Growing up around the ocean, you might think Mellisa Altenburger’s love of the sea would have started from a young age. However a fear of great whites – something common in South Africa – meant that until she got her PADI Open Water Certification in 2014, she couldn’t even put her head underneath without having a panic attack.
Fast forward eight years, however, and Mellisa is a qualified as a freediving and scuba diving instructor, having spent her days taking superyacht guests out on epic dives.
Ocean conservation and sustainability are also close to Mellisa’s heart, and not only does she have her certification as a shark conservation and coral nursery restoration diver, she has been volunteering in the Bahamas helping with the restoration of their reefs since 2016.
Here we talk to the Seastainable Yachting ambassador about her time on board, her favourite dive spots, and her continuing bid to make the oceans, and our world, a cleaner and better place.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the industry?
I was born in Knysna, South Africa, but we moved around a lot growing up as my dad was a civil engineer. I headed to London at the age of 23 to join my twin sister, where I worked as a PA for eight years, but I just couldn't shift the feeling that there was something else I needed to be doing. I've never really been a ‘city’ girl as I’ve always loved being outside - we were lucky enough to spend most of our childhood close to the ocean. I was living in a house share in London when a close friend of mine started yachting and I knew straight away that's what I wanted to do.
What was your first job?
I freelanced on a boat in the Mediterranean for four months before joining my current permanent position on board in 2013. I’ve been with the family ever since.
Have you always had a passion for the sea?
Absolutely! We were lucky enough to spend most of our childhood growing up near the ocean. However, growing up in South Africa you are taught to fear the ocean with the great whites. I couldn't even put my head under water without having a panic attack. That all changed when I got my PADI Open Water Certification in 2014; not only did it change my life but also my view on everything below the surface. It's become my safe place.
Until recently you worked on board MY Special K for eight years – what did you love so much about the yacht?
The experiences, opportunities and people it has brought into my life. I have had a great team which is so important because we will always find a way to get it done, and do it well. When you work well together it helps you complete tasks efficiently while creating an enjoyable environment for both yourself and others. The people and opportunities the position opened up to me will always stay with me.
Why did you decide to leave?
Growth and opportunity. I am ready for a new challenge and would love to put my dive/ocean conservation skills and training to use. It was a very tough decision to make as I feel like I'm leaving a great team and everything I've ever known for the past eight years.
What would be the absolute dream job for you to land?
It would have to be an exciting role in a solid team where I can utilize my yachting, diving and ocean conservation experience to make a difference, not only in the yachting industry but in the ocean too.
What are your favourite dive locations and what is the most incredible thing you have seen on a dive?
That would have to be Nassau, Bahamas, where I have done most of my dive training. We have so many wrecks right on our doorstep. The most incredible thing I’ve seen is watching our outplanted Staghorn corals take to the reef and grow into beautiful trees. It's something special when you come back after a couple months and see the life around it thriving.
You’re a strong advocate of ocean conservation – can you tell us a bit about your volunteering work?
I was certified as a PADI Coral Nursery Restoration Instructor in 2016 and started volunteering with the Reef Rescue Network (Perry Institute of Marine Science) for Coral Nursery Restoration in 2017. I have also helped volunteer with BREEF (Bahamas Reef Enviromental Educational Foundation), participating in their beach cleanups, snorkel events and coral restoration programme. I realised the best way I could give back to the community was by educating students and tourists about the importance of our precious ocean. I have done talks with schools in Ireland, Boston and Bahamas encouraging children to make changes at home that can help with sustainability whether they live by the sea or not. The response I have had from these talks has been so rewarding.
Which organisations are closest to your heart?
Perry Institute of Marine Science, Reef Rescue Network, Seabin Project and 4ocean.
How did you get involved with Seastainable Yachting?
In 2017 I was walking along the dock where we are based in Nassau and saw a turtle. I would always grab my phone and try to take a picture and they would swim away. However, this turtle didn't. I quickly realized that the poor thing couldn't swim down or stay down. I sat with it for half an hour then got in the water to see if it was tangled in something - it let me swim straight up to it, I couldn't see anything.
After a four hour rescue mission with the help of some dive friends and the Marine vet at Atlantis Resort, I managed to catch it and transport it (with guidance from the vet) to Atlantis where it could get X-rayed. Unfortunately the poor thing had swallowed a fishing hook that had ripped through its intestine and punctured its lung, causing an air pocket. I felt awful for the way this poor animal had suffered and started organising beach and ocean clean-ups among friends and fellow yachties. Changes needed to be made.
What does it mean to you to be an SEA Ambassador?
It means the world to me, literally. I want to educate and empower people to make a real change. I've had firsthand experience on what pollution is doing to our ocean and it needs our help.
What sustainable practices do you personally try to implement on board?
I shop locally for fresh produce. We do our best to have minimum food waste on board. We use reusable alternatives and recycle where we can. I always make sure lights and machines are turned off if not in use, and I also use natural or eco-friendly products as much as possible. I will always donate unused items at the end of every yard period when we have done a clear out too.
What’s your favourite thing about working in yachting?
The opportunity to see the world, meet new people and have unique experiences. There are great career prospects too, and I have been lucky enough to learn a lot on board over the last eight years.
And the worst?
I think I speak for most yachties here that it’s being away from family for long periods of time. I haven't spent Christmas at home in eight years.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt in your career so far?
Always take care of yourself. It's ok to say no. Get a job that you enjoy and be productive outside of work. I always have little projects planned or try to get involved in volunteer work where I can.
Tell us a lesser known fact about yourself that would surprise your colleagues.
We grew up traveling around Botswana. My dad's friend owned a crocodile farm and he once got us to sit next to one of the biggest crocodiles so he could take a photo of us…at the time this was a normal thing to do.
Where is next on your personal bucket list?
I have had a recurring dream about diving with orcas. I hope that dream comes true one day.
Where do you see yourself in five years? And 10?
Hopefully working with a fantastic team who have the same goals in what they want to achieve. I would like to explore and develop my skills in ocean conservation and hopefully be making the change I plan to make.