Storyteller in Residence 2024: Meet Mads St Clair

British scientist Mads St Clair is a coral reef biologist, conservation photographer-filmmaker and expedition leader. Her drive to learn, investigate and document our oceans has taken her to some of the remotest corners of the planet to create powerful, compelling storytelling that serves as a call to action. Wanting to bridge the gap between research and public awareness, Mads leans on her multidisciplinary background as a scientist-turned-creative to ​​deliver hard-hitting conservation messages in a way that resonates with a global audience. Founder of charitable organisation and international community, Women in Ocean Science, Mads is a fierce advocate for gender equity and through her lens, explores the nuanced relationship between female empowerment and ocean health. In this Q&A, she speaks about the Storyteller in Residence position and her plans for 2024. 

Interview by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Mads St Clair

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): Mads, congratulations! How excited are you to have been chosen as Oceanographic’s 2024 Storyteller in Residence?

Mads St Clair: “I’m beyond ecstatic! I got the email at 1:30am in the morning and immediately called my mum on the other side of the world to share the news (and had what can only be referred to as an incoherent and joyful meltdown with lots of tears). I really really wanted the role, but knew I must have been up against some seriously talented people. I am profoundly grateful to the Oceanographic team for entrusting me to take on this role – and not-so befittingly of a writer, I don’t have the words to quite describe how excited I am for the year ahead. Following in the steps of the previous – and insanely talented – SiR, Henley, big shoes to fill! But I’m looking forward to bringing something a little different to the table.”

OM: What was it about this position that most appealed to you? Why did you decide to apply?

Mads St Clair: “The Oceanographic Storyteller in Residence position has been on my radar for a while. It’s such a wildly brilliant opportunity, the dream opportunity even, providing access to the resources needed to document obscure stories in challenging ecosystems. It’s an opportunity and platform with the potential for real impact. And it’s one that as an emerging creative with a deep love of science journalism and print media, I wanted very much.

Words, images, and film, when woven together with intention, have this unique ability to connect people with nature. As a tropical marine biologist and conservation photographer-filmmaker, I have spent most of my career so far in some of our planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems, which are also sadly the very same ecosystems that are on the frontlines of a changing climate. As a result, I am desperately conscious that we are living in the silent crisis of a disappearing world. And so, like many others before me, I find myself compelled to learn, investigate and document our planet; what’s changing, what’s lost and where there’s hope to be found.

I had reluctantly chosen not to apply to the SiR position the previous year, due to a full schedule and in hindsight, perhaps a lack of confidence. I’m a huge believer that things often arrive when you’re ready, so at the time, I tried not to see it as a missed opportunity but as a chance to grow and refine my portfolio. When in February of this year the article I had written on Hope Reef made it (to my absolute amazement) to the cover of Oceanographic’s 35th issue, I felt confident both in my work and that this position could be a role that I would thrive in, so I applied!”

OM: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you end up in the ‘ocean space’?

Mads St Clair: “Like most of us who end up in this industry, I’ve always felt a deep connection with the ocean. It started with crabs, seals and summers on the British coast, where in Cromer I would fish off the pier, rock pool and swim in the sea. Instead of taking crabs home for dinner like most of my family, I would put them in buckets, feed them small chunks of seaweed and bacon and beg my parents to let me keep them. I was full of questions and more than anything, I was curious about the natural world. Though Norfolk’s bracing winds, cold seas and strong currents did not make for the most enticing first ocean encounter, that didn’t seem to matter to the younger me – and so started my infatuation with the sea.

But my entry into the ocean space “professionally” was not as linear as most people might think. Though I think I probably dreamed of being a naturalist back in those early days, for most of my teenage years I was on track for a career in corporate law. It wasn’t until I lost a close friend at sixteen that in an era blurred with grief, my life was doused with the rare and powerful gift of clarity that changed its course dramatically. And so, I decided to do something that a) I felt mattered and b) made me happy.

From there I went on to study first biosciences and then tropical marine biology. It was pretty clear from the outset that for me, it was always going to be about coral reefs. Since then my work as a scientist has focused almost exclusively on coral reefs and the communities that depend on them. Having always struggled to exist as just one thing, I’ve spent most of my 20s wearing a couple of different hats as I straddled science, storytelling and working on social impact projects. I am fiercely passionate about making the ocean a space for all, and especially for local communities and women. I find my work moving, compelling and deeply rewarding and working in the ocean space is most definitely a labour of love.”

OM: Without giving too much away at this early stage, what can readers expect from you over the coming 12 months?

Mads St Clair: “It’s too hard not to give it away… but for a quick insight, this journey will take me from the tropics to our polar regions. I’ve broadly split my assignments into a few key themes – wildlife, conservation and community – and will be documenting how climate is impacting indigenous communities, new approaches to rewilding and restoring biodiversity and what our oceans look like in a changing world. There will be science, of course, but there will also be human connection, and a celebration of the remarkable people who dedicate their lives to protecting our oceans.

Researching stories and pulling together a number of expeditions within a year – and with quite a fast turnaround before my first expedition too – will be quite the feat. If anyone reading this has ever worked in the field, you will know that things rarely go to plan – though you’ll become a better, more resilient problem solver than you ever thought possible. So I imagine you can also expect some rather interesting behind-the-scenes content too as the adventure progresses!”

OM: What impact do you hope your stories will have?

Mads St Clair: “Storytelling has the power to move us so profoundly, to shape the way we act and interact with the world around us. I grew up consuming BBC nature documentaries, books and RSPB magazines, inspired by the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Steve Backshall, who instilled in me a sense of wonder and a drive to learn.

In my role as SIR I’ll have both the opportunity and the platform to share some of the wonders and challenges facing the natural world and I can only hope my stories spark curiosity for our oceans, in some tiny shadow of the ways that some of the greats did for me.

But the game is also different now. The stories we need to be telling are no longer exploratory in nature. The call to action is no longer just curiosity, but an urgent cry to prevent the further loss of biodiversity. We’re living within a very real crisis of biodiversity loss and climate change, and yet so few people still seem to notice. So, I guess impact-wise, if my stories can move people to action, ignite a sense of responsibility and that feeling of wanting to protect, then that would be the greatest impact I could hope for.”

OM: How will you try to bridge the disconnect between public and ocean research/the ocean bubble with your stories?

Mads St Clair: “Early in my career as a scientist, I was struck by the disconnect between scientific research and public awareness and so, as I mentioned earlier, I have spent my career so far largely straddling two worlds – science and storytelling. Academia is a funny thing, people are raised within the system to be competitive, secretive and protective of their work. A lot of emphasis is placed on how your work resonates amongst your peers and less on how widely your findings were disseminated. There is still very much an air of exclusivity and the “pay to publish research that then exists behind a paywall” doesn’t really help get the word out to the general public.

I think it’s really important that we can deliver both scientific findings and their subsequent conservation messages to those outside the echo-chamber of academia. To think that these things could be mutually exclusive is frankly mad and watching critical research get lost in the noise has been incredibly frustrating over the years. So, wanting to bridge the gap between science and the public, I ventured into storytelling; I first began to write, and later to photograph, to podcast, to use social media, to fly drones and then finally – to film. I saw the power in each medium to convey complex ideas in a compelling and accessible way, a way that evokes empathy even – qualities that traditional scientific papers often overlook.

So this is a really cool opportunity for me to have the platform to bring some stories and research that might have slipped through the cracks to light. And as a ‘zellenial’ living in the digital age, there’s no better platform to push things outside of our echo-chambers, so I’ll definitely be pushing to take my stories from print onto Tiktok somehow!”

OM: As a coral biologist, can we expect plenty of coral content?

Mads St Clair: “Most certainly. Because of my work, I feel quite emotionally attached to the coral stories because I am both wildly passionate about the life we find there and desperately fearful of losing these ecosystems. We’re currently living through the world’s fourth mass bleaching event – which to put into context, we lost some 14% of the world’s coral in the decade following 2009 – so it goes without saying that it’s a critical time to give these stories a platform.

I think these will be stories that I really write from the heart. I don’t know if it’s the vibrance or the complexity or the rush of life on a coral reef – I can’t describe what it is or why it moves me so much, but there’s a feeling of joy I get within these ecosystems, which to quote John Muir, makes me feel as near to the heart of the world as I can.”

OM: What stories are you most looking forward to?

Mads St Clair: “This is a hard one. All of them though have, at one time or another, started as some scrambled thoughts on the notes app on my phone – or as I call it, “in the bank”. From a writing perspective, I think they all excite me; some are born from a place of scientific interest, others from a personal attachment to the story and communities featured.

Speaking from a ‘being-on-expedition’ perspective, I think my Arctic stories are the ones I’m most excited for. The last time I was in this region was in 2021, so it will also be an exciting chance to apply my skill set – which I like to think has upgraded since then! – and my voice to capture the nuances in an ecosystem so starkly different and yet similarly endangered to the tropical one I know and love.

Later on in the year, I’m also pretty excited about sharing the water with some of our planet’s largest marine species, that is, if divine timing, optimum conditions and all the planning pays off!”

OM: Drone pilot, videographer, coral biologist… you’re a woman of many skills. How are you going to challenge and push yourself in the coming months? What are you hoping to learn?

Mads St Clair: “The stories I’ve chosen each require a different skillset and the thing I enjoy most about being foremost a scientist and then a storyteller is that I’m always learning (and often, on the job). I’m naturally incredibly curious and I think I am most interested in learning about the subjects and ecosystems I’ll be capturing – and how I can push myself creatively to give these stories the platform they deserve. There are some specific drone and underwater shots that I have in my head, and I’m hoping that with a bit of practice (and patience) I can bring these to life.

As for challenging myself, this is actually something I swear by. Most people who know me will say I’m a person who is prepared to take that leap into the unknown. If it feels uncomfortable or hard, I don’t usually give myself time to back out – and I sign myself up there and then. For example, one of my stories requires tens of hours of specific training in order to then undertake what I’m sure will be some of the most challenging (and rewarding) dives of my life, in an ecosystem that is wholly unfamiliar to me. Am I a bit nervous? Sure. But I think it’s really important to keep growing, and I know for sure that this will be a year of growth.”

OM: Your term as our SiR is officially starting soon, but when thinking about the year ahead, what do you hope to have achieved when your term comes to an end?

Mads St Clair: “I think this is a really interesting and difficult question to answer. Looking to the future, I think my ultimate goal would be to have curated a collection of impactful stories that not only entertain but at the deepest level impress on people the urgency and hope that we need to harness to actually create change. On another note, I also hope that part of my legacy in this role will be showing other women and girls that this is a space for them too. Growing up, most of my role models in the wildlife space were men – so I also think it’s really cool to be a woman in this position.”

Follow Mads’ journey here.

Photographs of Mads St Clair by Farih Ahmed, Sophie Scott, Megan Hassa, Elise Gibbins, Tess Fontaine, and Emma Wolstenholm. 


Photographs by Mads St Clair

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