Peggy Stap – her present day life with Marine Life Studies

Finally we arrive at the present day! In 2006, after Dan Salden suggested that Peggy apply for her own permit to study whales, Marine Life Studies was born. In the years since, it has become an independent organisation staffed entirely by volunteers. Today, the organisation’s work encompasses three strands: research, conservation and education.

Here is a mini-tour through each strand…

Research

Peggy’s research focus is Killer Whales and she is fascinated by them. She is especially keen to study interspecies interactions, the prey preferences for different sub-groups of Orcas and how they utilise different areas in the bay. Peggy loves, absolutely loves, being out on the water photographing and collecting data on the animals. The photographs are used to create ID’s of individual animals. The accompanying data creates a picture of where in the bay the animals are, what their behaviour is and what interactions are occurring.

A researcher has to love sitting for long stretches of time in front of a computer analysing photos. Peggy gets completely absorbed in this task; she can spend an entire evening till gone 2am working on the 500+ photos she may have taken on any given day. She will become exuberantly excited over the dorsal fins in particular photos, exclaiming things like “Ooh, I think that may be CA 39!” (Researcher speak.)

Marine Life Studies shares its data with anyone who wants it. In particular Peggy shares it with other Orca researchers. In this way it is possible to see, for example, that an Orca pod generally resident to a particular part of west coast USA sometimes visits another part of the coast. Data and hydrophone recordings are shared with organisations and researchers writing scientific papers. Peggy is also keen for college students to use her data as the basis for their own research projects.

Conservation

For us normal folk, a question on our lips could be “What is the point of research? Does it just satisfy the needs of academics wanting to study something for the sake of it or does it serve a greater purpose?”

The importance of research in the context of conservation is that it supplies a piece of the puzzle which, when added to other pieces of the puzzle, enables effective conservation measures to be established. As Peggy says, “Research gives us a baseline measurement on which to measure things against. It tells us what the general trends are over time, whether the abundance of certain animals is on the increase or decrease, what food sources different animals depend on etc. Management strategies based on data are likely to be more successful than those with no baseline data.”

A specific conservation project which Marine Life Studies has been instrumental in establishing is W.E.T – Whale Entanglement Team. Prior to 2006 there was no formalised team operating within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Marine Life Studies began working towards establishing one in autumn 2006. Peggy wanted to create a coordinated team, with appropriate training, tools and boat, and a freephone number for the public to report animals in distress. In spring 2008, the first training was given and by spring 2009 a toll free number and public response card had been set up.

Education

Marine Life Studies carries out several educational programs with adults and children. The ‘Junior Research Scientist’ program focuses on educating children. Peggy and her volunteers work with children from local schools and the Boys & Girls Clubs. The children learn basic research techniques on land and then apply these techniques at sea on a whale watching boat.

Peggy strongly believes that understanding is crucial to help us protect our oceans:

“I hope we can give adults and children the opportunity to experience whales and dolphins in the wild and to be a part of their world. I was lucky enough to be given that opportunity. The more that people have the chance to know and experience the ocean first hand, the more environmental stewards are likely to be born. We have to help people see that the small things they do in their lives, like whether they use plastic bags and balloons, can make a huge difference.”

Dreams and challenges

Having accomplished so much in so many different areas, I asked Peggy what dreams she still has for Marine Life Studies. Not surprisingly she has a few:

She dreams of… having a coordinated whale entanglement team covering the whole western coast of USA. At present different areas have their own teams which are not linked together and do not have a unified phone number for the public. Peggy thinks it is particularly important to form a coordinated team to deal effectively with whales which migrate up and down the entire length of the coast.

She dreams of… being able to spend more days at sea. She currently spends between 20-50 days a year at sea, so her research constitutes a “very small piece of the jigsaw puzzle”. Peggy wants to spend 130 days per year at sea, and have a bigger boat which runs on biodegradable fuel, has an inside where you can get warm and dry, and a loo. At present her tiny research boat has no cover from the elements and no toilet; quite a challenge when you are spending up to 12 hours on the water zipped up tight in an all in one waterproof suit.

She dreams of… having more people to run the many jobs on land. In particular, she believes strongly that the organisation’s educational work must develop. For this to happen she needs to be able to pay for a full time education coordinator.

She dreams of… one day handing over Marine Life Studies to the next generation of conservationists. She is after all 56 years old and, although she has the energy of a 20-something, there may come a day when she has to slow down and spend some time relaxing with her husband.

There is so much that Marine Life Studies has accomplished and wants to accomplish in the future. When I asked Peggy what the main challenges were to achieving this the answer was obvious, “Money and manpower”. It is an unavoidable fact that every aspect of the organisation’s work requires financial resources. At present Peggy is lucky to have a pool of people willing to donate their time to her for free, but at the end of the day she is still personally attempting to do the work of ten people. Peggy has never applied for funding to pay herself and is not concerned with doing so. She would however love to have the resources to pay others to work for her full time, allowing her to spend her time out on the ocean where she feels most at home.

And that wraps up this post about the work, challenges and future ambitions of Marine Life Studies.

Next time: Peggy’s best bits! (or, her most memorable moments from her incredible life at sea…)

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