Two hundred miles out to sea, Tonie Chute checks that she is tethered securely to her research vessel and then goes to the deck's edge to help guide an 800-pound sampling net into the water. The net's fine mesh traps the tiny plankton, samples of which Chute and other marine biologists will analyze in the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory back on shore as they investigate the effects of global warming on fish populations.
"I chose this work because I wanted to be outside and get really dirty, something I try to remember when I'm cold and frightened," said Chute. The job has a surprising element of romance in it, such as being able to witness every ocean sunset and sunrise when her schedule calls for her to sleep during the day and work at night.
When the candidate pool loves a tide pool?
The National Marine Fisheries Services, headquartered near Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit organization that works to conserve, protect, restore, and mitigate damage to ocean resources, including sea species and their habitats. Biologists perform fieldwork at sea, and sometimes write and implement conservation plans for improving the ocean under federal environmental protection laws.
Typically, a biologist for the organization will have a degree in biology, agriculture, natural resource management, or chemistry. Often, would-be marine biologists major in biology at college, then get master's degrees or PhDs in marine biology.
"People who want to be marine biologists have fun studying small creatures," said Chute. "They are the kids you always saw down exploring at the beach." Chute's favorite subjects in college? Statistics and taxonomy (the classification of animals).
Talk about the weather
Five times a year, for two weeks at a time, Chute boards a 200-foot boat with 30 other people. Fifteen of them are fellow scientists, such as biologists or oceanographers, and all of them join the boat's crew in taking "watches," which are evenly divided periods of work and rest.
The system works well as long as the weather cooperates, enabling the researchers to collect data on ocean currents or samples of living animals such as plankton; but it comes up short when a storm hits. Not only are waves 15 to 20 feet high, but also, 30 potentially seasick and definitely irritable scientists stuff themselves into the vessel's tiny cabin and wait for the weather to clear. "The horrible parts are that it really stinks in there and everybody's bored," said Chute.
Seasickness and landsickness
For those without "sea legs," a trip can be torture no matter what the conditions. The boat pitches enough during good weather that working on board ship with a microscope is impossible. In bad weather, those who have failed to take "super drugs" can find themselves horribly motion-sick. "It's a mistake people only make once," Chute said.
Chute has never had a problem with seasickness, but once back on land she endures 36 hours of immediate nausea and has a tendency to fall out of her shower or tip over in her office corridor until the landsickness wears off. "You're washing your hair as usual, and all of a sudden the shower seems to rear up and dump you on the floor," she said.
Carrying out scientific research at sea is hard physical labor with heavy equipment, and even a moment of inattention can be dangerous. Chute and a colleague were nearly washed overboard on an ostensibly calm day last year. They had dashed out to do a quick chore on deck when the boat suddenly turned sideways to the swells. Within seconds the boat had started to rock violently and freezing water began to crash over the two women, neither of whom had on her safety tether.
"For some reason I just looked over my shoulder and saw this wall of foam almost on top of us," said Chute. "I grabbed something and held on as tightly as I could. My friend grabbed this ax attached to the boat, and the strength of the wave ripped it off the wall and threw her across the deck still clutching it." The end of this adventure? Chute got into her bed and stayed there for the rest of the day.
For all the excitement, the salaries are modest (about $35,000) and jobs are grant-funded, which means career stability depends on the success of grant applications for projects that last as long as five years. Still, being able to work with other scientists, many from foreign countries, on cutting-edge projects is why Chute loves her job. "I get paid to ask 'what does this data mean' and I get paid to do. I can't imagine any other career."
If you love the beach and think you could learn to love statistics, then study biology, fasten your safety harness?and dream on!
National Marine Fisheries Services