Thursday, April 18, 2019

Virginia Morell's "Becoming a Marine Biologist"

Virginia Morell is the New York Times bestselling author of Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures as well as a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine and a contributing correspondent to Science. She has also written for Smithsonian, Discover, The New York Times Magazine, International Wildlife, Audubon, Slate, and Outside, among other publications.

Morell applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Becoming a Marine Biologist, and reported the following:
Becoming a Marine Biologist profiles Robin Baird, the leading expert on the cetaceans--dolphins and whales--of Hawai'i. Most of us rarely look back at the trail of crumbs and occasional whole cookies that led to our present careers. But that's what my book offers: a study of one man's path from his childhood love of animals to becoming a marine biologist and director of Hawai'is Dolphins and Whales project. On page 99, Baird meets another cetacean biologist, Jeff Goodyear, who'd invented an inexpensive and simple method for attaching time-depth recorders (TDR tags) to wild whales. Instead of surgically implanting the tags, which sometimes harms the animals, Goodyear used $2.00 suction cups that are made for car roof racks to keep the devices attached. The meeting seems to be a crumb. But it will lead to a very large cookie for Baird.

Goodyear and Baird met in 1989 while Baird was pursuing his PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. By this point in the book, readers have learned that Baird has struggled to become a scientist; he's had to overcome his fear of mathematics and statistics, and taken an indirect path--through ecology--to study killer whales. Despite his handicaps--he's poor, recently orphaned, and painfully shy--he's driven to succeed. He's just earned his doctorate, but is struggling--as fresh PhDs often do--to establish a career. Page 99, while ostensibly about Goodyear's TDR design, is actually about how perseverance and learning a new and special skill can transform a person's life. In that sense, page 99 "reveals the quality of the whole" book, which describes how via hard work and luck, Baird navigates around numerous obstacles to achieve his dream.

Cetacean researchers are often frustrated by their limited view of the animals they study; they typically only see the animals when they surface to breathe. The TDR tags record and store data about the depths of a whale or dolphin's dive and the time he/she stays below the surface before resurfacing. Goodyear helped Baird modify his original TDR design so that the tags could be attached noninvasively to killer whales. For his dissertation, Baird studied the different feeding behaviors of two types of killer whales--the fish-eating residents and mammal-eating transients--around Vancouver Island. Scientists had started studying these marine mammals only in the 1970s. They noticed that the large, resident pods hunted only fish, while the smaller groups of transients seemed to concentrate on other marine mammals, such as seals, dolphins, and the calves of baleen whales (grays and humpbacks). Baird set out to discover why the residents and transients behaved so differently. Why did hunting fish lead the residents to live in large, chatty social groups? Why did the transients live in smaller pods and keep close to the shoreline? How did their foraging preferences and techniques affect their social behaviors and reproductive success? Baird followed the transient killer whales for six years, recording observations on 26 transient social groups. Using a crossbow or long pole, he also attached TDR tags to one transient killer whale, and six residents; these data revealed how the two types differed in how and where they foraged. Baird discussed his tagging work at a marine mammal conference, and was immediately invited by Karsten Schneider, another marine biologist, to help him attach TDR tags to the bottlenose dolphins he studied in New Zealand.

These dolphins, however, bolted and disappeared when the tags hit them; the animals behaved unnaturally and most of the tags fell off. The project seemed to be a failure. But Baird explains that failures in science are as important as successes--one of many bits of advice he offers to those who dream of pursuing a similar career. He and Schneider published an article reviewing marine biologists' efforts to use tags on a range of cetacean species, and pointed out that researchers could not assume that non-invasive tags would work on all dolphins and whales. Thanks in part to this article, other scientists began to view Baird as an expert on TDR tagging. This special skill set him apart from many other young marine biologists, and helped lead to his first major grant in Hawai'i. Yet most of his success stems from his ability to recognize an opportunity--something not taught in schools. The page 99 passage captures this side of Baird, too. What it does not reveal about Baird is his passion for the animals he studies, or the love he brings to his work. That is better captured in the chapters where I join him at sea in Hawai'i as he searches for such elusive species as pantropical spotted dolphins and pygmy killer whales. He knows which species like to look at people in boats, which flee at the faintest sound of a motor, and which ones suffer from naval sonar exercises. His research has helped marine mammal managers draw up protections for the whales and dolphins of Hawai'i--and readers come to see that Baird's love and compassion for these animals and the sea are the true underpinnings of his success.
Learn more about Becoming a Marine Biologist.

Coffee with a Canine: Virginia Morell and Buckaroo.

--Marshal Zeringue