Travel With A Paddle – Clare Baranowski

Clare’s passion for our planet is so contagious.  When we chatted about all of the projects she has been involved with it was totally mind blowing and makes you realise how much we can do ourselves to save even just the immediate world around us.  Clare has changed the lives not just for marine animals and local communities, but everyone she comes into contact with. She somehow sprinkles her special magic and you naturally want to become a better human being just by being around her.

What inspired you to study Marine biology?

I think the seed was planted when I was a kid. I must have a watched something on the TV, or maybe we had a project at school as I know my parents weren’t interested in anything like that.  I remember we visited Mexico as a family when I was about 15 and there was a manatee rehabilitation project in the areas we were staying.  They were taking in manatees that had been hit and injured by boat traffic and looking after their wounds and nursing them until they were well enough to be released back into the sea.  I think it was when I saw this, I basically committed myself to being a manatee rehabilitate.  It didn’t actually happen, but this was definitely where the seed was planted.

One thing to note though, becoming a Marine biologist you really have to make the decision quite early on as with regards to, what GCSE’s and A-levels you take, so you get into the right university.  Around when I was starting to study for my A-levels I had a big change of mind. I decided that I wanted to be a writer rather than a Marine biologist. I actually started a degree in English literature at university, which I enjoyed, but realised midway through…that I really missed the marine biology side.

By the time I’d finished my degree, I went to work in Mauritius with a friend of mine who was researching dolphins and became his research assistant for the summer. This made me certain that I absolutely had to continue with my childhood dream of being a Marine biologist. When I I came home I went back to university and studied for three more years. That’s kind of how it started, and because I’d had the previous experience through the Summers and the work in Mauritius, I was lucky enough to get offered Summer work all around the world throughout my degree. I basically did this every year until I graduated and then I kind of walked straight into my first marine biology job.

What was the first paid job you had?

My first paid work was actually working in the Maldives. It was a really fantastic role and not only was I working as a Marine biologist but also as a Sustainability Manager on the research side of things.  I was conducting a coral rehabilitation project and a manta ray identification project to identify manta ray individuals to give an idea of the health of the whole population. I was doing a similar project for whale sharks and reef health. On the flip side, I was also working with the resort to be more sustainable for example, making sure there were opportunities for different types of renewable energy and minimising excess unnecessary waste. This was a massive turning point for me because I learned so many sustainability skills through that role, an amazing first step.

When we first met, you told me about a heartfelt project you worked on in Costa Rica. Can you tell us a little more about it?

Yes, I was setting up a database for oceanic manta rays. Each manta ray has unique markings on their underbelly   basically like a fingerprint, meaning each one is different.  You can then take photos of them and over time build up a photographic database to know if you’ve seen the same individual for example two years later in say Ecuador.  Oceanic manta rays are migratory, meaning they’re long-distance travellers, but we know so little about them.  In the part of Costa Rica I was working the land is all national park, but the sea actually isn’t protected.  You could still do long line fishing, which it’s very easy for manta rays to get caught on.  I started an independent project and passed it into local hands, and it has now become part of the MantaTrust.  I started working with some of the local dive companies that had collected photos of manta rays for two years but they hadn’t done anything with them, so I put them all into a database which I still manage today. The project has been running for five years and people are still sending the photos.  We have 100 individual manta rays ID’s and by sharing this information with other researchers we will hopefully prove that these animals travel further than we think. Once we get thousands of these photos, we can put pressure on the government to make this part of the coast protected once we know they are returning all the time. This is one of those heartfelt projects that’s just so amazing to be part of.

How did the idea for Travel with a Paddle start?

When we (my husband Beau and I) were running SUP trips a lot of people were asking, ‘What’s that fish’, or they were genuinely interested in the world around them, especially after they’d spent three hours surfing on top of a reef or hours looking into a jungle.  Beau proposed that I should join the business and that we should turn it into not just a coaching business, but an environmental experience opportunity as well. Now we combine the two, so whilst people can have their coaching and SUP technique sessions, once they get back on the boat, they can ask me questions and be educated with ocean and the life around them. It’s not just about understanding how your actions make an impact and how it can affect the environment, it’s taking the quiet moments when you go on vacation to get a bigger perspective so you can include more sustainable habits into your day-to-day life.  Travel With A Paddle started because we just could see over a decade of traveling the world how the places that we loved were changing and it just made sense from a moral perspective to make sure we weren’t adding to that and whatever we did or whoever we were with understood it was their responsibility as much as ours, as much as everyone’s to try and look after the oceans they enjoy so much.

You are involved with many conservation initiatives that include beach clean-ups, can you share any projects you’ve worked on?

Definitely, it’s a standard at any time, when myself or my husband go to the beach, we just, without even thinking, pick up any litter that we see. I don’t really think of it as a project in a way as it’s become second nature. In the Maldives in particular, we partner with another project called Parley Maldives who collect clean plastic waste from you.  We organised a Paddle Against Plastic event a couple of years ago in the Maldives where we did a loop of where we were living, which included two islands with a the reef around it.  We didn’t know exactly what the currents and the weather conditions would be doing but thought, let’s do a lap and see.  In 3 hours we collected as much plastic waste as we could which was around 300 different pieces of plastic, absolutely bonkers for an area that inhabits only about 600 people – a quite big eye-opener really!

One thing that we did after finding all that plastic is set up a project with Parlay again to help the local islands collect plastic and we’d then ship it to the mainland so it could easily be recycled.  It’s part of what we do as a business and I do as Marine biologist, is to try and find a solution to the problem, by either alleviating it, or by helping others get involved so they can understand how to stop the problem in the first place.

You offset your carbon footprint by giving to a local community, is there a particular project you support?

We work with one project, The LEAF Charity that’s based in Kenya and the reason that we chose that one in particular is because they’re planting indigenous trees along the coast. So rather than planting trees in the more desert areas, which is still really amazing, we wanted to support something that was going to benefit coastal regions. This part of Kenya is actually really at risk for climate change because it’s predicted that the land is going to get so dry that it’s going to be so hard for people to live there.  We work with this charity to help plant indigenous trees, and it’s been truly amazing to watch them grow.

Are you working on any individual projects at the moment?

Yes I’m actually about to unveil something very shortly.  I’m not going to say too much for now but as a little taster, it’s going to help people experience nature whilst on a SUP without impacting wildlife in a negative way.  I love to see more people SUPing in the UK but I don’t want the nature to detriment from it, so this is something that will really help to guide and educate.

I also work as a communications officer for The Ocean Conservation Trust. It’s a charity based in Plymouth and I combine my knowledge of Marine biology with my communication skills in that role, in fact everything I do is ocean conservation related.

What do you do in your free time when you’re not doing an ocean conservation projects?

We moved to Cornwall a couple of years ago, and especially this last year in the lockdown, just walking the coastal paths honestly has changed my life.  The north coast is mind blowing, absolutely amazing, the beaches and coastline is just exploding with life, and if you know where to look, it’s kind of meditative. I absolutely love discovering more about this magical place.
Click here for more information about the incredible work Clare has been doing the world