The "Bernd Würsig Perpetual Up The Creek Award" is given to a graduate student or professor (chosen by colleagues in secret ballot) who is having some difficult times in their research and needs a figurative and literal paddle to help them through the rough spot.
See the photo album of the latest "passing of the paddle" (14 October 2011).
Chronicles of the Paddle
Story No. 1: Beginnings
Story No. 2: The Paddle is Passed
Story No. 3: Kathleen's Dilemma
Story 4: Paddle to the Sea
Story 5: The J Stroke
Story 6: Keep Paddling
Story 7: The Road Less Traveled
Story No. 8: The Lone Star Experiences
Story No. 9: Aardvark, Glurks & Strawberry Daiquiris
Story No. 10: The Physiology Connection
Story No. 11: Keep Paddling, Start Writing
Story No. 12: Paddling out of the Golfo San Josè whirlpools
and back to the tranquil Galveston estuaries
Story No. 1: Beginnings
It all started in March of 1991, when I had the pleasure to be on a tributary of the upper Amazon in Peru with Steve Leatherwood, Famed Marine Mammalogist, and Birgit Winning, Executive Director of Oceanic Society Expeditions (well, actually it "all started" a bit earlier when Steve, the eldest of us three, was born in a manger in rural Alabama, but that would take us back much too far...). Birgit had invited us to check the feasibility of a potential new research/ecotourism site for studying river dolphins (a project now in its 5th year and doing very well). We had the 65ft. 20 passenger M/V Delfin river boat for our exclusive use, and we traveled from the giant Amazon into the Marañon, and into the Samiria, Pacaya, Yanayacu and Tahuayo Rivers. We saw Amazon river dolphins, diminutive Tucuxi, sloths, 8 monkey species, giant water lilies and native ficus and kapok trees, and 64 species of tropical birds. We had a blast.
We also met Native People, and we chatted and ate and traded with several groups. As I usually do when first visiting a new place, I traded almost everything I had brought for carvings, amulets, drawings and -- this time -- several paddles. Beautiful tear-shaped paddles made of the root support, or buttress, of the remo caspi tree. One of these paddles was a small "child's" one, with a line drawing of a bufeo or river dolphin on one side and of a Tucuxi on the other. Dainty and lovely. I believe I traded a Moss Landing Marine Laboratories T-shirt for it. As I remember, I was almost naked traveling home, without socks, shorts, shoes, belt; and certainly with no paper, writing utensils, batteries, duct tape, glues, jeweler's screwdrivers, pocket knife, flashlight, or other research related supplies. I prize my articles from Indigenous People, and I prized that tiny paddle.
At around that time, we were very fortunate to have Steve Leatherwood join Texas A&M University, to do something he had not had time to do while writing over 150 scientific articles and writing or editing 12 books -- to obtain a Ph.D. degree. Well, he came to us just before school started in the late summer of 1991, with about 800 (I'm exaggerating only slightly) cartons of books and his entire research library. The Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Department had to lease a floor of an adjacent building (exaggeration is still only slight) in order to house Steve's intellectual effects. The cartons arrived and then came he, champing to get it all organized and to immerse himself in this academic world. He started moving boxes, carrying them over a slippery rather dark flight of stairs, maneuvering them around a tight corner, past a vintage 1890's bathroom with perpetually leaking toilet, and into his laboratory. I wasn't there, but I can imagine the grunts of determination and pain as he sought to make order out of chaos before the first day of class. It was hot and humid, the air conditioning was on the blitz, and the (both physical and psychological) agony of leaving the southern California summer fog and breeze must have been intense.
And then it happened. An unfortunate twist of the body, a twinge, a sharp pain, and Steve had "thrown out" his lower back. He hobbled to a box and sat there and his muscles, aided by millions of tiny mis-firings to show their displeasure, started to seize up, to tighten, and to hold his backbone in a frighteningly skewed position, with jagged bolts of pain shooting up his lumbar plexus and down into his sciatics. Somehow he got to his temporary home on campus, and then somehow he got into the university infirmary, where I found him (suitably groggy from drugs), in a kind of traction device to relieve the gravitational pull on his body, two days later. This was not an auspicious way to begin classes and -- really -- a new life, and my heart bled for my friend. He was figuratively but almost literally, Up The Creek. I did not know how to console him. I could only bring him the little paddle, with drawings of the two dolphins he would be earning his Ph.D. studying, and allow him the chance to paddle against the flow of the creek, and to find himself in pleasant and still waters as soon as possible. He thanked me with a thin smile. He may have been truly thankful. He could also have been thinking -- "Here I am in the hospital, in terrible pain, and this little jerk brings me a child's paddle (why oh why did I choose him, of the thousands of willing candidates, as my advisor?!?)". We shook hands and I left.
I didn't see much of Steve after that. He became well quickly. He was busy; I was too. And we were on different campuses. I assumed that the paddle episode had nothing to do with our physical estrangement. Among many of his tasks, Steve was in charge of publishing a book on the marine mammals of the Gulf of Mexico, and in leading a training seminar for a new Texas A&M/National Marine Fisheries Service project, funded by the U.S. Minerals Management Service, on studying these marine mammals. We met for this training regime in Pascagoula, Mississippi (just south of Steve's manger), on March 30 and 31, 1992. Steve and Tom Jefferson taught us marine mammal identification. They were both superb, and they began a delightful long-term project to describe the cetaceans of the upper Gulf of Mexico, a project now in its second phase and set to stretch profitably into the New Millennium. About thirty of us met there, and -- again -- we all had a blast.
It was there, in front of the (proverbial) assembled multitudes, that Steve unveiled a most beautiful plaque. It was (and is) called the Bernd Würsig Perpetual "Up The Creek Award", and he had inscribed his name as the first recipient. According to his rules, which we are now obliged (and happy) to follow, this award is to pass from grad student to grad student, on totally the present holder's discretion, to the next person who appears most in need of a paddle. He handed it to Kathleen Dudzinski, in absentia since she was then in Belize, trying to figure out what best to work on for her Ph.D. And here ends my story on "beginnings", and I ask Steve Leatherwood to give his account of this saga unfolding (and to either set the record straight or to give his own potentially skewed account of events), then Kathleen, then Dave Weller, then Alejandro Acevedo, and then who???
Respectfully submitted, October 1995
by Bernd Würsig
Sleepy Hollow, Texas
Story No. 2: The Paddle is Passed
I had already suspected that going back to graduate School at 47 was unwise, but it was not until I awoke in a hospital bed in College Station, Texas, flat on my aching back, three days before classes started in September 1991, that I was sure. In my rush to recreate at A&M my long-established work environment in California, to cram two pounds into a one pound container, and in record time, lo that I could hit the ground running, I had hurt my back and landed in traction. Sometimes the more we hurry the farther we fall behind!
During those days of incarceration (I mean in the hospital, not at our beloved alma mater), amidst the waves of drug induced numbness (also only in the hospital), I cast about in search of a metaphor for my dilemna. No matter how desperate, none I conceived seemed quite enough. But when I was preparing to leave the hospital the nurse helping me assemble my personal effects handed me a small paddle with a drawing of a boto and a tucuxi (my dissertation topics) on the opposite blades, explaining that it had been delivered a few days earlier. I vaguely recalled seeing it then, but I clearly recalled the first time I saw it, about 5 months earlier, as it was handed to Bernd Würsig from a dugout canoe by a gap-toothed Indian woman on the Yarapa River in Peru.
I accepted my things, including the paddle, from the nurse and waddled to the waiting truck for the trip to the little farm house in Wellborn that was to become my sanctuary in Texas. There, in the last quiet moments I would know for a long time, I reflected on my situation, and the significance of the paddle hit me. I was, figuratively, up a creek, and when I did get a paddle it was so small (albeit attractive) that it could do little to propel me out of my crisis. I was only a little better off than those who were "up the creek without..."
I was determined to share this valuable insight with my fellow graduate students, all of whom were younger than my own kids. I settled on a perpetual award, which I initially called "The Bernd Würsig Perpetual Up the Creek Award." I intended that the award be passed on at the discretion of each successive holder to the MMRL graduate student seemingly most in need of a little extra propulsion out of his/her dilemma. As the first recipient, I had the paddle mounted on a plaque worthy of this fledgling tradition, added my name to the top of the list, and in New Orleans presented it to Kathleen Dudzinski, in absentia. At the time, Kathleen was wrestling with the problem of choosing a dissertation problem. (She differed from most graduate students in not knowing which of her many viable possibilities to choose.)
With that presentation, I began the tradition of the "Up the Creek" Award, and for that I humbly apologize to all past and future recipients. As one of the recent recipients put it, "This trophy seems to go to those of us not clever enough to avoid it." Good luck avoiding it.
Aberdeen, Hong Kong
24 October 1995
Story No. 3: Kathleen's dilemma
I was either not born or in Belize when most of the facts were becoming history for the previous two stories (in Bernd's words -- only a slight exaggeration). And, while I was on the same campus when Steve threw out his back (glad he "got it back"), I do not recall this incident as well, or perhaps as fondly, as Steve, or even Bernd for that matter. What I do remember is returning from five loooong, tortuous weeks under a hot Belizean sun while searching for the few bottlenose dolphins that local fishermen (on and around Turneffe Atoll, Belize) said existed. After all, these fishermen saw them all the time!! The dolphins were reported to steal lobster and conch from their traps. I can just picture the group of juvenile (delinquent) dolphins ........... One as "lookout" spyhopping to watch for fishermen. Two others holding the trap and its door open, while a fourth grabs what loot (lobster and conch) it can. They all porpoise away, whistling at how they fooled the two-legged boat creatures! But I digress. Sadly, it happens to most of us who spend too much time under a tropical sun!
Now where was I??........... Oh, Yes! When I returned to Galveston, accompanied by Claire Graham (an MMRP intern who spent two weeks with me in Belize), I was immediately struck by the very large stack of mail on my desk and chair. This was to become a familiar sight to me for the next three years, since my field sites were out of the country. Among the various letters and junk mail was a large, wide, flat box. I was intrigued. But alas, I had not the time to satisfy my curiosity since at that moment (well, okay another slight exaggeration here) Bernd called asking (pleading, actually) Claire and me to join the first Gulfcet cruise -- now on Day 3 of the 17 day jaunt. I guess Bernd wanted to catch us before we were overcome by the feeling of being home after weeks in the field. For this, I am sure Claire and I will be eternally grateful! I must say I enjoyed the cruise -- although the first two nights were more of a warped slumber party. Seas and winds registering a Beaufort 8 kept most of us groggy with Bonine or a similar medicinal aid. Stock in saltines was high!! But our greenish hues finally left, and the remainder of the trip went well.
So it was, about two months after I was awarded the "Up the Creek Award" (affectionately called the UPC award), in absentia, that I finally found out I had won. (I did not even know what to avoid!) Then, I had to ask around as to What it was I had won. You see, in "those days", it did not have a cute accompanying written history. The story was passed by oral tradition (like in caveman days, only now). I hung the plaque proudly on my wall in my ever-shrinking corner of the lab. Sadly, I did not get to gaze upon this lovely view that often. You see, I finally did choose from my many degree options. I chose the Bahamas and the Atlantic spotted dolphin. Who wouldn't??!! To spend five months each year on a boat in the Bahamas, and swimming with dolphins no less! What a vacation!! -- Oops, right not vacation, science. We were doing Serious Science out there - measuring currents, recording water temperature, watching for dolphins, developing killer tans. Grueling hours, again under a torturous tropical sun. (But somebody had to do it.)
Before I knew it, time had passed (as it has a way of doing). It was time for me to "Pass the Paddle." Of course, I was not clear on the passing protocol, since I received it in absentia while enduring the torturous tropical sun. I suggested to Steve that I simply award it to myself, after all the plaque looked quite good on the wall above my desk. Steve said, "Nope. It goes to another student." To which I replied (my mind working quickly), "Okay, then I'll give it to you and next year you give it to me, and so on." This second suggestion received much the same reply as the first, although Steve did add a chuckle this time. Eventually, I decided upon Dave Weller. He had recently moved to Texas from California where he had completed his M.S. under R.H. Defran. Being a surfer, Dave found the Texas waves woefully lacking, but this is a story for him to tell at another time.
My reason for giving the paddle to Dave originated in the Spring of 1992. Vic Cockroft was serving his sabbatical with us at our lab in Galveston (only sounds like incarceration). He was beginning a biopsy program on bottlenose dolphins similar to work he'd done off South Africa. The biopsy is only about 1 cm long and retrieved from an arrow shot from a crossbow at the dolphin. Really nothing to it. Unfortunately, our campus police are quite diligent (at times). One particular police officer refused to let Vic on campus property, much less our survey boat, because of the "offensive weapon" he was carrying (a garbage bag did nothing to disguise the crossbow). We did have permits but this did not dissuade the police officer from his quest to keep the campus safe from "offensive weapons!" But WE were (and are) scientists!! This veto wasn't going to stop us, just slow us down a bit. Henceforth, we picked up Vic, and his weapon, from a different dock.
Well, you see, Dave planned to continue the Biopsy work after Vic returned to South Africa. In a sense, Dave had inherited the "weapon" and all its headaches. At that time, I knew he was the only grad student from our lab who would so desperately require the assistance of such a tiny paddle (especially if he was to be retrieved from a different dock each time he went out to Biopsy!). I hope it served him as well as it did me. I leave the rest of the UPC Award written history to Dave and his followers.
Galveston, in body
Bahamas, in spirit
31 October 1995
Story 4: Paddle to the Sea
The paddle was bestowed upon me by past recipient Kathleen Dudzinski in April of 1992. The presentation ceremony occurred while most of us soaked in the Würsig's hot tub near Sleepy Hollow, Texas. Kathleen predicted that my desire to collect biopsy samples from bottlenose dolphins as part of my doctoral study would cause great headache, leaving me a mere crossbow packin’' outlaw always on the run and living a life filled with secret rendezvous and fake addresses. In hindsight, what Kathleen predicted would have been welcomed and perhaps easier than the events which actually unfolded.
This particular period of my life was a real low one. I had been recovering from the recent passing of my beloved mother, Barbara, and was caught in a whirlpool of swift running emotions. To add fuel to the fire, I had just relocated to the Haight-Ashbury of Texas, College Station. Why? To immerse myself in the world of wildlife genetics and attempt to retool as a cetacean geneticist. Armed with my newly acquired white laboratory coat and protective eyewear I learned to extract mtDNA and run electrophoretic gels. I studied molecular mathematics and transposable genetic elements, talked of eukaryotes, pedigrees, filigrees, and Okazaki fragments, read endless assessments of Drosophila and was all too frequently awaken from slumber by dreams of Harvey and Weinberg. Dr. John Bickham of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department was good enough to invite me into his lab and help advise me. One day after reading over my proposal John said "Dave, you have proposed three Ph.D's here, drop the behavior and ecology sections and focus on the genetics work, it is more than enough by itself...collect as many samples as you can in a short period, and get back to the lab to focus on analysis". Of course Dr. Bickham was right, but my heart sank at the very thought of it.
Genetics consumed most of my thoughts, but my mind nevertheless drifted. Whale flukes and dolphin fins, salt spray, outboard engines, radio tags and theodolites filled my head. I was a field biologist living a double life as a geneticist. Self diagnosis was sufficient in my case, no need for clinical advice, I knew I was up the proverbial creek with only a disposable pipette for a paddle.
Usually when life had me down I would simply retreat to my personal Mecca, the Pacific Ocean. There was nothing more cleansing and spiritually renewing than riding a few good waves. Much to my dismay, however, the so called swells lapping the sleepy Gulf coast offered little in the way of surfing, an activity that had served as both my "church" and "mantra" for nearly 25 years. I knew I was looking at trouble, but still, I had one thing going for me...THE AWARD. Could the spirits of the forest from which the paddle was born help to guide me?
The paddle is tiny. However, it was carved from the buttress of an ancient rain forest behemoth, strong and wise from years of straining to reach nourishing rays of sunlight and surviving the natural flood and ebb of the forests bloodline, the Amazon River. While I like to think it was the paddle itself which helped to guide me into calmer seas, I know in my heart that it was actually the encouragement, support and guidance of comrades and colleagues from near and far. Soon my short career as a "gel-jockey" was over and I was back in the saddle as a field biologist. Shortly thereafter, I gathered my things, bid adieu to College Station, and paddled to the sea.
Life on Galveston Island was more agreeable. I slowly became fully integrated at the MMRP, and was out in the field observing whales and dolphins on a regular basis. During this same time, Alejandro Acevedo was in Costa Rica doing his field work. In his absence, Spencer Lynn and I tried to manage his incoming mail . It became apparent that Alejandro was shooting lots of film, posting it to Kodalux in Dallas for processing, and giving the MMRP as the return address. At first, a couple of rolls a week would arrive and we had no trouble leaving them in his mailbox. The day ~23 rolls arrived was the day we shifted from his mailbox as the storage site to a large plastic container used by mail carriers. This container we thought would surely hold everything, and it did (for a while). Spencer had scribbled "Alejandro's film" on the side of the box and placed it on top of the tallest bookshelf in the lab. The box served not only to hold Alejandro's photographic data but also as a basketball hoop (of sorts). In no time, Spencer and I were having mini-competitions and shoot-offs, flinging slide boxes like basketballs at our so called hoop. Spencer was good, sinking hook shots and long ones from Kathleen's desk and beyond. Not to be out done, I developed a slam dunk that was unstoppable. Spencer and I laughed and laughed at the incredible amount of film arriving each day and at the associated work poor Alejandro had ahead of him. I knew then that Alejandro was up a Costa Rican creek of his own and needed the award more than me.
The paddle was passed...
Galveston Island, Texas
20 January 1997
Story 5: The J stroke
Well, I finally found out what happened to all the missing film. When I returned from the field in the fall of 1994, I was unfamiliar with the tradition of the Up The Creek Award. At the time I was assimilating the knowledge acquired in Costa Rica: 1)Every piece of equipment will rust at a rate proportional to your faith in that it will not; 2) Main food staple in Costa Rica are rice and beans; 3) Never let cute, little fishy come under your inflatable boat during shark lunch time; 4) Never scuba dive down to 100 ft in the middle of the ocean, with Beaufort 4 and high swell, alone and during dolphin and shark lunch time without a line connecting you to the boat; 5) The day you take out the outboard engine that you were told by the owner you could not borrow is the day the engine becomes an artificial reef; 6) Main food staple in Costa Rica are rice and beans, but not even a hungry pig (Belinda was her name) would eat the rice I cooked. I do believe that mistakes are a great way to learn (I learned a lot in Costa Rica!) and a major one was that I tried to do many things for my thesis. A simpler, more specific study would have been tighter and cleaner, which brings me to another error. I didn’t know anything, actually nobody did, about the populations I was going to study. Now I can think of several clean studies in Golfo Dulce and Isla del Coco; however, I could have never envisioned those at the time I arrived to the field. After my research was over, I realized that if along with learning about science I didn’t learn about myself then I really didn’t get much out of my graduate student life. May these words express my most sincere gratitude to all the people I met in Costa Rica for their patience, support, understanding, and love.
Dave and Spencer religiously slam dunked while I was gone. My first exclamation didn’t make it through censure, suffice to say that it is one of the first words I learned when I first arrived to the United States, along with awesome and cool. There were about 36,000 pictures to be sorted, discarded (gobs to discard when I really sucked in taking pictures), labeled, processed, identified and analyzed. More than two years later and the work is unfinished, not even the help of many people has completed the task, most recently of three dynamic, wonderful and motivated interns (two even decided to stay longer!, maybe because they rarely see me).
This is where the power of the paddle comes into play. People in may places, including Perú and Costa Rica paddle from only one side of their canoes, although in the latter country they use a different kind of paddle. People do not switch their paddle from one side to the other; there is no need to juggle, no need to get wet. They paddle their canoes using the well-known J stroke, of which I never heard about until I arrived to Golfo Dulce. Basically, the paddle enters the water close to the canoe at a very small angle, displaces the water, and turns away from the canoe before it comes out. In this manner, the paddle describes a pattern that resembles the letter J. Pretty simple, isn’t it? Go ahead and try it, be my guests. “It is all in the wrist” they used to tell me with tears in their eyes while bending over to get more air and keep on laughing their hearts out. Regardless of age, gender, religion, marital status, alcohol level in blood, political affiliation and species (I heard that howler monkeys are also proficient at the J stroke), everybody in Costa Rica and Perú can J stroke their canoes. They will go in a straight line from one point to another while paddling only on the left, or right, side of their boats. Not me, I cannot even follow a straight line using an outboard engine and a GPS. When I tried the J stroke I described concentric circles of varying circumference, with their radius related to complex environmental variables such as number of people watching. And that was without any current, going with the current was akin to the trajectory of satellites when they spin out of orbit, only that my spins were more random. Going against the current made me feel like the snake that bit its tongue and swallowed itself. My proficiency level at the J stroke was equivalent to that of barnacles trying to solve differential equations. One particularly dreadful day I remembered my physics course and followed the path of least resistance. If I originally intended to go to Golfito to a meeting with local authorities and the current was taking me to Playa Cacao, on the other side of the bay, I suddenly realized that the most important thing in my life was to go to Playa Cacao, where I could discuss transcendental issues such as how much guaro you can drink at once before you spit it out like a garden sprinkler (three shots in fine mist mode, more than half a glass in waterfall mode).
The beauty of the Amazonian paddle is its little tip at the end. It is used as a wedge to maneuver around obstacles and to avoid collisions (attention people going to Corpus Christi!). You can stick it in the ground to claim a territory or, less pretentiously, to form one post of a soccer goal. Most importantly, you can use it to graciously land on shore when you have had enough of the J stroke. And that is exactly what I did. I last used the paddle to safely arrive to the destination chosen by the path of least resistance and in the hope that the next person my have a better use for it.
When I met Kathy Maze I learned that she studied in Kentucky, really likes Andre Agassi and had not worked with dolphins before. It is not easy to predict if a person, including oneself, will be a successful graduate student. All I can say is that I feel proud of watching Kathy grow as a researcher. Most importantly, I am happy of having the fortune of interacting with such a delightful person (and I am not saying this because she is my roommate, owns the vacuum cleaner, the only self-propelled vehicle in the apartment, most of the kitchen ware, and bakes delicious chocolate chipped cookies). Kathy showed the lab that she is tough and could learn all the tricks of the trade from scratch in a short amount of time. In the fall of 1995 the Up The Creek Award had to be handed to a new student. During those days, I always heard Kathy leaving at the crack of dawn, grackles still sound asleep, to go to the field. Those were miserable days, weather wise. Kathy and her assistants invariably returned cold, wet, tired and hungry. Every time the question was, “how many dolphins?”. An every time the answer was: “None”. Maybe she sometimes despaired and wondered whether she would be able to collect enough data. If the problem wasn’t the truck, it was the trailer. If it wasn’t the trailer, it was the outboard engine. Sometimes she had to literally paddle her way out of oyster reefs and sand bars. The engine is fine?, then it is time for the camera to break down. The equipment works? well, the weather sucks. Nice day out? no dolphins to be seen. Those were trying days, yet she was always out there in San Luis Pass or Chocolate Bay. And although I never heard or notice a crack in her resolve to conduct her study, I felt that she needed the paddle to find her way through all those difficulties.
As it turned out, she became an incredible paddler: her research is finished and she will graduate soon.
5 February 1997
P.S. I was not fortunate enough to interact frequently with Steve Leatherwood. Yet, every time I talked to him he was always friendly, interested, and full of advice. The sensation after having a conversation with him always drew a smile on me. He was a very honest and bright researcher, and energetic and strong conservationist, and one of the best field biologists I have ever met. It would have been great to learn more from him as a colleague and as a friend. Last time I saw Steve was during the festivities following his doctoral defense. When we departed he told me to graduate soon so I could work with him in Hong Kong. This is the only occasion I regret landing on shore and not finishing my thesis earlier. I’ll keep the compliment. Thank you, Steve.
Story 6: Keep Paddling
It’s true that when Alejandro first met me I had recently arrived from the midwest where I had attended college, I did in fact like to watch Andre Agassi play tennis, and I had never worked with dolphins before. I had also never met my graduate advisor before, but only talked to him over the phone. The day I met both Bernd and Alejandro, Anna Barber, Tammy McGuire, and I had driven from College Station to Bernd’s house. Bernd and Alejandro were working on a zodiac which had recently arrived, along with Alejandro, from Costa Rica. Even though I had moved from Kentucky to Texas without having ever visited A & M or met with my advisor, and upon first meeting with him he began barking at me, I may have been a little taken aback, but I didn’t feel like I was in any real trouble...yet.
Having completed my coursework in College Station, I moved to Galveston in the summer of 1995. Everyone at the MMRP was very friendly and helpful, and I began accompanying them on Galveston and Corpus Christi surveys. I also started making pilot trips in the San Luis Pass/Chocolate Bay area, an area in which Bernd was very excited about beginning a study. Of course Bernd also wanted someone to make night observations in Galveston, but I was bent on actually seeing bottlenose dolphins, especially since this was my first time studying them, and the prospect of spending my nights in the Galveston Ship Channel was not as tantalizing as Bernd had hoped. The pilot trips were successful for the most part- on almost every trip we saw quite a few dolphins, most of which were easily recognizable, and I began naming them that summer. There were a few problems of course, especially in learning how to navigate in the area with so many shallow areas and sandbars everywhere. We got stuck very frequently, but always had 2 paddles on board to push our way out of the mud. I never left in the boat without 2 paddles. I had learned my lesson after breaking down in the Galveston Ship Channel that summer with Elizabeth Zuñiga and having to use my body as a paddle since we only had one onboard.
I began my field work officially in the fall of 1995, aided by Joel Ortega-Ortiz, a Master’s student from Mexico who had come to do an internship in Galveston. September was quite exciting, and we continued to see dolphins in the same places we had during the summer, until one day they sort of disappeared for a while. Joel was convinced they were vacationing in Houston and would return any day, but I was a little concerned. I had committed to spending the next 12 months in this area, and I didn’t want to spend it looking at nothing but brown water every day. A little boat trouble combined with no dolphins had Joel and the other interns convinced I was jinxed, and so I had a new nickname. We would come in each day and folks would ask if we saw any dolphins, and we repeatedly said no. One day Bernd commented that it helps when you keep your eyes open. I was not incredibly amused by this tidbit of wisdom, but I still didn’t think I was in any serious trouble...yet.
Things improved a little with the weather. We started seeing dolphins more because we were able to get out into the Gulf, where it seemed as though the dolphins had relocated. This continued through December, when Joel left for Mexico.
January and the beginning of February, the weeks just prior to receiving the Up the Creek Award, were a little stressful. I had recruited some friends to help in the interim before a new intern would arrive. The weather in the beginning of January was windy, so it was hard to go out. As soon as the winds died a little, Tammy McGuire drove from College Station to help for a few days. The first day we went out the engine of the Keiki Naia died. The next day we borrowed a boat from Phil Levin, and as we were driving down the channel away from the dock I realized the steering wasn’t just a little tight, as I had been told when having trouble turning the wheel, it actually wouldn’t turn at all. So although the engine worked, it was stuck turned to the right, and so we had to paddle our way back. Two boats in two days- quite a record! I was a little fearful no one would volunteer to accompany me again or loan me a boat. It was January when I started thinking I was in serious trouble.
In February a naive intern arrived, one who didn’t know of my jinx reputation. The boat was fixed, but there seemed to be a water shortage in the bay. I was accustomed to getting stuck a lot, but one morning we arrived at Phil’s, where we had been keeping the boat, and there was no water under the lift. So we could lower it into the mud, but there was no way to get it anywhere. Things were getting ridiculous and I was starting to really question what on earth I was doing.
Then Alejandro presented me with the Up the Creek Award. "Well, it’ll be a nice consolation when my committee won’t let me graduate," I thought. However, the coming of spring and a new attitude seemed to turn things around. Or maybe it was just the magic of the paddle! There were still many bad weather days and days when the engine or equipment didn’t work, and even days when the trailer wench broke as we were pulling the boat onto it, but it didn’t bother me as much. I began to realize I wasn’t the first person to have all these troubles and I started adapting the attitude of my friend Joel who always says, "Ahh (sigh)...the life of a marine mammalogist!" I guess no one is eager to tell of their mishaps, but eventually stories leak out, and I learned that even people like Tom Jefferson have had troubles (i.e. when launching boats in Corpus Christi). Now I have all kinds of good stories on almost everyone, like the time Spencer almost drowned Dave, the time Alejandro lost the trailer in the water, and I have even seen Dave, nearly perfect in every way, or so I thought, make some booboos!
As time drew near to pass on the award, I began investigating potential recipients. I started asking some people for ideas, and it seemed that there was no one in any real trouble. This was a good thing, but it didn’t help my decision any. However, Jeff Norris was particularly helpful. After talking with him and considering his recommendation, I started thinking about the uses of a paddle and how it could help someone out. Not only does a paddle get you out of trouble, but it helps you move along more speedily and in a more direct manner. Troy Sparks wasn’t in any real trouble, but he had been working on his degree for quite a while. He was in the process of finishing his Master’s thesis and starting his Ph.D. work, and I thought perhaps the paddle could help him move along a little more speedily and perhaps keep him from getting stuck.
And so the paddle was passed...
Story 7: The Road Less Traveled
It was the beginning of my life that has given fate to the somewhat rambling subsequent events that have since passed. You see, in the late '60s, technology at the rural Indiana county hospital was lagging. The elder doctor had proclaimed a 14+ lb. baby for my expectant mother. Ah, the eventful night, post chili supper and a cool October rain...Chili and the smell of Fall pulse in my veins to this day!
Because I arrived the second one on the scene after such a proclamation, I was almost born in the hospital hallway. What! twin seven-something-pound babies. Lo, hest, ...not possible?! Here, sage-like pondering has given way to the phrase that indeed the sum of the parts was greater that the whole ....at least the total weight was summed as correct (Roy and I are still the largest twins born in the county).
While most often the unsolicited maternal advise rings in my ears; "you just have to do things the hard way." Ah, the road less traveled; the scenic route! ....what, a flower to inhale; the flush of a pheasant from a freshly snow-powdered upland field; the awakening of a salt marsh at dawn. While not obvious to the most casual observer, this view of life has made me somewhat of the old man in the proverbial Aggie Sea. Arriving Spring 1991, knocking the academic hayseed from my hair, I was the first graduate student of the famed Hoosier Great, William E. Evans (a.k.a. Dr. Bill). Dr. Bill has become a true mentor to me; we are kindred spirits of sorts ...his road has had more curves than mine to date (and he has subsequently tasted the full flavor of life for it). I've been Dr. Bill's graduate student for my entire post-graduate career at Texas A&M (MS 1991-96 and PhD 1997 - present), and to this day, he can tell me a new story everyday ...most with a life lesson (I've had to dig a few times, but it is always there). I was passed the paddle because of Dr. Bill's and my waffling on whether or not I should do a straight-shot PhD or finish my MS in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (and a subsequent PhD in Oceanography). The two extra years on my Masters gave me a leg up on my PhD work. I was able to finish most of my PhD course work before I officially finished my Masters ('97). I have also spent 1.5 years in Washington DC on Fellowship to the Congressional Research Service ('95) and the National Marine Fisheries Service ('99).
I have taken as much marrow as I can from the graduate experience (not to mention the numerous research projects I've participated in outside my own research). I'd like to think that Steve Leatherwood’s spirit followed a road of great experience and sharing. I was the first to receive the paddle after his passing (at a wake held in his honor to celebrate his life). I was here when Steve first arrived. I helped him move his library at the main campus. He was a great help and resource for my MS proposal. The only thing that he ever asked was for me to file reprints, yet unshelved, in boxes before I left. I'll never forget the time Steve directed some statistician at main campus working on a sperm whale model (for New Zealand) in my direction. He had proclaimed me the resident sperm whale expert. Probably a bit of a stretch, but nonetheless, it showed the faith and spirit Steve was willing to give to his fellow grads. It is the power of the paddle to guide grad students down their own winding paths. I passed the paddle to "Paco", a MS student from Mexico struggling with his research (Gray Whales in Baja). The perpetual "worry-wort" wondering if he had "what it takes" to be a quality researcher. I told him that it takes all kinds, and to relax. With time comes experience and with experience comes knowledge. I advised him that when he found himself giving advice to new grad students, indeed he would have "what it takes"!
Hand-Off to Paco...
9 October 1999
On a USAir flight en route from Washington DC to Indiana to get married.
Story No. 8: The Lone Star Experiences
I received this award in absentia in the midst of a very tough field season. I must admit I felt rather proud to be placed among the names of the great marine mammalogists that have earned this award at one time or another. Since Troy has not been able to give me a copy of what he said where the reasons for me getting this award, this is my humble interpretation.
I was collecting data for my second field season on gray whales in spring 1998 in Baja California. Not a bad place for “working” except this year’s weather was characterized by continuous northern fronts. This made our possibilities to go out scarce and dangerous. That dreadful year the whales shortened their stay in Bahia Magdalena by a full month and a half! Gray whale numbers in this lagoon were also reduced drastically and so were our spirits.
One day while attempting to record these elusive animals, we received notice from the harbormaster that strong wind and large swells were headed our way. I quickly ended recordings and disconnected all equipment and closed my trusty pelican case. What followed still seems like a dream in slow motion. I gave the go ahead sign and felt a yank by my lap. I had forgotten to retrieve the hydrophone from the water! Before I could shout to my driver to kill the engine the hydrophone had been chopped by our own propeller and was on its way to the bottom of Bahia Magdalena. Replacing the hydrophone depleted a substantial amount of my season’s funds. In an apparent effort to protect whales or I don’t know why, local custom authorities made sure not to release this equipment until all whales were gone.
Therefore, this award came in a very opportune moment, because it reminded me that everyone has had and will have rough times at one time or another. Every body messes up at least once and that only makes you better and human. Yet, everyone can pull himself or herself through as much adversity as one is willing to face. In addition, there will always be people to lend a hand, or two, even a paddle! I see this award as an example of the sense of camaraderie that surrounds the marine mammal lab in Galveston. Every body jokes around, but everyone is genuinely concerned on how you are doing. I can only pass this award to someone who has always been there for me.
Yin and I have had several memorable classes in College Station with Dr. Packard, Dr. Spiegelman, and Dr. Benson. We worked at the Wildlife Collection jamming with Hooty and Hewy Lewis, sorting more bats than I can remember. We camped at Fossil Rim and at a bat cave preserve (sorry for my snoring). We watched the then Houston Oilers beat Pittsburgh, Dallas beat Oakland, San Antonio beat Phoenix, and unfortunately TU beat A&M in Kyle Field in 1995. We have gone out several nights dancing (do not ever let Yin tell you she does not know how to boogie). We have been to 6th street in Austin and on one or two occasions with Brad and Sarah (although most of that night will remain blurry to us all forever).
Yin has been a great colleague and roommate. She taught me the handy skill of recycling. While I was in the field, Yin and Lori collected and forwarded my mail. Yin even carried a twelve pack of Dr. Pepper all the way to Monaco for me, because she knew that I couldn’t get it in Baja! She tapes Friends whenever I am not around. Yin has always photocopied interesting and relevant articles for me. Yin has proofread my thesis, proposal, prospectus, and many homework assignments repeatedly. Whenever I have had computer problems, she has been there. She has helped with Canary, Corel, Aardvark, Excel, and even Pine. Nevertheless, Yin had been there not just for me for me, but for everyone at all times.
Yin has also had her shares of mishappenings. Yin injured her ankle while jumping a fence in New Zealand. Then she had a reaction to the adhesive tape used by the Kiwi doctors on that injury. Yin sprained her little finger catching a football at Freeport. We were waiting to embark on the cruise from hell to Flower Gardens on Super Bowl day. During Yin’s latest knee surgery this summer, I was even confused as her husband. Yin kept her spirits up and went up and down three flights of stairs every week for rehabilitation. Yin has had her share of computer problems and some car problems. Yin has had all sorts of interesting roommates. Now she is ready to finish, but I do not want her involvement with the lab to ever be lost, so I will pass the award to Yin for this last push and wish her luck in her next endeavor.
Thank you Yin and good luck in all the creeks left to paddle.
Story No. 9: Aardvark, glurks & strawberry daiquiris
As I sit here at my favorite table at the Kona Inn, sipping my virgin strawberry daiquiri and listening to the surf roll in, it’s hard for me to remember all the trials and tribulations that constituted my graduate student years. Amazing what a powerful force denial can be. But re-reading Paco’s Up the Creek history brings it all back for me. Thanks a lot Paco (and just to let every one know, I really am not as accident prone as Paco has made me seem! And I’m just kidding, I really did enjoy grad school. Really. = )
I started graduate school in the fall of 1995. Immediately, things started off on the wrong foot. I caught a bad case of pneumonia (ok, so perhaps I really am a sickly individual) 2 weeks before my first semester of classes. Now I know some folks will do anything to avoid moving to College Station, but this was ridiculous. I had somehow caught this vile sickness while doing absolutely NOTHING in San Francisco. I think my body was in a state of shock—what? No early morning shore station? No cold saltwater soakings in the boat? No questions about mayonnaise? (Long story.) Nope, just a leisurely routine of sleeping late, eating home cooked food, and watching movies. I think my body was confused and let down its guard.
But against my doctor’s orders and with directions from WFSC star Janice Crenshaw, I drove my car Chewie, from San Francisco to College Station, Texas to start school. There I met Paco and later, the rest of the MMRP gang in Galveston (but that’s another tale, and you’ll have to buy me a lot of virgin strawberry daiquiris to get that story). Paco and I had somehow managed to have the exact same class schedule as well as working at the same place--the TCWC, the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection. There I toiled for 20 hours a week, choking on formalin fumes with my pneumonia sensitive lungs and cleaning endless numbers of muddy rats and bats with a tiny brush. I think I spent most of that first year coughing. Don’t get me wrong though, I sure learned a lot about Peromyscus and Tursiops bones. But I think I may have donated one of my lungs to the Collection. I also learned a lot about statistics, dialects, Freebirds, salsa tossing (thanks PG), and Aggie traditions during my year in College Station. After my intensive Aggie immersion year, I returned to Kaikoura, New Zealand where I was studying the effects of tourism on the behavior of the dusky dolphin (one of, if not the most, acrobatic of dolphins) as well as trying to describe the vocalizations of these squeaking, squawking critters.
Things generally went well in Kaikoura (let’s forget about the tree falling on the house and the theo bouncing down the hill). It’s true that while I was in Kaikoura, I hopped a fence on New Year’s Day 1997, landed on a tussock at a strange angle and sprained my ankle. The snapping sound and sudden pain were enough to let me know that I wasn’t going to be running to the top of Mount Fyffe anytime soon (not that I could before the injury.). But a bum leg is a particularly inconvenient injury to have when you have a 20 min walk up to your shore station (I know. It sure seems like a lot of pain to endure just to avoid walking up the hill, meaning I “had” to go out in the boat instead). But after 3 weeks of rehab, many types of prescription drugs (don’t let it be said the Kiwi doctors are stingy about prescribing medication!), the loss of quite a bit of skin, an allergic reaction to the drugs, the tape or the medical care, and then 2 months of recovery from the allergic reaction, I continued my field work with the much appreciated help from Stefan, Nadine and Brave. After that season, I returned whole in body and spirit and with all limbs functioning, back to Texas, but this time to Galveston, to begin analyzing and writing up my thesis
What can I say about the process of analyzing and writing up? Let’s just say it always seems to take longer than you expect. I think it’s one of the most misleading of phrases, “Oh, I’m almost done, I just have to analyze and write up”. It sounds like such an easy step, but unfortunately those 2 simple phrases mean a whole lot of number crunching and word selection. It can take weeks to generate the numbers in one table. So I spent many days at the MMRP and Acoustics Lab, playing around with the computers, trying to figure out various computer programs such as Aardvark, Canary, MatLab, Surfer as well as ALL (ok, it just seemed like all) the statistics programs. And one day, I heard past UTC awardee Dave Weller, say, “Oops. Um, Yin you better come here”. Somehow while Dave had been backing up his data, the computer had ‘glurked’, deleting my entire folder of data. How does this happen? Well, let me tell you. There are mysterious forces afoot, just waiting for the most inconvenient time to glurk your data. Now until this moment, I was one of the millions of innocent people who had no knowledge or experience with the word ‘glurk’. Glurk you say? What does that mean? It means you are “Up the Creek”.
So back to the drawing board (or editing data board, a reminder to all of you that you can’t be too obsessive about backing up your data). So data were edited, statistics were generated, figures were made and one morning there was a big red X where Figure 1 used to be. Now this normally would not have bothered me all that much, but I had been working on Figure 1 for about 2 weeks. And of course, being the typical grad student, I was behind on my deadlines with my committee members, not getting much sleep, getting no exercise and having the stress levels that would fell many a stockbroker during those crazy .com days. Somehow I knew that my very patient committee members would not approve of a big red X as a substitute for the worldwide distribution of dusky dolphins. I thought about a cheeky, “But X marks the spot?” and decided that the humor of this particular situation would probably be lost on these fine folks. Even more alarming, portions of my thesis were overwritten with other text, you actually could see the letters on top of each other, whereas other portions of the text had mysteriously disappeared. Again, I thought, “I’m just trying to save paper by writing words on top of words?” No. OK, virus? Not according to the virus folks at Norton. No one had a clue what was going on—perhaps the folks at Apple Computer and Microsoft did not approve of that particular draft version. Needless to say, I had to re-write several sections of my thesis, as well as re-do Figure 1.
And on top of all this (you’re saying, “What? There’s more?”), I had decided to finally have a long overdue minor knee surgery, which was to keep me off my feet for 3 days. Unfortunately, when I woke up in the recovery room, the doctor gently told me that the damage was far worse than he had expected. Hmm, but what does this mean? It meant I would not be able to put any weight on my leg for 8 weeks. (It was during this time that a very concerned Paco twice attempted to enter the operating room. This may explain why he was confused as my husband by the nurses). Minor setback. But with the help of many charitable folks who chauffeured me around (though I think they were just happy to have access to me AND my handicapped pass during the Christmas shopping season), I managed to make it up and down the 3 flights of stairs to my apartment and to rehab 3 times a week as well as to my teaching duties. One major benefit of the surgery was that I became quite proficient in the office chair races, (ok, so I was the only contestant, but I won every week). I would wheel around the lab in one of the office chairs, (crutches were too awkward, and there was no room for wheelchairs on the lab), roaming the hallways, running over hapless interns (just kidding).
I received the UTC award at a party at Bernd’s house, with Paco presenting me the award via videotape. After the viewing of this videotape, we watched a very boring video of my knee surgery. Never let it be said that the folks at the MMRP don’t know how to throw a good party. I grew quite attached to the award, and Kathleen is right, it really does look good hanging in one’s office. That’s part of the reason it’s taken me so long to write up my narrative, I just didn’t want to let the award go.
It was during my immobile period (which one you ask? The last knee one) that I got to be better friends with Lori Polasek (neé Harrison). Lori was there while I was laid up, even during the period when I was especially loopy (yes, I actually get loopier while on anesthesia and medication). For someone who doesn’t partake of any meds, she was an angel, constantly on the phone with doctors, pharmacists and insurance companies, trying to make sure I got the right medication for the right level of loopiness. She slept on the floor the first night back from the hospital, I was freezing cold (this is Texas in July, which is only slightly less hot than Hades), so I slept with an electric blanket and a down comforter, while Lori slept on the floor, with a fan blowing on her face, waking up every 3 hours to give me more pain medication. Amazing. I leaned on her and many other friends, both physically and emotionally, during this trying lame period.
Actually I think Lori was actively pursuing the Up the Creek award. We might have to add a clause to Steve’s original rules that says something like, “You can’t try and win this award! Or at the very least, you can’t be very obvious about trying”. But seriously, while I was ‘interviewing’ potential Up the Creek recipients, (and there was plenty of competition—among others, Steve Maclean had actually broken an oar while trying to paddle over to photo id bowhead whales in far eastern Russia. Emma Roscow’s seals suddenly became mute, not the best subjects when you are studying their vocalizations) Lori’s freezer broke, twice. And this was just during the interviewing period. This meant that instead of seal-sicles, she had thawed myoglobin samples, a loss of two year’s worth of samples. Somehow thawed seal muscle doesn’t work for Lori’s work, there’s some technical reason for this, but it’s beyond the scope of this piece (and the scope of knowledge of this writer). And before any of the freezer problems (this was before the interview period), during Lori’s first field season, there was a problem with the ice—either there was too much ice and the hunters couldn’t catch any harp seals, or there wasn’t enough ice and the hunters couldn’t catch any harp seals. It sure does seem like Lori has a problem with ice. Too much, too little, talk about picky.
Either way, Lori didn’t get any samples that first season, then lost the samples from her next 2 seasons. This meant that Lori was now seriously delayed in her grad school schedule. She was taking as long as I was, and didn’t seem to exhibit any of the frenzied anxiety associated with trying to finish that I was seeing in most (ok, all) of the other graduate students. Then Lori decided to bypass the masters and just keep right on going towards her PhD! Wow. Now, I was really worried, Lori would be in Galveston for even longer! So I thought that giving Lori the Up the Creek Award would provide some incentive to finish a bit faster. And it’s worked! Lori has published in some reputable “inside” physiology journal, has taken her prelims and passed, is now ‘just writing up’ and already has a postdoc in the works. I think I deserve all the credit for Lori’s subsequent success. (Ok, I would be satisfied with some of the credit.)
So the Up the Creek award goes to Lori Polasek for her stunning portrayal of the Perpetual Student. Congratulations and good luck!
watching the sunset & sipping her second (third? fourth?) virgin strawberry daiquiri
Kona Inn, Big Island, Hawai'i
March 15, 2002
with a few minor tweaks,
Grand Aleutian Hotel, Dutch Harbor, Alaska
July 6, 2002
Story No. 10: The physiology connection
Yin to Lori (Harrison) Polasek
OK, this has taken me way too long to write. I have been holding up the stories of several generations of paddle holders. Here I sit in the Seattle Airport. I am on my way back to visit Texas after my first few months as a post-doc. I just got an e-mail from Yin. She had returned from a visit to Galveston. Her comment was that it still felt like home.
Well, well... my good friend Yin decided to stick me with the paddle. Here I had sweated for her, learned to open childproof caps for her and what do I merit in return? I knew I was in the running, but with all of the other unlucky candidates out there I did not think I would be the winner (or loser) of the Up the Creek award. My research had been challenging to say the least. To lose three years’ worth of work to different disasters I felt was a hard enough burden. I was doing a three-year study with harp seals found on a particular ice sheet. Global warming melted the sheet after my first year and so a new project had to be found. I then started a project on harbor seals and had a data set in the freezer before Y2K. In fear of the freezer going down with all of the Y2K hype, I was looking into getting a generator. Before the generator could be purchased and before Y2K was even close, the good old freezer broke down on its own, leaving my nice frozen samples in little warm pools in the bottom of their vials. Yet, I still persevered. Why may you ask, heck if I know. But Yin did not just give me the paddle for the trials I had faced. She had to announce to everyone that I had been at A&M way too long. Ouch! She thought I had become too comfortable as a student (if you can call the life you have on a grad salary comfortable). The paddle therefore had two purposes. The first one was to bring me luck so that I could finish my research, but the second was for a good smack in the butt to get moving. I regret to admit, but it worked. During the year that I possessed the paddle I published and I was accepted for a post-doc.
Lori to Lisa Hoopes
The time came too soon to pass on the paddle. I had finally published and I had a post-doc set up already so I was ready to hand the prestigious badge of Up the Creek to another victim – oh I mean awardee. I could not find anyone in Bernd’s lab that was having any challenges. I started to widen my search and I kept hearing about the challenges of a graduate student who had gotten her master’s with an advisor from A&M in Galveston and decided to stay at A&M and get her PhD. For the first year of her PhD, project after project fell through. Funding was not awarded, or when it was, study animals were not available. Aha! The perfect candidate. So I awarded the paddle to Lisa Hoopes. Sadly, the paddle was not as productive in Lisa’s hands. Lisa left A&M to follow her professor’s move to another university where she was still without a project. The paddle remained in her old lab in Galveston and I (with a little encouragement from the Würsig lab) reclaimed the paddle in order to pass it on. I was determined to return it to the Würsig lab where it could rekindle the good luck it was known to harbor.
Lori to Paula Moreno
I knew the paddle needed to return to the Würsig lab to recharge. Hopefully returning the Up the Creek plaque back to the Würsig lab would bring back the motivating power of the paddle itself and the motivating power it had on students to not receive the award.
When I researched how everyone in the lab was progressing, there was only person who was calling to the paddle. This person was facing cash flow lions, red tape tigers and boat bear problems – oh my!
Paula Moreno ran out of her funding before she finished her fieldwork. The cost and delays associated with boat problems did not help. During this same time, the lab changed over to a new computer system. This eliminated the use of some older programs that were critical for Paula to analyze her data. At this point Paula may have had to use an abacus.
Paula’s research was also heavily reliant on boat use. With the tragedy of bonfire (for those of you who are not Aggies, read up on Aggie Bonfire), red tape was implemented all over campus to insure safety. So when Paula was trying to certify interns on the use of the boat, this created huge hurdles. The interns could not learn how to drive the boat without having driven the boat or some nonsense.
Through all of this Paula has been such a trooper. She is always happy to see you and good natured and helpful. Paula was having a lot of these difficulties while I was looking for a worthy awardee of the paddle last year, but she told me that things were going well, she was very optimistic, so I wrote her out of my book. Little did either of us know…..
Honestly this only scratches the surface of all of the challenges Paula faced. While I was looking for a new paddle recipient, people in the lab were more than willing to provide me with information on Paula’s plight (perhaps so I would not give the paddle to them!).
I hope the UTC helps Paula paddle through all of her boat problems.
Paula was the most gracious recipient. I hope it recharges in the Würsig lab and that it brings her productivity and luck.
Story No. 11: Keep Paddling, Start Writing
I start with a warning: having been the silent holder of the Paddle for so many years, passing it on in the traditional manner but failing to tell my story, this is surely a VERY long story that I hope will make up for my extended silence and encourage others to write theirs up soon after they receive the paddle to avoid the painful scrambling to recall tucked, or perhaps locked, away memories.
If you haven’t been to Galveston, you still don’t know what you’re missing. It’s not just the insatiable bottlenose dolphins snacking at the floating Deli (aka shrimpers) on whatever creatures escape through the net or escorting the vessel side-by-side to grab the discards fishermen throw, if possible, before the more competent, flight-enabled creatures –seagulls, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, etc.—rapidly snap them up milliseconds after they touch the surface of the water, or before the birds swallow the discarded fish straight in the air;
It’s not just our tireless leader’s “woof-woofs” enlightening our long (nope, I didn’t say, tedious) hours of photo-ID in the good old days of light tables and loupes;
It’s not the humming of large to XL vessels ranging from shrimpers, to supply boats, to tankers that remind you (down there on the tiny Boston Whaler) who has the right of way;
It’s not just those delicious brown-bags, where sharp, young interns take turns dissecting and reconstructing scientific articles;
And, it’s definitely not just the blazing sun and sealed green-house atmosphere of the Galveston Bay summers with the hovering threat of an errant hurricane that every now and then hits the 27 mile-long (and shrinking!) by 3 mile-wide (widest stretch!) barrier island; or the less predictable waterspouts that find enough room to descend upon the 1,400 km2 bay.
It’s all of this and so much more!
But if there is a testable explanation of how time snuck up on me, while I was still working on my PhD, and money could no longer be stretched (many details eloquently provided above in Lori’s account), and I became hostage of the Ultimate Creek, the list of Galvestonian charms had to be rejected.
I was destined to stay in Galveston for a long while the moment I entered Bernd’s lab and saw shelves and shelves lined with fat, coded binders: almost two decades of negatives of bottlenose dolphins from the Galveston Bay! What a heritage, I was in awe and my mind was off designing a myriad of plans. The wildest of them all: take the set of individual catalogs and re-match all fins from scratch, including the film that was still uncut, and build a single GB database (the ultimate GB-DB) to which several more years of my own surveys and thousands of negatives (no digital yet for me) would be added. Then dive into the foraging behaviors and social networks that would emerge like a puzzle of the most ecologically flexible of all cetaceans—Tursiops truncatus.
This was a modest plan and the details of how I frantically put myself and many, many teams of interns immediately to work, sustained year after year, binder after binder, is not worth increasing my C-footprint.
A few of those memories are, many years gone by, still vivid: like that refreshing morning in the fall of 2001 that we left the docks, charged up for a full day of wrestling dolphins and their almost predictable interactions with the shrimpers. It was cool but not cold enough to justify a group of humans in a rubber boat in black hoods and…with machine guns rushing off to intercept us. These were Navy SEALS and for the next hour or so we would not be chasing dolphin groups but merely docked where the SEALS felt we were comfortably distant from the cruise ship that was about to make its way out of the Galveston Ship Channel. This was the new modus operandi post-9/11: a buffer zone was created around the cruise ship whether it was docked, arriving or ready to leave. As time passed, the buffer zone became more permeable and all we needed was to request permission from the Coast Guard to enter the buffer zone using our VHF marine radio.
Another memorable moment was the evening when, after completing our last station, collecting environmental data with the Hydrolab along with sonar data that required anchoring the boat, we attempted to pull the anchor up and found ourselves much more anchored than we had imagined. Pulling in sync, all four of us, was still not working and the sun was rushing down. After many attempts, and almost out of breath, we suddenly released the anchor and as it reached the side of the boat we saw that we didn’t have one, but two anchors: ours was hooked on to another ancient anchor covered by oysters, barnacles, etc.
A few thousand fins later, and in the midst of a standard hot and steamy Galveston summer and hectic surveys that only slowed down as the pelicans marched one by one into their V-formations of 50-plus birds calmly headed to their roosting site, I had a small surprise.
As students from D. University were headed to Galveston for a summer credit course, I was asked at the last minute to help teach a one-day class. In a rush, I prepared my part of the class and off I went to teach. I was very pleased to receive a thank you note later on from their professor on behalf of the students. What I didn’t expect was coming was an order from the International Student Services (ISS) to pack my bags and leave the U.S. immediately because they were dropping me out-of-status (visa language meaning, illegal presence in the U.S.) since I had only informed ISS about my teaching activity after the fact. This too was solved, thanks to folks at TAMUG and a stream of emails back and forth with Ms. M from ISS.
As far as I was concerned, my time spent either in the lab, ID-ing fins or surveying the bay and adding more to the huge collection, was flying—but unfortunately so was my funding! My photo-ID was steaming forward as fast as it possibly could but there were still hundreds and hundreds of the old surveys and my own added exponentially to this collection to go through.
It seemed like I had unintentionally designed the (almost) perfect life style: an eternal Würsig PhD student, able to celebrate sockerfice after sockerfice, meeting new students, etc. Almost because I still had to find a new funding source... or maybe a lost treasure on this pirate island.
This much extended stay of mine didn’t go unnoticed to Lori’s eagle eyes and as she completed a thorough investigation on me, I became the next “Up the Creek” paddler.
I hope I didn’t use up too much of the paddle’s juicy, magic powers that brought me back to the main stream down the Galveston Bay and into Gulf waters, but that is something that only my follower, Tray, can tell.
I’m starting to think I may have abused the paddle because on a recent visit to TAMUG, 6 years after my graduation, I find that Tray is still in Galveston. Sorry, Tray, I meant to share the paddle’s magic powers but they may be wearing out. Maybe the paddle is itself in need of a Paddle. Perhaps a quick return to the origins, some tributary of the upper Amazon in Peru, to be re-energized?
Happy Paddling, Tray and don’t forget to reveal the genetic hurdle you were in with freezer delays (or inadequate sub-degrees?), insufficient samples and all.
December 4, 2011
Story No. 12: Paddling out of the Golfo San Josè whirlpools and back to the tranquil Galveston estuaries
The paddle came to me at a time when I very much appreciated and needed it. I had spent two seasons collecting above-water and underwater data on dusky dolphin foraging in Admiralty Bay, New Zealand, and I had been excited to have the opportunity to do a comparative study on dusky dolphin foraging in Golfo San Josè, Argentina. However, the season had turned out to be much more challenging, discouraging, and expensive than I had anticipated.
Although my research group and I spent three months in the field (after spending almost a full month assembling all the bits and pieces we needed to start research), we only found dusky dolphins to study on a handful of days. We recorded almost no underwater data and barely any above-water data. Most of our days were spent driving on transects across the large bay in a very small raft, observing penguins and gulls bobbing around on the water, and trying to stay aware of rapidly changing wave and wind conditions. The location was beautiful, but it was difficult to remain focused. In hindsight, I should have conducted a lot more background research before that field season…and I should have been willing to make major changes during the season. To make matters worse, the funding that had initially seemed sufficient rapidly disappeared, I had major difficulties with our Argentine photographer, and I discovered that my Spanish language skills were very rudimentary despite months of intensive studying.
By the time I returned to Texas, I was thoroughly drained, and I would have been happy to go hibernate in a very deep cave somewhere for a couple of years. However, I still had an entire dissertation to write (and much New Zealand data to analyze before I could write it), and I knew that I needed to stay focused on graduating. Chris Marshall gave me the paddle shortly after I returned to Texas, and it reminded me to keep paddling despite all of the difficulties. Shortly after I received the paddle, a manuscript that I had been repeatedly submitting to Marine Mammal Science over the course of two years was finally accepted. About the same time, I was awarded a Tom Slick Fellowship, which allowed me to focus solely on analyses and writing for a whole year. I recruited some wonderful undergraduate and recently-graduated students to assist with intensive video and acoustic analyses, and we started plugging away. The analyses and writing slowly got done, and along the way I met a wonderful, caring, and loving sweetheart, who is now my husband.
I didn’t want to pass the paddle on J, but after a year and a half, I realized that it was time (and plus, I was told that it was time). The paddle had helped me to finish my analyses, complete the vast majority of my dissertation writing, and to regain my joy in life. It reminded me to keep paddling through difficulties, and to trust that new adventures wait around the next bend. I wasn’t sure who was most in need of the paddle. However, I felt that I wanted to pass it on to a non-marine mammal person, in appreciation of the diversity of the oceans, and the broader diversity of the world. When Antonietta Quigg said that her student Allison McInnes was having a lot of difficulties with moving forward with her doctorate work, including finishing her preliminary exams, pulling together her analyses, and staying motivated, I felt that she was the right person to have the paddle next. I passed it on to her, with motivating thoughts and positive energies :-)
Robin Vaughn Hirshorn
8 November, 2011
Silver Spring, Maryland