Peggy Stap – from Maui to, almost, now

“Somehow it all weaves together… Maybe life offers a path that is meant to be…if I had not taken those opportunities presented to me, then what?… I met the right people but I also worked hard… Life sometimes hands you a golden moment and then you have to make it come to fruition… Dreams can come true if you work hard and stay positive…” – Peggy Stap’s musings on her life as a whale and dolphin researcher.

From 1996 until today Peggy has lived a life which she considers to be her dream. Amazing chance meetings helped this dream come true but without Peggy’s stubborn, positive dedication the dream would not have born fruit.

When Peggy flew to Maui with her mum in January 1996 she was still mourning the loss of her dad and “bawling my eyes out” every day. But on Maui she had encounters with Humpbacks which completely changed both this and the course of her entire life for the next 15 years.

Peggy and her mum went out whale watching on the Lin Wa II, a charming old Chinese junk with underwater windows, and the Lahaina Princess. Peggy remembers trips where they saw Humpbacks surrounding the boat, breaching right next to the boat, rolling around, slapping their pectoral fins against the water and “getting up to all sorts of antics”. She especially remembers looking through the underwater window to see a mother and calf looking up at her through the glass. On her last day whale watching, Peggy had the distinct feeling that the animals were saying “Aloha” to her.

Peggy was completely blown away by these encounters. She was enthralled by what she saw. She felt like “Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she first walks into the castle… Words cannot express the feeling… I was so drawn to them, they touched my soul.” These animals sparked an inner light in her. The sheer, childlike joy and wonder of her encounters replaced her sadness with magic and a sudden definitive wish to become a cetacean researcher. In that moment she would have stayed on Maui if she could; she wanted Dick to bring the cat and dog and move there immediately.

But, of course, she had to return home. Her first words to her husband on her return were “I wanna move to Maui and do whale research!” In response, Dick hung his head and shook it softly with the reply, “Whatever you want…” Peggy thinks he was so relieved to see her no longer crying every day that he would have agreed to anything.

Peggy began to research how she could pursue her new dream. She gave herself the modest timescale of five-ten years to work her way in to this very new world. She wanted to study a degree course in marine biology but there was not one in existence at the university near her, so instead she sat in on a class they offered. She remembers the other students, after having just eaten lunch, sitting with sleepy heads and disinterested attitude, while she sat leaning forwards from her chair with eager enthusiasm.

She phoned Debbie Ferrari, a researcher she had heard about on Maui, to enquire about volunteering. Debbie was not recruiting volunteers but recommended Peggy contact Dr. Dan Salden, director of the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation. Peggy duly emailed him but received no reply. A friend of Peggy’s told her about the Oceanic Society in Monterey Bay. They ran week long courses which students paid to go on and learn research techniques. In autumn 1996 Peggy went on the course and “stood out from the crowd”. On completion, the head researcher invited her to help as a volunteer on future trips. Peggy sent her CV and arranged to work for them the following autumn.

In January 1997 Peggy went to the ‘Whales Alive’ conference on Maui. There she was inspired by such figures as Flip Nicklin, Jim Darling, Paul Spong and Linda Weilgart. She had her CV in hand in the hope that she could give it to Dan Salden. While there she went whale watching on the Lahaina Princess. She recognised the female captain; it was the same one as when she had been to Maui the previous year. Peggy remembered that she had taken photos of her so, in her usual friendly way, Peggy got talking to her, offered to send her the photos and told her why she was on Maui. To Peggy’s surprise the captain, Jill Mickelsen, responded “Why don’t you give your resume to me, I’m the secretary treasurer of the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation.”

Peggy’s jaw dropped to the floor! What a startling coincidence. What’s more, Jill arranged for Peggy to meet the director of her whale watch company. He was interested in having a volunteer onboard his trips doing opportunistic research and interviewed Peggy for the job. She got it, but had to wait until the following January to start her research.

She returned to Michigan to work, then in autumn 1997 she volunteered with the Oceanic Society and in January 1998 she returned to Maui for 11 weeks to carry out the research. One whole year later in January 1999 she returned to Maui again, with her research data complete. She had correlated all photo’s and data in detailed and organised fashion and handed it in. She thinks this was the moment when Jill took her seriously. Up till now she had the distinct impression that she was undergoing a test to determine whether she was a “screaming tourist or deeply serious”.

Then came the fateful day (one of many) on the whale watch boat with Jill. Peggy had her CV with her in the hope of handing it to Dan Salden at the end of the day. At midday, the whale watch boat met Dan’s research boat to throw his team their lunch. Peggy asked “Is it OK if I put my resume in with the lunch?” Jill agreed and as lunch was thrown from one boat to the other she radioed Dan to say “There’s a little something extra in the lunch today for you to look at!”

And that was that. Dan called Peggy (yes, at last!), arranged to interview her and offered her a volunteer post with the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation. Peggy worked with them for ten years, spending about three months on Maui every year. In the autumn of each year she worked for the Oceanic Society in California and for the rest of the year she was in Michigan working in the landscaping business which her husband ran (in 2000 she sold her own business to him and worked as an independent contractor for him).

If Peggy had not gone to Maui in 1996 none of this may have happened. If she had not taken Jill’s photograph and then met her again, none of this may have happened. But most importantly, if she had not persevered this remarkable journey would certainly never have happened. It took Peggy three years to finally get Dan Salden to look at her CV. It took her own individual effort as a lone researcher on the whale watch boat on Maui, and a year of collating the data, to get herself taken seriously. It took a deep conviction that this was the right path for her and that she must not give up.

In 2006, at Dan’s suggestion and under the umbrella of the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation, Peggy applied for a permit to run her own research in Monterey Bay, California. And with that came the beginnings of Marine Life Studies.

But more about that next time…


5 thoughts on “Peggy Stap – from Maui to, almost, now

  1. Peggy is an “old” high school friend. So great to read about how she got started in whale research. Very interesting article!

  2. Glad you are enjoying it, hope you feel it captures the ‘essence of Peggy’. If you want me to include a quote from you about her in another post, send it to me via the contact page.

  3. Hey Doug, I’m glad you think so! I do too which is why I am writing this blog. Please spread the word if you can; my hope is that as many people as possible have the chance to get to know Peggy and two other conservationists I will be writing about. I feel very privileged to be writing their stories.

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