It’s August of 2015. That means I have exactly 2.5 months left until my field season and data collection for my masters comes to a close. At the end of October, I will have collected exactly 2 years of visual data on marine mammal distributions off of the coast of Newport, Oregon.
This is a bittersweet moment for me. Currently, I am on a 7 hour flight to Scotland to do some initial data analysis on my collected observations, with the help of a workshop offered by the University of St. Andrews. My first time abroad has me pretty restless with excitement on the plane, but with a 9 hour time change, some good rest will be key to being successful at the workshop. As I try to close my eyes, and picture what the next two weeks of what I like to call “Intensive Distance Sampling Summer School” will be like, the stranger next to me inevitably begins to make small talk, beginning with
“So what do you do?”
I usually tend to answer this question in two different ways. When I’m in my science community, I have no hesitation giving my 3 minute elevator speech on what I have been researching for the past year. However, when I’m making small talk with anyone I tend to just say
“I’m a master’s student studying marine mammals”
And that’s about all you need to say to get everyone’s attention around you! With a little more detail, I explain that I run transects to collect visual observation data of marine mammals to assist with understanding their patterns in distribution and habitat use. This explanation is always followed up with:
“Man, you’ve got the coolest job ever! What’s it like doing this all the time?”
Again most of the time I get this question, I’m usually conversing with people visiting the west coast hoping to see a large gray whale on vacation; or young children who haven’t yet figured out that marine biology isn’t just about dolphins and pretty coral reefs – but it’s still good to inspire them! Just last week even, I ran into someone on the beach that told me his daughter thinks I’m a rock star for teaching her that you can research the sounds that whales, dolphins, and seals make. (His daughter attended Marine Science Day back in April, and I showed her some recordings of sounds – but I’ll carry this compliment with me for a long time)
But when people ask me how awesome my job is, I tend to keep the morale up and I usually answer
“yep, it’s pretty awesome. I love it! ”
But to be honest, sometimes… it isn’t.
For me, there are four components that equate to a great day of fieldwork: ocean conditions, marine mammals, the boat itself, and equipment (hydrophones, GPS, CTD, camera, etc.)
So in reality…
“The flow of research season goes a lot like this: whales are present, but ocean is impossible; or ocean is calm but the whales are gone; or both whales and ocean are good but the boat breaks down; or everything is working but the rain last night brought in some fog and ruined the visibility” (From Hawaii’s Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries)
AND EVEN on the rare chance that everything goes right – observing marine mammals is hard and uncomfortable – 14 hours of standing with back pain, squinting into the sun until you see one part of the water that looks a little different than the others. I mean really there isn’t much on earth that’s more enormous than the ocean.
This sounds like a lot of negativity, but I am in Scotland currently to resolve some of these minor setbacks we encountered during field collection. Using a statistics program called DISTANCE, we can take into account environmental conditions, sea state, observer bias, etc. When we combine all of these factors together we create a detection function or a ratio of the animals we saw, compared to those we missed. Eventually we end up with an abundance estimate of how many animals are in our study area.
Analyzing the results of my observations this week has provided me with the realization that my time on a boat is coming to an end. In my two years of fieldwork collection, marine mammal observing has molded me into the type of person that has what it takes to do this kind of research: dedicated, tolerant to pain, boredom, and frustration, and most importantly passionate about what I am doing.
Passion is definitely a prerequisite for the life of a GEMM student. Graduate school gives you the chance to be reflective and the time to carefully wade through information. I’ve always had a strong desire to learn, and when I get to combine that with my personal interests, it turns out graduate school can be quite the rewarding initiative.
It’s easy to be discouraged sometimes, especially in an intense and competitive environment like scientific research. I can assure you though, even on our unlucky days, when we’ve swallowed all of the truths about the difficulties of what we do and we’re frustrated enough to give up, our luck turns – usually right when we need it to.
I think the BBC Zoologist, Mark Carwardine, knows just how I feel in saying, “There are few things more rewarding than seeing the worlds’s largest animal in its natural habitat!
Thanks for reading!