As a kid, I sprawled out on the shag carpet in our family room reading Nancy Drew mysteries and watching Star Trek. My childish imaginings were punctuated by the steady rhythmic sound of an electric typewriter clicking and humming in the nearby study where my dad wrote at home. He is a newspaper man. Over the span of his 45 year career he covered everything from the local school board meetings to state capitals, from the Apollo 8 splashdown to the revitalization of the Naval shipyards in Philadelphia.
I spent my childhood loitering in bustling and grungy news rooms, coloring in the weekday comic strips and waiting for dad to finish this or that important thing. By the late 80s, he was on the foreign desk at the Philadelphia Inquirer where I “helped” edit a story about a young Mikhail Gorbachev leaping up a flight of stairs two at time — the blinking cursor of the Atex computer screen is forever burned in my memory.
Watching him finagle time in the locomotive car of freight trains, on Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, on US Navy aircraft carriers and on a thousand-bed hospital ship taught meaningful lessons about writing, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Storytelling takes shape when you get out there: see the drama of boring everyday life unfold in front of you; smell the smoke and diesel fuel; get dirty.
I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve spent the last few years cornering NOAA administrators and scientists at conventions and meetings, handing out my business card and asking for passage on any ship that would take me. I researched and applied for fellowships and writing residencies.
Finally, my efforts paid off. In 2017, I joined Oceanographer Robert Ballard’s Corps of Exploration on Board the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus as a science communication fellow. We spent two weeks exploring deep underwater canyons and the edge of the continental shelf in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary with the Nautilus’s beloved robotic duo, Argus and Hercules.
The sanctuary lies off the coast of California, northwest of San Francisco. The sanctuary territory was expanded in 2015 to 1286 square miles of largely unknown deep sea habitats. During over 90 hours of diving with the robots, we found deep sea sponge and coral communities, along with a host of life — octopuses, skates, and catsharks — clinging to and lingering about the rocky substrate at the bottom of the ocean. It was a breathtaking spectacle to witness scientists and sanctuary managers discover new species and gain a deeper understanding of this precious natural area. Their excitement was joyful and contagious.
This summer, I’m heading back to out to sea. Through the Proteus platform, we’ll experiment with a combination of essays, live field reports, graphics, photos, and whatever we can get our hands on to help transport you, our readers, to remote and wonderful places in our own ocean world.
In July, I’ll return to California on the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada for a seabird and marine mammal survey. The cruise is part of a collaboration between three National Marine Sanctuaries (Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, and Monterey Bay) and Point Blue Conservation Science via the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies (ACCESS) cruises. It will be the 15th year of data collection and observation, helping provide a baseline for understanding sanctuary waters and the impacts of humans and climate change on these regions.
In September, I rejoin the team on board the E/V Nautilus as a lead science communication fellow. This expedition is a joint mission with NASA to explore underwater volcanoes with robots at the Lōihi Seamount. By watching how ocean explorers work remotely from the safety of their vessels in dangerous and unfamiliar environments, NASA can be better prepared for future space missions.
We’ll also be covering George Divoky’s 44th field season in the Arctic where he studies a small colony of Black Guillemots. These seabirds spend most of the year out on the ice; they come to Cooper Island every summer to breed. While George set out to study guillemots in 1975, he also ended up conducting one of the longest running studies of sea ice and climate change along the way. This Plumb Line special series is titled Arctic Change.
With this, our first season at sea and all our future projects we’ll work together to build critical science literacy and to engage the public with the ocean–our planet’s life support system.