I feel the need to write this down because the self-doubt and denial are a bit overwhelming at the moment. There’s a PhD opportunity in South Africa to study right whales that I want to apply for. But why? Well duh, because I love whales. That would literally be my dream job – something I’ve waited my whole life for. To live in a beautiful country, by the ocean, and study whales each and every day. Working my butt off to make a difference in the scientific community. Bless Tom’s heart, he told me to go for it. But what if I happened to be accepted? What would Tom and Marina do? We’d be thousands of miles away from family. Grandparents. Tom might be able to teach, but we’d have no friends initially. Everything would be foreign. New. And we’d take a significant income drop. Would I be ok leaving photography and my wonderful clients behind? And working so hard for very little money? And then what would Marina do for school? What if my program went longer than I wanted? And then what happens when I graduate, assuming I do. Do I teach? Work for a university? Continue doing what I’ve been doing and traveling on my own and performing self-funded research, but then risk not being able to get back into photography or have any remaining clients or any favorable income? And if I just go back to what I’m doing now, was it worth it? All of that change, just for a little more education? I mean, I love the idea of learning. I want to have as much education as possible. And I want to be taken more seriously. But is that the right path, and is that worth it?
I’m at a loss. I don’t know if a PhD will change anything. But on the other hand, I feel worthless where I’m currently at. I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 3. Just about everyone who knows me or who knew me in school knew that was my dream. I was the “orca lady” and the “whale person”. I even painted an ocean mural at my high school in the biology classroom. My teachers and professors all worked hard to encourage me, and just about every single paper or project I did revolved around whales, dolphins, or the ocean somehow. My high school senior project was about becoming a marine veterinarian. My bioethics project as a freshman in college was on the systems of language and communications in animals, with emphasis on the highly intelligent capabilities of dolphins. For invertebrate biology, my main project studied the chromatophores of various octopi – my professor even got approval to get a saltwater aquarium and an octopus tank for our lab – for me! My senior capstone project in undergrad was on marine biology. On our May term trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, I was the first one that got to jump in the ocean with sharks and sea lions because everyone knew I was “the ocean girl”. And my photography professor was so passionate about encouraging me that she helped arrange a behind-the-scenes tour and whale shark swim for me at the Georgia Aquarium – while we were in town for a photography conference! In graduate school, every single journal article I presented on was on killer whale genetics. I also worked as a fisheries biologist at a local hatchery. I’ve been a marine naturalist. I was a gray whale research intern and helped with photo identification and documentation of Oregon’s resident gray whales. I’ve led trips in Hawaii, California, Washington, Oregon, Mexico, and Norway and studied in both the arctic and the Caribbean. I founded a research and educational outreach company to self-fund our projects and to reach out to schools and teach about my passions. AND, I’ve built a 6-figure business from the ground up. I married my best friend. We have an amazingly beautiful daughter and three dogs. We just bought our first house, designed a brand-new studio space, and we live in a truly beautiful area. But why do I feel like I’m still missing something? Isn’t all of that enough?
I think I feel like I’m missing something because sometimes people don’t take me seriously. And I know that’s going to happen with every field and every job. But when I tell people I’m a marine biologist, the first question is always: “Oh, where’d you go to school?” And when I tell them, they always seem a little bit disappointed. I even had one lady tell me “oh so you’re not a REAL marine biologist”. Do I really need a PhD to make me a REAL marine biologist? I have literally read books about the ocean since I was THREE! I study textbooks for fun. I travel to the ocean almost monthly (in non-covid years) and learn as much as I can. I’ve had internships and jobs working with marine life. I’ve met scientists and experts in my field from literally all around the world and we’ve shared passions and knowledge. I’ve attended conferences and presented my research. No, I didn’t go to school directly for marine biology, but my goodness, my teachers and professors sure worked hard to make sure I had the background I needed to succeed. I’ve studied in-depth on ocean invertebrates and marine biodiversity. I’ve focused on ecological fundamentals and the anatomy of cetaceans as well as genetic implications and the importance of keystone species such as sharks. I talk about the top-down effects of ocean ecosystems. Since I was 11, I’ve studied the population structure and social relationships of endangered orca pods. I even made ethograms from watching the KeikoCam (Free Willy) when I was 8! I talk with other scientists about how bleak our oceans look if any more fisheries collapse as well as the acidification and long-reaching effects of coral bleaching due to the warming of our oceans. On top of all of that, I’ve helped conservation programs with animal exploitation work on shark finning, overfishing, and dolphin captivity. What more do I need to prove myself? A PhD studying whales, apparently.
I also feel like girls in science have it so rough – we either continue education and significantly decrease our window of opportunity to find a spouse and potentially reproduce, that is, if that’s an important goal. Or we pause along the way to find new goals – i.e. get married, have kids, and somehow try to keep alive that childhood passion without feeling like a failure because you don’t have 3 more letters to add to your name. I’ve even had people tell me that once I have kids, there goes my job. My dreams. “Good luck traveling again!” Everyone seems to have an opinion, and I almost think it’s because deep down the people who are making those comments are miserable and full of regret. They see their lives lacking something meaningful, so they want to make a point of bringing others down. I’ve lived my entire life being told I couldn’t do marine biology because I was from the Midwest, and now that I’ve accomplished most of that goal via Plan B’s and alternate routes, I have a desire to teach others that they CAN do it if they put their minds to it. I love reaching out to the younger generations and inspiring them to help save our oceans and to protect marine life. I’ve helped connect middle school, high school, and college students to professors, internships, and graduate programs to help them be a little further along than I was in the beginning, all because of my marine biology background that I now have. Doesn’t that count as making a difference to the scientific community?
I remember one day early on during my freshman year of college when I told one of my favorite professors that I never saw myself in a lab. I wanted to do hands-on learning and work with animals directly – he politely chuckled and told me that was a pretty tall order. Most scientific positions had some sort of lab component, and definitely writing components. I didn’t like his answer but thanks to college, I eventually learned to love lab work. I even learned to love scientific writing (for the most part). My master’s program was in genomics and it was definitely a challenge for me – my mind works on an ecological level more than a cellular level, but I’m so thankful for my background and my schooling. Ironically, at this very time, I have a career as a photographer with a side gig as a marine biologist studying marine animals “hands-on” so to speak (well, we almost always discourage touching marine animals, but you know what I mean). I get to study marine life above and below the surface – I have been underwater with hundreds of sharks and face to face with whales. I’ve been stung by jellyfish and almost attacked by a sea lion. I’ve swam with a pod of orcas in frigid waters and a very rare beaked whale on a chance encounter. I’ve had dolphins echolocate at me and my unborn child, and I had a very aggressive oceanic whitetip shark show a little too much interest in me. But nothing beats being out on (or in) the ocean. And after defending myself on all levels, I feel accomplished yet also eager for more.
Which I guess leads me to the here and now: do I apply for my dream job/dream schooling? Or continue with the way things are now, which is pretty darn good? If you’ve made it this far, thanks for listening to my slightly scientific, overly dramatic ted talk.
oh baby! DOLPHIN RESEARCH
With our baby set to join us soon, we've been trying to do as much baby-oriented research as possible. So aside from maternity photos in Hawaii recently, we also spent a great deal of time in the ocean for research purposes. We tested last summer how dolphins (and sharks) responded to me being pregnant. Dolphins are extremely social and sentient beings, so naturally they have great maternal instincts. They can also literally “see” your baby with their echolocation. These clicks and whistles send the dolphin information that creates a type of “hologram” in the dolphin’s brain, and they can see the shape and size of our baby. They may also be the only beings that know if it’s a boy or a girl! ;)
Our main goal was to see how dolphins reacted to me in the water, and if they would echolocate towards me or give me any more attention. We had a few encounters with super social spinner dolphins, and although I had a few close, curious passes, they were in resting mode for the most part so we didn’t want to push them. Bottlenose dolphins on the other hand, are not known for being overly social in the wild. In fact, most of the time, they give us a quick look before immediately moving on. On our first drop with them, that’s exactly what they did. So we tried again, and on the 2nd drop, they had a chance to echolocate at me. All of a sudden, 3 of the dolphins turned a complete circle and came back towards me, seemingly curious and intrigued. We don’t know for sure if it’s because of our baby, but they definitely stopped to echolocate and make eye contact with us.
It’s truly so special to share time and space in the wide-open ocean with these majestic creatures. Unfortunately, bottlenose dolphins are the main dolphins that are found in captivity. It’s heartbreaking that swim-with-dolphin programs are still in existence – these intelligent marine mammals are treated so poorly in captivity, and they deserve to be wild and free. If they want to interact with us in the ocean on their terms, there is truly nothing more spectacular or beautiful. It takes your breath away, and I’m so glad I got to share this experience with good friends, my husband, and my sister. More photos coming soon!
Tom and I have wanted a whale shark encounter for so long, but it's honestly just a matter of luck in Hawaiian waters. While on a drop with an oceanic whitetip shark with a local friend of mine who was tagging the sharks for research, all of a sudden a large female whale shark appeared! This was my first wild whale shark, and it was an absolutely breathtaking moment when she appeared out of the depths and swam slowly towards us. For almost 2 hours, we got to enjoy her presence, swimming to keep up with her as she circled an underwater fish farm structure. She even surfaced to within inches of us a few times. I can only surmise she was slightly curious of us, too! She is the first whale shark tagged in Hawaii, and it'll be fascinating to find out what we can learn from her. Aside from humpback whales, she is the largest animal we've ever swam with. But she was so peaceful and swam with such precision and ease. It made us realize even more the need to protect these fascinating animals, sharks in general, and our beautiful blue planet. I'll have a more in-depth write-up soon. For now, enjoy these beautiful photos.
We compiled a quick video that showcases some of our encounters from this last year. Our hope is, it'll help inspire others to create change and help us protect our oceans. It's 8 minutes long so it's lengthy, but just picture David Attenborough charismatically narrating the whole thing, and it's worth the watch :)
World wildlife day
Happy #WorldWildlifeDay! This year’s theme is #LifeBelowWater, which is very fitting for us and our research. We are trying to do everything we can to make a difference because what we do now will ultimately determine the future of marine life and the health of our oceans.
World Wildlife Day was created as an opportunity to celebrate the many varieties of plant and animal life and to raise awareness for conservation. It urges us to make a stand against wildlife crimes (like shark finning) causing the endangerment of many species that ultimately results in a loss of biodiversity. This loss creates holes in food webs, and can also cause entire ecosystems to collapse. The best thing we can do is spread the word, teach our youth, and make changes at an individual level with the goal of living a more sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle.
This is a picture from one of the most memorable encounters we've ever had with sharks. There were over 200 scalloped hammerhead sharks, and they were very peaceful, allowing us to swim with them for almost an hour. In the background, we could hear a humpback whale singing. Sharks are top predators, and are vital to a healthy ecosystem. Losing them would spell disaster for our world’s oceans. Unfortunately, scenes like this are becoming a thing of the past as sharks are being killed at record-breaking numbers all over the world.
One of the most prominent illegal industries is shark finning for shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is a specialty dish usually served at weddings and events in China, but it can be found worldwide. The shark fins themselves only provide texture to the soup, as they are tasteless. But fins drive a hefty profit, so sharks are brutally killed for their fins all over the world. For more info, we strongly suggest watching the work done by Rob Stewart and his documentaries Sharkwater and Sharkwater Extinction. They are tough to watch, but they have great info into this lucrative business of shark exploitation.
Hawaiian monk seals
We are a bit behind on keeping up this page and we have some exciting changes to share soon! 2018 was a busy year with 10 major research trips. Now that it's the "off" season, we are working tirelessly to write up our data and finalize our notes from our encounters as well as plan our educational outreach and research goals for the new season. We should have our page updated within the next few weeks.
Our last trip to Hawaii, our main focus was pilot whales and tiger sharks. While we found tiger sharks and bottlenose dolphins actively feeding on amberjacks, we also lucked out and found 2 monk seals. It's always special to see endangered Hawaiian monk seals in their natural environment. There are only around 1,100 seals left in the wild. This one pictured here was successful in capturing an amberjack for lunch, and decided to feed right next to our boat while we were motored down. Tom also captured this dip-cam video footage from the boat with our GoPro. Because monk seals are easily stressed, we were not swimming with or purposely approaching these endangered mammals. Instead, we kept our distance and enjoyed watching their natural behaviors from the boat. If you're fortunate enough to see Hawaiian monk seals in the wild, be respectful of their space and watch them from a safe distance. And report injured or ill seals as quickly as possible.
For more information on active research, follow the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program facebook page, and you can also purchase a 4ocean bracelet to help support ocean clean-up and monk seal conservation:
Arctic Norway: Orcas
We are currently in Norway working on our orca research and studying this beautiful environment. Our first day on the water was flat calm, with beautiful pink skies and hundreds of orcas. While the crew prepared our zodiacs, we watched from the deck of the Malmö as the orcas darted in and amongst the fishing boats to capture their share of the herring. Here in Norway, the fisheries industry is highly sustainable, after crashing almost 40 years ago, and it seems to allow for an abundance of these apex predators. It’s refreshing to see a successful fishing industry where fisherman and whale watchers/biologists alike can share the waters with little disagreement. I hope to see this practice shared on a worldwide scale in areas where fisheries are plunging and causing the collapse of many marine ecosystems.
In the arctic in winter, sunlight is dim and short-lived, but if you’re lucky enough to have clear skies, you have a few hours of “sunset”. As soon as the zodiacs were ready, we left our “home” ship and headed out into the fjord. Our first drop in the water, we had 2 female orcas swim beneath us, seemingly shy of us at first but definitely curious. They stayed right out of camera view, just far enough into the dark abyss that I couldn’t get a focus on them, so instead I got to enjoy watching them gently glide beneath me. Sometimes in these moments, I find it’s best to truly take it all in and watch with my own eyes then to stress about taking the perfect photo. I was also trying out a few new settings to improve my underwater photography, but this change proved to make focusing quite difficult.
On our second drop, I again had two orcas peacefully swimming by me, this time quite close. As soon as they were passed me, I turned and saw a large pod of 18+ orcas turning towards me. My heart was pounding and I just tried to focus on adjusting my camera to be in the right place at the right time. This is the moment I’ve waited 2 years to capture. Even though I’ve seen orcas underwater multiple times now, nothing prepares you for the heart-rush. It’s an indescribable feeling when they are slowly moving passed you, in pod formation, turning their heads and bellies towards you, all the while echolocating and blowing bubbles. It is truly a gift to be in their presence, and they seemingly have a mutual curiosity about us.
As the fishing boats wrapped up their day, our 2 zodiacs were the only boats left in the fjord, a rare, special moment that we tried to take in for as long as possible. We were treated to a beautiful sunset (something again that has proved to be quite rare in the arctic), and the behavior of the orcas shifted from feeding to play. Three orcas started to follow our zodiac. They seemed to love the sound of our motor, and a few camera drops in the water showed they were playing with the boat bubbles. Orcas are highly intelligent cetaceans, so they exhibit many playful behaviors. Our last drops of the day proved this. On two occasions, we had two orcas offer us pieces of their jellyfish. Tom & Zack had an orca just below them blow the jellyfish towards them, collect it again, and then repeat this behavior. I had heard about this from Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier but never thought we’d be fortunate enough to experience it. Our time in Norway has already been incredible, and we’ve just scratched the surface. We are learning so much, and cannot wait to get back in the water! Thanks to everyone who has supported our research, our organization, and our photography to help us study these amazing predators and help protect and preserve this beautiful arctic ecosystem. More photos & videos coming soon.
Upcoming research trips
April 2018: Orca & humpback whale research - Monterey Bay, California
June 2018: Whale & shark research - Kona, Hawaii
July 2018: Northern resident orcas & humpback whales - Anchorage, Alaska
August 2018: manatees - Orlando, FL
September 2018: Orca & humpback whales - Monterey Bay, California
November 2018: Orca & humpback research - Arctic Norway
December 2018: Whale & shark research - Maui & Kona, Hawaii
February 2019: Humpback whales - Silver Bank, Dominican Republic
March 2019: Whale & shark research - Kona, Hawaii
April 2019: Orca & humpback whale research - Monterey Bay, California
Future Dates TBD
Social structure in orcas | Norway
We are husband & wife biologists traveling to make a difference while studying the ocean and its inhabitants.