James Madison University

Geographic Science Graduate Works for Living Oceans Foundation

By: Megan Williams
Posted: September 17, 2009

Invasive LionfishAs a kid, the idea of the water’s unknown depth frightened JMU graduate Amanda Williams. Those fears abated as she grew up only to reappear when an opportunity to become SCUBA certified presented itself following graduation.

“I had nightmares about drowning or various creatures I might encounter,” Williams said in an email interview, about the months leading up to the certification course.

But Williams overcame those concerns, and now, five years after graduating from JMU with a Bachelors degree in Geographic Science, she works full time with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, and has been on countless SCUBA trips around the world.

The foundation, named after his Royal Highness Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, is focused on the conservation and restoration of living oceans, something Williams became fascinated with even before her time at JMU.

ParrotfishIn 5th grade Williams made a water pollution video as part of a class project. The assignment opened her eyes to the environmental problems facing the world today, from global warming to the depletion of natural resources. When vacationing at the beach with her family she became more aware of her surroundings and the effects of the ocean.

“I started noticing changes in the beach width, litter and increasing damage to homes from storms,” Williams said.

Starting her undergraduate career as an International Business major and Spanish and Music minor, Williams focused on other interests outside of oceanography. But her cousin, a water quality biologist for the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, pointed her in the direction of the Geographic Science department and she soon switched majors. Shortly after, she took her first of many study abroad trips to Baja California Sur in Mexico where she studied sea turtles and marine protected areas. It didn’t take her long to realize she had found her calling.

For Williams it is the peace of the ocean that draws her to it.

“The silence of the ocean beneath the surface is really quite shocking,” she said. “It's so quiet you can hear parrotfish chomping away at corals and macro-algae.”

Measuring a Sea TurtleThe small, colorful fish and the bright undulating coral reefs give Williams hours of fascinated pleasure when she goes on a SCUBA dive. Although, it’s not always peaceful and serene, she said. Carrying 40 pounds of equipment on her back before diving can be strenuous, and sometimes the water can be choppy and cause her some anxiety. “Otherwise, every time I get in the water, I can't wait to just chill out and explore Planet Ocean,” Williams said.

Besides the dives themselves, the people she meets while traveling make the experience even more worthwhile. Their shared interested in oceanography and preservation inspired and encouraged Williams to pursue her current job with the Living Oceans Foundation.

“While these people may not necessarily be ocean conservationists,” Williams said about the people she has met on her travels. “They don’t want to lose what they love either, which is seeing many different species of fish, coral and other reef creatures.  Nobody wants a boring dive.”

While finishing her thesis for her Master’s degree she stumbled upon the position of GIS analyst for the foundation. She emailed the Executive Director and within two weeks had been hired. The experience was a whirlwind one, and stressful for the next 10 weeks as she juggled her thesis and a full-time job, but Williams maintains that it’s not every day that your “dream job” comes along and when it does, one must snatch it up.

ShipwreckAs GIS analyst she works with the data that she and the three other full-time foundation members have gathered on various trips including expeditions to Seychelles, the Red Sea, the Bahamas and the US Virgin Islands. The foundation is currently in the planning stages of its 2010-2013 Global Reef Expedition, a four-year project where they will partner with local teachers and scientists all over the world in order to assist them in understanding and managing coral reefs.

So even though she was once frightened of the water’s dark depths, and was once an International Business major at JMU, Williams has followed the current her life has taken her on, and enjoyed every minute of it.

“While I didn’t exactly plan this road, I am extremely happy with the outcome so far,” Williams said, “And I look forward to what the future holds for me next.”

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