It’s 9:08 am and I’m sitting in the downstairs portion of the lab at the Center for Whale Research on the island of San Juan, WA. The water outside is choppy, riddled with white caps from a cold front that moved in over night. Leon Bridges is playing in my headphones…have you heard of him? He’s got this soulful sound that’s real cool.
This island brings back a lot of memories. I was nineteen the first time I boarded the ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island, WA. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, but I knew that whatever it was, it didn’t involve staying in the small town in southeastern North Carolina I had grown up in. I had big goals, as most teenagers do. And like most aspiring marine biologists, I had always been interested in ocean science as a kid. Something about that big, blue ocean just intrigued me. I remember spending time on this one pier in particular as a kid, talking with fishermen, feeding the pelicans scavenging for fish bits, and sitting with my feet dangling off the end of the pier getting lost in thought in the waves. As soon as I was old enough, I applied to a research program through the University of Washington to study the ocean and its inhabitants. The program gave six students the opportunity to study and live aboard a vessel researching a resident orca population that frequent the waters surrounding the island chain, and, despite being younger than everyone else on board by a few years, they let me in. Everything was new and exciting…life was an adventure and I was along for the ride.
I’ve done a lot since then. I’ve studied rare beaked whales in the Bahamas, been at sea with every type of marine mammal relative to my latitude, I’ve studied dolphins off the gulf coast, cut open the world’s largest animal (a blue whale) after it got hit by a cargo ship, helped rehabilitate sea lions plagued with domoic acid poisoning, and lead exploratory trips 26 miles off the coast in search of white sharks and elephant seals. No matter where I’m at, I always find myself returning to these islands every couple of years or so to work at the orca lab on various projects. Things are different now then they were. In some ways it’s a good thing, in other ways it leaves me feeling a bit somber. There are students here in the lab that get so excited about the whales. I remember that. Over time you rein in this unbridled enthusiasm and try to channel it into something more productive. Hanging out with marine life is one thing, researching it is different. In the process of trying to become one of the tens of thousands of marine biologists around the world (of which maybe a few hundred are really needed), you get stepped on and looked over, elbowed out of things, denied funding. Everyone is gathered around a dripping faucet of funds waiting for a rush that never comes. And we’re all educated, more now than ever. Having a masters degree or phd is a given. Better tack on a few low paying post-docs to that phd to look more appealing when entering yourself into an applicant pool for a stale government contract you don’t really care about anyway. Marine research is seen as a luxury science by the people who matter the most. It’s not like biotechnology where research is leading to developments in treatments for terminally ill cancer patients. I read a paper the other day in a popular marine journal about dolphin ejaculation and how they close one eye when it happens. You know, it’s just not exactly vital information that the world is readily throwing fistfuls of money at.
Sometimes I find myself looking for that passion I once had for the field, a lot. How it felt to stand on the end of that pier looking out as a kid, or the first time I went diving. Yesterday the whales came up the west side of the island near this reef close in by the labs so I took the kayak out to see them. I paddled out fiercely to the kelp forest just off shore to get alongside them. A big male surfaced just a few meters from my kayak. It was cool to feel the adrenaline coarse through my veins. I read this post from a marine biologist who used to be a contributor to a blog I regularly read. He posted his “resignation to the field” after hitting his thirties and finding it harder and harder to support himself and a family from the meager contracts that became fewer and far between. I remember reading it and thinking I’ll never be like that. I’ll make it all work even if it gets tough. Sometimes I can’t help but find myself writing the same resignation in my head.
I used to view a career as this exponential thing. You studied hard, got a job and every year expected yourself to be 2x farther ahead than the year before. But it’s not, not in this field. With every contract you start again at the ground level, your work experience and education obsolete. The last job I took, someone at the lab who had been there for 12 years (they had started as an intern and worked up to lab manager, foregoing a formal education and worldly experience) told me I was “at the bottom of the totem pole” when I arrived.
I’ve found that working is, like a lot in life, linear. You have to keep moving forward. Even if it isn’t in the direction you originally planned.
Where I go from here is where it gets a little blurry. I’ll continue to document my life on this blog, of course. I fell in love with being a biologist to begin with for the documenting part of it. Observing the world and taking notes. The discovery of it all, the discovery of self. It feels innate to do that in all areas of my life whether it’s home life or work life. I’m interested in what lies outside of lab work and a life that depends on research grants. Maybe I’ll make some short films or do something creative. Travel more, maybe. Or maybe I’ll just write jaded blog posts for a while until I figure it out (spoiler alert: I won’t).
Photos c/o of my new friend Stewart who somehow managed to convince me to get out of bed at 5:45 am to explore the cool parts of the island this morning.