Belize (credit: Marine Conservation Expeditions)

It’s easy to sign a cheque for charity. But once you have handed over your money it is also often easy to feel disconnected from the cause you donated to and it can be unclear what difference you have really made. Marine Conservation Expeditions (MCE) is an organisation that has adopted a new model for making a difference. A social enterprise – a business that does good – it has tapped into the new wave of high-end traveller who is after adventure with a purpose. Turning superyachts into research vessels and guests into executive producers (EPs), MCE enables you to join some of the world’s top names in exploration, filmmaking and photography to make a documentary on real marine conservation issues. We spoke to Scott MacDougall who started as one of MCE’s executive producers but after his expedition, decided to become a permanent member of the team.

TSO: What drew you to MCE in the first place?

SM: Here's what holds my interest: innovative ways at making the world a better place. I like and know business best, but I also work in the not-for-profit and political sectors. And I'm especially interested by models that advance sustainability by getting people (like me) out there in the wind and sun and rain. I was introduced to Marine Conservation Expeditions by a friend who thought it would be something I would like to get involved with.

TSO: What expedition did you take part in?

SM: Our mission in Belize was to film a documentary in support of its Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Often a country imposes a protected area but there is not buy-in by local populations and fishermen, resulting in what is known as a ‘paper park‘. MCE's films provided a platform for these people to voice their opinions, challenges and communicate hopes for the future well-being and health of their marine ecosystems.
We chartered a yacht and set sail for the incredible Turneffe Atoll, 30 miles offshore. It is the most biologically diverse atoll in the western hemisphere and supports a number of threatened and endangered species. Our seven day expedition was packed with activities ranging from scuba diving, fly fishing, kayaking, swimming with dolphins, manatee and crocodile watching, mangrove exploration and insights into the lives of fishermen, resort owners, coast guards and marine biologists studying the health of the reef which surrounds the atoll. I was part of a team of world class National Geographic and BBC filmmakers who taught me how to use still and motion picture cameras above and below water. I felt like I was a real part of the production, they had me interviewing the local people myself so it was enriching to have these insights into their lives and knowing we were doing something positive to help.

The MCE team interviewing in Belize (credit: Marine Conservation Expeditions)

TSO: What was the most memorable moment of the trip for you?

SM: The most memorable encounter was meeting lobsterpot watchman ‘JD’ who arrived in his dug out canoe on the aft deck of our yacht to introduce himself. He turned out to be a very charismatic individual describing his life isolated from civilisation and we quickly turned the cameras on him to record his story. We decided to film a sequence of a day in the life of a lobsterpot watchman and he invited us to his humble home, which turned out to be a four by four metre shack on stilts above the waterline. It was incredible to be immersed though filmmaking in a life far detached from my own. JD showed us his daily routine, very proud to show how he is self sustained by spearfishing on the reef to feed himself and collecting rainwater to survive. We invited him onto the yacht for dinner that evening to celebrate the successful shoot. He was so touched by the whole experience saying he would never forget it. That for me was a truly life enriching experience, seeing first-hand how my input was of benefit to the local people.

Scott MacDougall (credit: Marine Conservation Expeditions)

TSO: Do you think that high-end travellers really do have the capacity to make and encourage positive changes with regards to marine conservation?

SM: I do believe high-end travellers have the capacity to make a difference by aligning their travel experiences with conservation initiatives. I believe there is a growing interest towards experiential travel combined with philanthropic giving. People want to see first hand the positive impact they are making as opposed to writing a cheque from their office and hoping to see some positive feedback in a year's time.

Often high-end travellers are people who are in a position to take action or influence decision makers. Clearly we need more well managed Marine Protected Areas around the world if we are to continue to enjoy the beauty of our oceans for generations to come.

TSO: Do you think this kind of initiative will encourage more high net worth individuals to get involved in and care about marine conservation? Why?

SM: I think it will encourage more involvement. As we become more aware of the rate at which our coral reefs are disappearing, we realise if we don't do something to get involved in their conservation, we'll be cruising our lovely yachts in a lifeless ocean as early as the middle of this century. That’s a scary prospect for me and one I can't sit back and ignore.

TSO: What would you say to encourage charterers and superyacht owners who normally cruise the Med to come and do an MCE expedition instead?

SM: Owners and charterers in my opinion should get out there and explore. These yachts are built with the capacity for people to see and experience the most far-reaching and pristine parts of the world. The typical yachting hotspots in the Med and Caribbean these days are overrun with tourism so I think there is a movement to interest in a more unique cruising experience. I'd say send your vessel somewhere you've always wanted to explore, get the team at MCE to propose an exciting itinerary and embark on an expedition you'll never forget.

Members can read The Superyacht Owner's feature on Marine Conservation Expeditions in Issue 11 here. To become a member, click here.