Bliss and responsibility (with whales on the side)

Moving on… To a little something more about Peggy Stap, Marine Life Studies, Monterey Bay, killer whales, almost-but-not-quite capsizing, chasing strange smelling oily slicks and being soaking wet for hours on end.

As you may know if you have been reading my last few meandering posts, I recently returned to Monterey Bay to be reunited with Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies (MLS) and her beloved dog, Whiskie the Whale Spotter.

I first met Peggy a year and a half ago when I spent a month living in her home, assisting with her research and writing about her life. As friends warned her at the time, “It’s a risk having a stranger stay in your home for a month!” But, Peggy had a good feeling about it and, love and gratitude, luckily enough she was right and we became good friends. If you read the previous post you will know that I consider Peggy to be a Fool, (a compliment indeed when you know the context), and she is probably the one woman in the world most able to make me laugh until my whole body crumples to the floor in exhaustion.

Staying with her again this April felt like a home coming… even though she has moved house. And seeing as her new home is like a tree house, (one in which Whiskie drapes herself luxuriously onto every comfy chair, rug or bed available), I felt instantly relaxed and back in touch with the natural world.

Peggy’s new office has a window and is not quite so full of jumbled work stuff as her last one; rather than looking like a space in which a humpback has breached, this one looks more like a few playful dolphins have frolicked lightly in it. It is here that Peggy still spends much of her time. Although she is desperate to be on the water more and behind a desk less, the reality of running a research / conservation / education organization makes this a hard wish to manifest.

For anyone who has followed this blog on and off for the last year and a half, you may remember how Peggy diverged from a life of wildly varying jobs into the world of whale research at the tender age of forty, after an emotionally powerful encounter with humpbacks in Hawaii. You may also remember how she gained her research post with the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation (HWRF) by an unorthodox presentation of her resume wrapped up in a packed lunch thrown from the whale watch boat to HWRF’s research boat. And how, after working for HWRF for nearly ten years, she established MLS in 2006 and has since combined research with conservation and educational initiatives.

Today, as ever, her central passion lies in studying whales. Although humpbacks are her first love, killer whales come in close second and it is transient orcas which have become her main research subjects. (Remember, resident orcas are NOT resident in Monterey Bay and offshore orcas do not enter the bay often!)

This spring, unlike when I visited last year, Peggy had enough funding to launch her own boat, nicknamed Sweet Pea. This tiny 19 foot boat shares its nickname with Peggy’s husband Dick, which can become a wee bit confusing when you overhear one of Peggy’s phone conversations, something along the lines of “Hey Sweet Pea, we are setting out to sea on Sweet Pea today”. I was really fortunate to meet Dick this year, (he was away for all of my stay last year). Although Peggy describes him as quiet and keeping himself to himself, he is the most lovely, gentle, genuine-hearted, intelligent and thoughtful man. Dick is the kind of person you can sit down with, having no idea of what you might talk about, and then set sail into the most gloriously stimulating of conversations that crosses several thought provoking subjects and still finds its way home again in a coherent manner.

As I unpacked in my lovely bedroom that was to be a home away from home for two weeks, I mused over something which I had not considered before meeting and writing about marine conservationists, but which now caught my attention often.

Namely; what are the similarities and differences between researchers who study, say, the universe, and those who study animals? The similarities are probably obvious. They both do what they do because they are endlessly interested in and curious about their subjects… They have that particular trait of mind and character that finds the tiniest details fascinating and the patience to do both the exciting and mundane work to explore their subject further… They are drawn to their subjects so intensely that they want to devote their entire lives to learning more about them… Their desire to learn, to uncover the secrets, to probe ever deeper is infinite…

But what of the differences? There may be many, but what stands up above the rest for me is that star gazing scientists are not expected to save the universe, whereas many animal researchers must accept the daunting task of attempting to protect as well as study their research subjects.

Just imagine for a moment that you have found your passion, you have discovered what many people never discover in a lifetime, namely your ‘bliss’; that thing that makes your heart sing and which you know beyond any doubt you will devote the rest of your life to pursuing… You have a researcher’s mind with a researcher’s drive to study and learn… Being a researcher gets you out of bed with a smile on your face each day… You cannot wait to be on the water, feeling at one with the natural world around you, waiting for your first sighting of the day that may teach you something more than you knew yesterday about the animals you are studying…

But… part of what you learn as you research is that all is not necessarily well. There are huge problems presenting themselves for your attention; the most enormous challenges that your research subjects are facing. Little by little you become witness to the devastating consequences of mankind’s activities…

In the face of that, what do you do?

The answer is inevitable and simple. You attempt to do what you can to protect the animals that you study and to safeguard their home… You attempt to educate others to do likewise because you know that it will require a major effort from the majority rather than the minority to turn devastating consequences into healthy ones… Your life is suddenly full of three careers rather than just one; researcher, conservationist/campaigner and educator!

This is the reason why Peggy spends most of her day on land rather than out at sea. This is why Stefan and Nina of Mundo Azul in Peru put aside dolphin research and attempted to eradicate the illegal dolphin trade there. This is why Laurie of GMWSRS in Canada initiated a harbour porpoise release scheme and devotes so many extra hours to educational work.  This is why there are so many others dotted around the world, working with tiny amounts of funding, or no funding at all, all attempting to create a tiny impact that may ripple outwards to produce even greater, positive results.

It is not surprising that the majority of Peggy’s work still takes place on dry land; designing public education leaflets, implementing educational workshops and coordinating the Whale Entanglement Team. An astronomer may be able to gaze at the sky all day long (well, all night long), but a marine mammal researcher has to become, as I recall Laurie naming it, a “juggler”, and a master one at that.

Before I met Peggy, Stefan and Laurie last year, I believe I had a mostly unconscious, rather judgmental view of researchers. I did not get it. I subconsciously thought that researchers were being self-indulgent. In the face of our ongoing destruction of the natural world, how could anyone be so selfish as to want to study animals when they should be out there saving them?!

Now, I am glad to say, I understand better. I know that one of the rarest achievements in life is to discover your bliss and follow it. If your bliss is to be a researcher, of any subject, then it is a brave undertaking to embark on pursuing it. If you are fortunate enough to have a research subject not under threat from mankind’s misguided endeavors, then you can research to your heart’s content. But, if like Peggy and many others, you study animals, it is likely that your very passion for research is what will drive you to become a committed conservationist.

Marine mammal researchers may not all have an honest, well-intentioned love for the animals they study. Some are ego-bound and wish simply to become the respected star of their profession. This is the case in any arena of human endeavor. But, for those who strive with good intention, they take on extra multiple tasks with altruistic motives, tasks which they may not feel comfortable or equipped for doing, and carry out work that would normally require ten people to complete.

Now, whenever my thoughts turn to all the researchers turned conservationists and educators out there in the world, I feel inspired to humbly express my admiration and gratitude, and to acknowledge that we are all indebted to their dedication beyond any call of duty.

Well, these musings may not have all taken place as I unpacked my bags at Peggy’s this Spring, but I am grateful for my stay there to have helped me become more conscious of them and, hopefully, more coherent about them.

Anyway, did I not write something about getting wet, capsizing (almost), and strange oily slicks, at the start of this post? I guess my words have flowed down a slightly different course, but I have not totally forgotten. So, the recounting of those adventures will form the basis of my next post and I would be honored if you choose to come back again soon to read more.

For now, to complete this post, I would like to mention that Dan Salden, director of HWRF, recently passed away. I did not know him, but Peggy certainly did and I would like to offer up her words in remembrance of him:

“HWRF is like a huge extended family. I feel so fortunate to be part of that family. I volunteered for 8 yrs before I flew on my own. Just like a father who has given their child the tools to make it on their own, you helped me realize my dream of getting into research after I first saw a humpback whale in 1996. Then you told me I should apply for my own permit in monterey, which I would never have done if you had not suggested it.

I want you to know how much you mean to me and how much I appreciate all your help along the road we have traveled together. I hope to create a wonderful legacy in my lifetime that you have done in yours. You have made such an impact not only for the people you have inspired along the way, but the animals as well, including the wolves, whales and dolphins. You should be very proud.

I am so glad our paths crossed and we have journeyed together. I have so much respect for you Dan and lots of love and gratitude for everything you helped me achieve. Your legacy will live on not only with the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation but also with Marine Life Studies here in Monterey.”

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One thought on “Bliss and responsibility (with whales on the side)

  1. Pingback: On love and other such unfathomables | Amanda Banks

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