New Executive Director Heather Starck is making a splash in the world of marine conservation through her leadership at CORAL and immense dedication to saving the world’s coral reefs.
When she’s not rereading “Lord of the Rings” or rooting for her favorite college basketball team, Starck is scuba diving to some of the world’s most valuable coral reef ecosystems and strategizing on the best ways to protect them.
We had a chance to sit down with Starck to learn more about her passion for saving coral reefs and how she will continue to propel CORAL forward through effective conservation strategies, investment in science, community engagement, and impactful partnerships. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: Where does your passion for protecting our planet’s resources and ecosystems come from? Why do you care about saving coral reefs?
A: I spent a great deal of time as a child outside exploring and finding wonder in the world around me. In high school, I took my first trip to Andros in the Bahamas and I never looked back. As soon as I was able to get SCUBA certified and spend time exploring our underwater world, I realized I had to get involved in helping to protect it. We are all inextricably connected. Our fates are intertwined. I want a healthy thriving planet for my family and for us all, and that is only possible with healthy coral reefs!
Q: Tell me about your favorite coral reef experience and how it impacted you.
A: My favorite reef experience was probably the first time I went diving in Cozumel, Mexico. It was in the late 90’s and I remember experiencing the incredible diversity of corals and fish that I had never seen before. The drift dives there allow you to just float and watch this amazing world go by as if you are flying. I remember watching a yellowhead jawfish carefully carrying shells and small rocks in its mouth to arrange its burrow. This was also the first time I saw a parrotfish sleeping in its cocoon “sleeping bag” of mucus at night. I remember thinking how busy the coral reef was and how all of the organisms seemed to be working together in harmony, all with a purpose. It made one feel small but also somehow connected. It was the first time I felt like I understood how we are all interconnected.
Q: What are you most excited for, when it comes to joining the CORAL team?
A: I could not be more thrilled to join the CORAL team. The staff, board, council members, partners, donors, and volunteers are some of the most passionate and inspiring people I have ever met. Our science is innovative and important to leading us to our conservation. Our program staff understand how to put communities first and build trust through relationships. I am excited to make a difference, our work is important, urgent, and our team is up for the challenge. Each and every team member is fabulous!
Q: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
A: I have continued to learn and grow as a leader over the years. I would describe myself as someone with a high level of self-awareness that works hard to be honest, transparent, vulnerable, and build and maintain connections. I prioritize being present, participating, guiding, mentoring, and coaching our team to be efficient and effective. I enjoy pushing our strategy forward to reach our mission and ensuring that our team has the resources they need to move past any obstacle. Ensuring that everyone can come to work each day as their entire authentic selves as well as set boundaries for a healthy balance for their specific work/life situation is something I also care deeply about as a leader.
Q: What is one thing you’d like CORAL partners and supporters to know about you?
A: I am committed to our mission, it is deeply personal to me. I am also committed to relationships with you as partners and supporters. I come from a huge family, I have 8 siblings and 31 nieces and nephews. Family is everything to me. I look forward to getting to know all of my CORAL “family”.
Q: After 20 years of conservation experience, what is your biggest “lesson learned?”
A: Conservation is about people and building relationships. We need to work on solutions that are built from listening to the communities that have lived and thrived there for multiple generations. They have a deep connection with their surroundings and understand the problems and solutions better than anyone. Conservation works best when we listen, learn, and work together on solutions that will benefit both people and the natural world as we are all connected. This sounds simple, yet I have seen so many projects fail by not doing this well.
Q: How do you envision CORAL’s programs evolving? Can you share your plans to amplify our conservation work?
A: As the staff, board, partners, volunteers, and I continue to move forward, we will be looking for opportunities to take the lessons we have learned and drive action. Our strategy of working at the local, regional, and global scale will remain important. We have learned quite a bit about what works and doesn’t work in coral reef conservation in communities and our science is giving us more information and planning tools. Moving forward, we will need to focus even more on the “alliance” in our name to ensure that what we have learned that works is being utilized in as many places as possible through partnerships and coalitions.