the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. After the evening meal there is the daily announcements and we discuss the schedule for the following day. Then it is time to relax and get to know your fellow volunteers a little better.
How do you help volunteers understand the local culture?
There are a number of ways in which we help the volunteers understand a little about Seychelles culture, starting with when they arrive in the field and are provided with a welcome chat. Weekends are a great time for volunteers to travel between islands and to visit places of natural beauty or cultural significance. With this in mind staff and previous volunteers have put together weekend guides to provide suggestions of where to go and what to see. There is also the opportunity to interact with the local community through our quarterly “Kreol Day” BBQs at the President’s Village Children’s Home.
Aside from the actual experience, what is the most important thing you want participants to bring home with them from your programs?
We take great pride in making sure that our volunteers have the best experience possible while they are with us, but we hope to achieve more than this and try hard to make a lasting impression on the volunteers that join us. As our programs have a heavy focus on conservation we run numerous environmental initiatives, such as avoiding the use of plastic bags where possible, not eating unsustainable fish, and harvesting rainwater. We would like to think that some of these practices stay with our volunteers. If we manage to change the way some of them view the world and if they then go home and pass this on to their friends and family, then I think we can be really proud of what we have achieved.
What component of GVI’s programs do you feel set them apart from programs offered by other providers in Seychelles?
I feel there are two key components to a GVI program that sets us apart from any other, and they are Safety Standards and Volunteer Support. GVI’s Health & Safety Standards are some of the best in the industry and we are constantly reviewing and adapting where necessary. Our highly qualified staff receive training from the moment they join us and we plan for every possible eventuality.
Volunteer support is key to providing the best volunteering experience, and again this is where GVI really excels. From the moment a volunteer books a GVI program, before their departure, throughout their time in the field, and even when they have returned home, the GVI Office and Field staff are on hand to make the experience as enjoyable and as stress free as possible. It is this combination of high safety standards and amazing volunteer support that causes many volunteers to return to GVI.
Can we expect any new or exciting developments in Seychelles in the next year?
Absolutely, our Seychelles programs are always developing and we have some amazing new projects starting up over the next few months. The one we are all really excited about is the lemon shark tagging project, which will become part of the Curieuse Island Conservation Expedition. Juvenile Lemon sharks use the mangroves on Curieuse Island as a nursery ground, where they are safe from predators. Listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable, we plan to start tagging the sharks to assess population numbers and identify which areas the sharks are using.