I can remember exactly when it clicked for me that I was important. That’s what true confidence is anyway, realizing you’re important. That your thoughts are important, that what you feel is important, and that your ideas matter. It happens at different times, and in different ways for everyone – that moment in life when you reach a breaking point and say “f*ck it” to your insecurities and decide to be 100% yourself.
For me, it happened when I was 27 and sitting on the platform of a research boat off the gulf coast of Florida looking down at a female bottlenose dolphin we had brought onboard to examine. The boat was filled with aquatic vets who had come from various research institutions from around the country to accompany our research efforts. Everyone onboard was busy tending to their assigned tasks, moving about the platform to perform blood work, urine and fecal sampling, ultra sounds, etc. It was my job as resident biologist of the lab leading the research mission to monitor every dolphin we brought onboard. Whenever their oxygen level dropped too low, or there were signs of stress, I would call for a bucket of water so we could splash it over the blowhole to initiate breathing. While others took samples, it was my job (and the lab’s) to ensure she stayed alive.
The oxygen meter went off, signaling 90 seconds without a breath. “I need water on the blowhole”, I stated calmly. No one stopped what they were doing. It was as if I hadn’t said anything. Being a marine biologist/zoologist on a boat filled with vets wasn’t the easiest thing. You’d think it would be a good working relationship, but a lot of the time it isn’t. It’s the way things are in science and it can be debilitating. Everyone thinks they are more qualified and know more than the next. But, whether they had a PhD or only a measly Masters degree like I did was irrelevant; what mattered was the wellbeing of the dolphin we had onboard.
Another 90 seconds went by without a breath and I called again for water – “I need water on the blow hole, now”, I said more forcefully. Again, no one moved from what they were doing. My voice went unheard and everyone carried on. I remember thinking, “I deserve to be heard. What I’m saying is important.” Another 90 seconds went by. Bottlenose dolphins can hold their breath for 10 minutes underwater, but we weren’t underwater, and breath-holding can be a sign of distress. They are mammals who breathe air just like us, so they can breathe out of water. It’s just important to keep them as relaxed as possible, and deep breaths in and out are a good sign of that. Finally, in a tone similar to what one’s mother would use while getting the attention of her kid on the playground, I stated loud and clear “water on the blowhole, now!”. Everyone onboard stopped what they were doing. A bucket of water came over the side of the boat, we splashed it on her, and waited. A few seconds later she let out the longest exhale and then, the deep breath in I was looking for. Everyone resumed working. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a pivotal moment that would stick with me. In other jobs, I would have looked to someone else to make the call. Now I was that person. I found my voice just when I needed it the most.
The photo above isn’t her, but it’s a little calf from the same day. I took a photo on the ride home that day…
*It’s important to note that the animals were rehabilitation cases, mostly from human-caused entanglements (fishing nets, crab pot lines, trash, etc). These animals were examined quickly and released as to limit human contact. The lab researches a local, wild population – not animals in captivity.