Tiffany Duong and Sara Nilsson are the oldest interns at Coral Restoration Foundation. When not out planting coral and doing CRF work, the two highly ambitious women are out and about in the Keys community talking about their journey and their plans to champion environmental change through films, advocacy and expeditions.
Nilsson and Duong moved to the Keys in September 2018.
Duong, from California, studied international development and Italian at UCLA. But her attention turned to the environment, so she went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before heading back to California to be a lawyer with a focus on renewable-energy. Following a scuba trip to Galapagos, she pursued a slightly different path.
“The dive trip changed me,” Duong said. “I tried to see how I could combine saving the Earth in some way while doing field work, so that led me to do ocean work in Los Angeles. But that water is cold, and I had to drive three to four hours. Now, here I am in the Keys.”
Duong saw an ad for an internship with Coral Restoration Foundation. She applied, got the post and moved down to the Keys.
Nilsson studied neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews and spent some time working in the pharmaceutical industry. The lab wasn’t for her, however, so she went to the University of West England for a master’s in documentary filmmaking.
“I was doing some independent films here and there, but wanted to get back in ocean conservation and the environmental side of things,” she said.
Nilsson, too, applied for a CRF internship. And she, too, was accepted. Upon their arrival, Nilsson and Duong ended up rooming together, as they were older than other interns. It led to a bond and the discovery of a common interest: producing material that’s bringing awareness, prompting a change in behavior and promoting the environmental work ongoing in the Keys.
“We want to show the good work of scientists who are doing cool research, and people who are breaking open the field,” Duong said. “We want to tell their stories — those who become the Jane Goodalls.”
When not working, Nilsson and Duong are out and about in the community, meeting new people and speaking to them about what they do.
Through Ocean Rebels, a relatively new media production venture, Nilsson and Duong believe in thinking differently, acting boldly and taking action even — and especially — when it’s difficult, and celebrating those who imagine a better future for the planet.
The two recently had the opportunity to join with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to film efforts to rescue the reefs threatened from disease, which has now spread down to Key West. Nilsson and Duong said FWC’s taking corals from the reef, placing them into partner aquariums as they wait for the disease to pass before replanting and restoring them in a few years.
“It’s cool to see what FWC is doing. It’s an innovative approach and it’s a really young team,” Duong said. “They’re fresh-thinking and they’re doing whatever it takes to ensure the reef is here long term.”
Full name? Nickname?
T: Tiffany Duong, people call me a lot of things. Tiff works.
S: Sara Nilsson.
What’s something you know about one another that other people don’t know?
T: Rap music is her favorite and she’ll have hardcore rock-out dance parties with her dog at night when she thinks we’re not home. She’ll rage hard. People have called her Swedish house mafia.
S: Tiff has a talent for putting together fun and creative costumes for festivals and fun events. For Fantasy Fest, she made me into a beautiful sparkly jellyfish.
How would you describe your time in the Keys so far?
T: Really aligning and affirming. There are so many resources and cool people and great things to do, so I think we’ve been able to make a very interesting life.
S: It’s been great. For a while, I knew I wanted to do ocean conservation, but wasn’t in the right place. Coming here, it’s really inspiring and cool to see how quickly we’re able to build the life we’d like.
Favorite place to go diving?
T: Galapagos because it changed my entire life. But the most beautiful place I’ve dived is the Maldives.
S: Indonesia. I did a two-week diving training and we did research there. That was really amazing. There’s so much diversity and there were beautiful reefs. Just a lot of life and diversity.
The weirdest thing you’ve removed from the water during a cleanup?
S: I lost my mask earlier before a dive, and I think I was borrowing one. I went on a dive and found a mask. It was a little encrusted. I took it back, cleaned it up and used it.
T: I was in with a cleanup team and we found a micro penis from a bachelorette’s headband.
What about interning with CRF do you enjoy?
T: Refining how I convey my own message. Our supervisor Derek gave us a curriculum workshop on how to speak and present info. From that, we’ve taught classes at University of Miami, we’ve gone to my old high school and talked to a full class.
S: The variety of projects we’re able to do. We get to go out on the water and do cool stuff, and we can make films and talk to the public and talk to kids and the elderly. Just a lot of different opportunities and different venues.
How many corals do you think you’ve planted to date?
T: At least 400.
S: Probably less. Maybe half of that. 250.
How’s the Ocean Rebels venture gone so far?
T: Every way it could possibly go — up, down, weird, amazing and scary. I think it’s been really heartening to find support in places we didn’t think we had it. It’s been very awesome to see what we can create. It’s literally at our kitchen table at 2 a.m. What we’ve been pulling out of ourselves has been amazing.
S: It’s been amazing to see vague dreams become ideas, then plans, and finally happening in such a relatively short time period. It’s been a lot of hard work, late nights, and there have been many difficult periods too. However, the whole experience has been so empowering, and I’m looking forward to see what the future holds for us.
What do you hope to accomplish as you begin this adventure?
T: I want to make products that we’re so proud of and that create our environmental legacy and that ripple, and help change other people, but with the message we want and impact we want to leave.
S: It would be nice to make media that makes a difference, and also to create a life that we can be happy with, and one that follows ideals of what you want to do.
Your favorite spot to go in the Keys?
T: Sitting on the bow of a ship, going over the water and seeing that turquoise blue water, and looking at how it’s going to be to dive into that in a couple of minutes.
S: I enjoy Founders Park running there with Hudson, my dog. It’s nice after work to be able to enjoy the sun and unwind.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
T: Brush my teeth.
S: Roll over and snuggle Hudson.
Something you like to do in your spare time?
T: I like to do yoga. There’s a lot of beachside yoga at sunset. It’s nice to take a moment and pause and appreciate where I am.
S: Underwater hockey, free dive hockey. It’s super fun. The first time I went I was absolutely dead tired.
T: “Moulin Rouge.”
S: “Billy Elliott.” It’s a film about class issues in the UK, and it has a message to follow your dream and go against the grain.
Is there somewhere you’d like to travel one day?
T: I have this vision of myself doing a headstand amongst penguins in Antarctica. I want a find a way to do that.
S: Two places: Great Barrier Reef because I want to see the corals and the reefs. The other is Mongolia. It’s such a vast wilderness and different from any other environment.
Do you have a role model or someone you look up to?
T: I looked up to my mom. She’s the godfather of the family. She’s the fiercest, most caring, most benevolent and generous person. She’s got us through a ton of stuff. She’s got 10 brothers and sisters. Eight of the 10 have two to three kids. We were refugees, I was the first one born here. She got us situated into life and made sure we had an education and strong foundation so we could succeed. Whatever we needed she took care of everyone.
S: My grandma. She grew up on hard times on an island. Her sister and her had one pair of nice shoes to go out. She’s always been just interested in what’s right. She’s been volunteering for this organization in Tanzania for 50 years. She’s now blind, but she’s never let that stop her.
Finish these sentences…
If I could cure anything in the world, it would be…
My go-to drink after a long day is…
T: hard seltzer.
S: Iguana Bait beer.
If I had a superhero power, it would be…
T: Swim through air.
Working at CRF with staff and fellow interns is…
S: life changing.
Ocean Rebels is going to…
T: leave their mark.
S: make things happen.