Noelia Hernández Muñoz is an oceanographer, National Geographic explorer and a PhD in marine ecology. Her work focuses on protecting and restoring marine habitats in an interdisciplinary way through: science, policy interaction, community participation and environmental education. In recent years she has worked as the scientific director of Osa Conservation, an NGO in Costa Rica, leading different marine conservation projects and working on the creation of a marine protected area. She is currently working in Spain, leading a blue economy study on the benefits that a healthy marine environment generates in the local economy along with coordinating marine conservation projects aimed at protecting and recovering the Mediterranean.
Without a healthy ocean, life on earth would not be possible, but every day the impacts and degradation of our oceans are increasing. In order to have a healthy ocean in the long term, I work on different projects that involve science, advocacy, education and communication to conserve marine ecosystems and create a sustainable use of marine resources. Currently one of the main objectives I work on is to help recover the Mediterranean Sea, working on the creation of marine protected areas, restoration of posidonia oceanica meadows (sea grasses), conservation of gorgonian corals and other endangered species.
Just as humans have had a huge impact for decades, they are also capable of doing incredible things and using knowledge and innovation to help protect the environment. Years ago, certain technology that is currently being used in marine conservation was not available; from cameras that can record at great depths and provide valuable information from the ocean floor to the use of tags on animals that allow us to know their movements/migrations. We have technological systems that allow the monitoring and control of protected areas against illegal activities and even the use of apps that allow us to bring science closer to citizens and to use that information to improve the protection of species. Innovation also makes it possible to bring the environment closer to the people, helping them to value nature more and to understand the need to protect it. One of the projects I recently finished was an immersive 360º video on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, where through virtual reality goggles people have the opportunity to dive and learn about the ecological importance of that area. This type of tool is very useful, as it allows us to bring a complex environment, such as the marine environment, to everyone in a more immersive/real way than a normal video.
I was born in Avila, but since I was a child, I dreamed of being a marine biologist. My father would watch documentaries on TV and I remember that everything I saw fascinated me; that's how my interest in the oceans grew. I can't even say at what age I started saying I wanted to be a biologist, as I remember always saying that I wanted to work in the ocean with marine animals. I do remember that at the beginning I said I wanted to work with the typical animals such as dolphins and orcas, but then I became very passionate about sharks and eventually even other species such as nudibranchs. Normally, being from Avila, I would have wanted to work with sea lions, which I also like, but I was very clear that I wanted to work in the ocean. The ocean makes me calm, but above all it brings me a lot of happiness and joy. When I go diving, many friends tell me that I come out of the ocean smiling.
As I mentioned before, my vocation began with watching documentaries and underwater images on television. At that time, I didn't know that the oceans were in danger, but what I saw was so incredible that I knew I wanted to be a marine scientist/biologist. My first struggle was what to study for a career, at that time I was an athlete and it seemed that the ideal was to study physical education or another career that had more opportunities. Despite this, my parents supported me and I studied marine sciences. From the first year of university, it was clear to me that I wanted to work in marine conservation, although I didn't really know how to get there. During my studies I became increasingly interested in working in shark conservation, something that seemed mission impossible in Spain. I was a collaborating student in the biology department and many colleagues encouraged me to do a doctorate. Although it was not something I had ever considered, I thought that with a doctorate I would have a better training to be able to work in what I wanted, so I applied for a scholarship and was selected. I did my PhD at a CSIC center in Mallorca, in population ecology, studying how different environmental conditions affect the life histories (reproduction, survival, migrations, etc.) of different species of marine predators. When I finished my PhD, I had two great conservation job opportunities, one in Mexico in Los Cabos and the other in Costa Rica. I finally decided to go to Costa Rica, where I worked as a conservation director in an NGO, creating a marine program from scratch. During the years I was there, I worked on the creation of a marine protected area, with artisanal fishermen, protection of sea turtles, mangroves, I collaborated with another NGO in a coral restoration project, studies of sharks and rays, good practices in ecotourism, etc. As part of the work I was doing to create a marine protected area, I collaborated on an expedition with the Pristine Seas team of National Geographic, that was my first contact with National Geographic. That year, I decided to apply for a National Geographic Young Explorer Fellowship and it was awarded to me. During the Pristine Seas expedition, I met my current boss and he told me that he wanted to do a project to recover the Mediterranean and he would like to include me. I asked him for some time to finish some of the projects I was working on in Costa Rica and last year I returned to Spain. I am currently working on different projects to help recover the Mediterranean and I continue to collaborate pro bono with the NGO in Costa Rica.