Ten Lessons I’ve Learned as a Female Marine Ecologist

This week’s post comes to us from Dr. Elizabeth M. Phillips (@nofutti) who has an amazing knack for distilling her Top 10 lessons into short vignettes big on entertainment!


Sampling a northern fulmar (they don’t really bite…that hard)

When you add up the days I’ve spent on a boat, it totals nearly a year and a half of my adult life. I’ve worked as a deckhand, educator, naturalist, observer, and scientist on boats big and small. I’ve learned something from each of my trips and from each person I’ve worked with – some in more amusing ways than others! Here are ten lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order:

1. The plastic clasps on your swimsuit are not trustworthy

“Pulling anchor in a strong current from the bow of a zodiac under a beating sun in the tropics is hard work. Having your bikini top pop off in the middle of a big heave makes you forget the heat and weight of the anchor pretty quickly!”


Pulling anchor in a strong current from the bow of a zodiac under a beating sun in the tropics is hard work. Having your bikini top pop off in the middle of a big heave makes you forget the heat and weight of the anchor pretty quickly! The little plastic clasp on the back of my top apparently could not withstand my effort working on the anchor. My top landed somewhere near my elbows, and I quickly wrapped my arms around myself to cover up and cried for help from the other two women in the boat with me. After nearly falling overboard with laughter, they tied the strap back together as best they could. Back at camp that bikini top was Zip Tied* onto me as tight as possible to keep me covered for the rest of the trip.

2. Safety gear is required for a reason

Safety gear – hard hats, close-toed shoes, gloves, eye protection – can be cumbersome and annoying when you’re out in the field handling fish, seabirds, sharks, and seals. It’s tempting to forego PPE and just get the job done. But having warm bird poop land directly in your eye and all over your face when swabbing a seabird’s cloaca for avian influenza is a pretty explicit reminder of why those goggles are important, so keep ‘em on!


The author with her hard hat and life jacket on, ready to work on deck

3. Food can make or break a trip

Anyone who’s been on a boat for more than a few days at sea knows the value of fresh food and a good cook. The longer you’re at sea, the less diverse your meals become. Some cooks are excellent meal planners and make creative dishes with what they can get their hands on. But more often than not, the menu on the boats I’ve worked on has consisted of a rotating selection of overcooked meat and potatoes slathered in butter and heavy cream (no vegetable in sight); PopTarts, unidentifiable lunch meat, and Mountain Dew for a week straight; coffee thicker (and blacker) than molasses; and many other concoctions that only a fisherman could love. So, the best bet is to always bring your favorite easy go-to snacks, chocolate, and instant coffee to tide you over ’til you get back to the dock.

4. A positive outlook makes a huge difference

I’ve slept in a kayak anchored with a Nalgene water bottle under the stars in Mexico, upright in a car in a Mustang suit at a marina in California, and in my wet deck gear on the floor of the galley on a fishing boat. I’ve been on a boat with a typhoon bearing down on us, had ticks crawl all over me while trying to sleep in the morning after working all night banding seabirds, and crossed the Columbia River bar in a small boat at ebb tide. All of these experiences are memorable not because they were terrible and scary (some of them were!) but because everyone involved made the most of the time by sharing stories, singing songs, and keeping everything in perspective to try and stay calm and trust that it would be okay.


The vast and seemingly empty (and beautiful) sea at sunset

5. It will be colder than you think it will be

Whether it’s rain, wind, saltwater spray from big waves, fog, or even just night time, being on the water can be chilly, even if it was hot on land. Have gloves, socks, and hats on hand, and bring lightweight layers that can block the sun and wind.

6. Baby wipes can make you feel like a new person

Whether you need to wipe fish scales off your arms and face, tame the stench of 5-day’s worth of sweat from your armpits, clean the dust or dried salt from your feet and ankles, or wash your nether regions…baby wipes are up for the challenge and feel oh so refreshing.

7. Seasickness is very real, and that’s okay

I used to think I never got seasick, and those that did were weak. I was naïve. The right combination of diesel exhaust fumes and a roly-poly boat in Monterey Bay taught me that seasickness spares no one. I empathize with anyone who has to deal with this regularly – it shouldn’t stop you from getting out on the water. Just be prepared with the right medicine, ginger chews, saltines, 7-Up, or whatever makes you feel better and hopefully you can ride it out and see the other side of a life at sea.

8. Life doesn’t stop when you’re in the field

Being in the field can be such a nice break from day-to-day life. Whether it’s unplugging from the internet and catching up on some good novels, journaling, creating art, or watching 10 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in the ship’s galley, being on a boat can be a refreshing respite from our seemingly overwhelming world. But sometimes major events – especially sports matches – are fun to witness and share with your fellow shipmates. I watched Senegal’s first appearance in the World Cup in 2002 on a boat with a very nervous and excited Senegalese cook. Pop culture seems to invade even the most remote places in the world, and sometimes it’s fun to just embrace it. I remember arriving to the ship’s bridge at dawn to start a survey and learning that Michael Jackson had died. We played his music the rest of the day and talked at length about the King of Pop. And sometimes, personal life finds it’s way to you no matter where you are. I found out that my grandpa had died in 2007 while standing on a dock in Guam, unable to get home in time for his funeral. But I got to talk to my Dad and cry and get hugs from people who would never have known anything about my family, but happened to be with me at that moment in time.

9. Your hands will get beat up

Saltwater has a way of ruining a lot of things. Any boater you meet knows how much time and energy goes into preventing corrosion. Working as a marine ecologist, my hands get wet and salty a lot when I’m in the field. If they aren’t washed and dried and moisturized often, they get cracked and red, and develop eczema and psoriasis, which can be pretty annoying and painful. I have to be vigilant with my hands to make sure I can use them for handling birds, identifying fish, grabbing instruments from the ocean, and generally just poking around in the water having fun. Also, animals bite the most tender parts of your body, wires cut skin easily, and nets and fishing line can scratch and abrade skin pretty badly – so, just protect those hands and the rest of your body as much as you can.


Conducting a survey for marine mammals and seabirds from the flying bridge of a ship on the Atlantic Ocean

10. If you want to see a whale…

“To me, the essence of a marine ecologist’s life can be summed up by the children’s book If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead (I have an almost 5 year old son so we’ve read this book a lot).”

To me, the essence of a marine ecologist’s life can be summed up by the children’s book If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead (I have an almost 5 year old son so we’ve read this book a lot). The gist of the book is to keep your eyes on the ocean, not get distracted, and wait, and wait, and wait… I’ve managed to spot some pretty rare creatures – a pygmy sperm whale, sei whales, a juvenile loggerhead turtle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a short-tailed albatross – when I was least expecting it by keeping my eyes focused on the seemingly vast and empty sea…waiting and watching…

I’m setting off on my next at-sea adventure in one week, to survey along the northwest coast of Greenland, and will be sure to report on any new lessons learned

*Zip Ties can come in handy for many, many things

Have insight you’d like to share? Join us on Twitter (#FemFieldSecrets and @FemFieldSecrets) to continue the conversation!

Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s