Research and Conservation

Lessons Learned in the Field

During the summer of 2017, I worked as a field technician for the Cape Breton Pilot Whale Project (CBPWP), founded by members of the Whitehead Lab at Dalhousie University to study the social structure and vocalizations of long-finned pilot whales of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I was to spend two months with my friend and fellow researcher in the aptly named community of Pleasant Bay, and I could not wait to get started! I was looking forward to spending every possible day on the water – a dream job – taking pictures, collecting data, and learning about these exceptionally charismatic odontocetes.

After an exhausting, nearly 6-hour long drive, we finally made it to Chéticamp, where we met up with field supervisor and number one mamma-whale Elizabeth Zwamborn, who would be training us for the first week of the field season. After that, we would be on our own! At that point it was already dark, and we still had a 50-minute drive to make across the Highlands to get to our destination. My first impression of the National Park was a dark, unmarked road (there was construction work happening for a good part of the way) drowning in thick fog, with just the red of Elizabeth’s tail lights to guide me.

When at last our cars pulled to a stop, we were alone on the side of a dirt road, with seemingly nothing but woods around us. Even armed as we were with flashlights, we could barely pierce the charcoal darkness to find the path that lead to our humble lodgings. This was it, our big Welcome Home for the season! We quickly brought our stuff inside, unpacked the sleeping bags, and tucked in for the night. It wasn’t until next morning that I finally got a look at the board-and-batten cabin that would be my home for the season.

It’s easy, in the comforts of a well-heated, electrically-lit office, with running water and a coffee maker, to cosily hatch plans for your next field season. Distances look shorter, methods seem simpler, and the prospect of a summer outdoors sounds positively thrilling. But fast-forward to the first week on fieldwork – a summer that’s surprisingly windy, expensive equipment you’re not sure how to operate, and the surprising challenge of actually finding whales (you’d think something that large would be hard to miss, and you world be WRONG) – and suddenly your carefully-crafted plans seem to crumble before your very eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE field work! I daydream about it all winter, and I obsess over my packing list for months in advance. But if you want to learn about the natural world first-hand, then you have to be prepared for it all: the good, the bad, and especially the ugly!

I have now spent three summers as a field researcher/technician at the labs where I did my Honor’s, and where I am now working on my Master’s, in addition to some previous experience from volunteer work, field trips and the like. During this time I learned some valuable lessons, many of them the hard way. Here are some of them.

Science happens, despite the weather.

This is something I always knew, but did not fully realize until I experienced it first-hand. Being outside on a warm, sunny day is grand, but having to deal with wind, rain and the bitter cold can be both physically and emotionally taxing. My first experience tagging herring onboard an off-shore fishing vessel took place on what the captain described as the “roughest day of the season”, but there was no turning back, and I had to quickly figure out how to do a precise surgery with the ground rolling underneath my feet. Oh and did I mention all of this was happening at 1am?

tagging setup aboard a fishing vessel

Even good weather can get exhausting when you spend the entire day outside. Fieldwork is not your typical sitting in the shade/hanging out at the beach/eating ice cream kind of day; it is often hard, and uncomfortable, and you have no way out of it until the work is complete. When I did my field season in Cape Breton I had to work two weeks in a row, 3 trips a day, before the wind finally picked up enough for the next trip to be cancelled. And while I had come prepared, I cannot deny the relief I felt to finally get a day off.

Despite the challenges, I really do love my work, and I believe in the importance of what I do. That’s why, every summer, I inevitably find myself in the field, blistering in the sun or freezing under the pelting rain, knee-deep in mud and eaten alive by bugs. It took a few hard-learned lessons, but I know what to expect now. I love what I do, and I come prepared to do it, regardless of the weather. But being prepared is key – once the work starts, there are no excuses. Sometimes you have to be outside in open spaces, with very little reprieve from elements, so investing in good gear is crucial! Nothing like having to sit in wet clothes all day to make you regret not bringing that good old rain suit!

Back up your data!

Every researcher has their horror story: computer crashed, USB key was lost, field book got washed overboard, hours – if not years – of hard work tragically lost. We are all warned about this during our studies, yet somehow, inevitably, we all end up making the same mistake.

packed up and ready to go!

Researchers already face a myriad of challenges, including logistical and travel hurdles, dangerous weather, uncooperating animals, impenetrable forests, and thorny local politics. The last thing you need is to have all of your hard-earned data wiped by some stupid computer bug. There are ways to recover most hard drives after a crash, but this can get quite expensive, and is not always possible, so backing up your documents to an external drive or cloud-based storage is the best way to make sure that your data is safe. But don’t sit there being all smug, go and check your back up! Better yet, make multiple backups – it never hurts to be too careful.

“Every hard drive will eventually fail, it’s just a matter of time.”

Jeff Giacomelli

When working with data, I like to make several copies even before I start making any changes, so that I always have an original version to go back to. Datasets are often messy, and require several rounds of processing before they can be used for analysis; this can include modifications like removing unwanted observations, fixing structural errors, and sorting. But what if you make a mistake and accidentally delete/change legitimate values? Having an original, untouched file ensures that you don’t loose data as a result of “housekeeping”.

Working with people is hard… and important.

taking a break from building gear on a hot day

Seriously, this is really important! If you think a 9-5 work day in the office is too much time  to spend with some people, imagine sharing not only working but also living quarters – like a bunk bed or tent – for several consecutive months.  There’s nothing like 24/7 fieldwork to bring out interpersonal problems and strain professional relationships.

My first field season was with a friend I met the year before while doing a training course for scientific diving. We got along really well, but even being dive buddies could not fully prepare us for that experience. A research colleague is not just a roommate – you do everything together, all day, every day, for the whole season. This kind of set-up is really common for field researchers, especially when working in remote places or on a tight budget. Living in a small space means you are going to be in each other’s “bubbles” quite often, so learning to communicate becomes KEY to having a productive and enjoyable field season.

Depending on your field of research, you might also have to spend time with people of a very different mindset, working on a different side of the same issue. Local residents, corporation agencies, and policy makers can all have something to say, and although it can be infuriating, learning to listen to and consider their opinions is crucial to building connections. As much as many scientists would like to be able to do everything themselves, no one (nope, not even you!) can accomplish everything on their own. Field scientists often depend on the support of locals and political groups in order to gain access to certain areas, set up well-equipped outposts, or even collect data. Collaboration is critical to innovation; particularly as new technologies require increased cross-functional work between researchers in different disciplines. Good relationships with local communities ensure continued support through years of research, and help inspire public interest in the work being done. It’s also a great way to make new friends and learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes!

At the end of the day, I am thankful for every new person I meat along the way. Learning to work together is a journey within ourselves, teaching us what the other needs, how they express it, and how to compromise.

Making tough choices for the greater good

As I mentioned in my first post, doing what is best for the natural world often requires making difficult decisions. While films like Blue Planet indulge us all in the guilt-free admiration of the natural world (lulled by Sir David Attenborough’s beautiful voice), the true nature of conservation is a lot more controversial.

Alewife run on the Gaspereau River

When I work on the Gaspereau river in the Annapolis Valley, I sometimes encounter chain pickerel and smallmouth bass, both of which were artificially introduced to Nova Scotian lakes in the 1940s for the benefit of anglers, but have now become invasive. These species transform freshwater ecosystems by rapidly consuming small-bodied fish and out-competing native predators. Unfortunately, tackling invasive species often requires intensive eradication efforts. If we came across a smallmouth bass or chain pickerel while collecting our samples, we do not release them back into the environment.

Generally I consider all life beautiful, and feel very uncomfortable about killing animals unless they are being used for sustenance, especially considering the current rate of human-caused extinctions – after all, it’s not the fishes’ fault we introduced them to new environments in the first place! Forced eradication is the rage-inducing kryptonite of the idealistic, animal-loving enthusiast within me, but one I am forced to confront if my main goal is to do good science. I have to remember that invasive species can be devastating to fragile habitats, and their management is important tool for biodiversity conservation.

There is a lot of pressure as a researcher to do the right thing, and a lot of emotional conflicts associated with the realization that most ecological issues are the direct result of human action. Eradication certainly has a role to play in conservation, yet it’s a huge multifaceted problem. Not all situations will be the same, and the balance between conservation vs. eradication can vary across species and environments. The most effective management and restoration approaches focus on maintaining the health of ecosystems while minimizing human interference, making changes at a slow rate that enables wildlife to adapt.

Stop and smell the roses.

Sturgeon tagged at Bramber weir, waiting for high tide.

Fieldwork has its ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s good to take the time to appreciate the beautiful nature around you. One of the things I love most about fieldwork is the opportunity to discover new places, and that doesn’t necessarily mean exotic ones (although I love that too!); fieldwork has taken me all over my own backyard, and showed me places that, although close, I might not have visited otherwise.

Minas Basin at low tide

Given the chance for adventure, I always want to rise to the challenge, arduous as it may be, because I know it will be worth it. I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunities I did, and every new field season to me is a like a gift. I love it for the people I meet, the places I discover, and for the opportunity to connect with nature and to see things in their original context. Watching animals in a laboratory or a book isn’t like seeing them outside.

“The complex authenticity of natural settings complements the controlled precision of lab work”

Gabriel Miller

The life of a field researcher is far from the glamorous, swashbuckling adventures of pop culture scientists like Indiana Jones, but it is no less rewarding. Fieldwork is a lot of work, but I’ll always be back up for another go, as soon as the opportunity arises!


Marine biologist, nature enthusiast, and artist on a mission to promote ocean education and conservation 🌊

You may also like...

1 Comment

  1. […] Read more about the lessons I learned in the field. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.