Field Notes: The First of Many Lasts

As I pack up my car on a breezy August day, I take one last breath of the cool, ocean air filled with scents of sagebrush and eucalyptus, realizing that while this wouldn’t be my last trip to the Marin Headlands, this is the last time I will be collecting data for graduate school. 

Each spring and summer since 2015 I’ve gone to The Marine Mammal Center to research ways to improve the welfare and behavioral development of sick and injured seals, the first several years for my master’s research and since 2018 for my PhD. For some PhD students, collecting data could be something that fits into a weekly work schedule, perhaps when your study system is in a laboratory setting or when you work with local species or animals in on-campus facilities. However, for some folks, we must wait for our field seasons each year: concentrated time periods when our study species are exhibiting behaviors we are interested in (e.g., breeding season), where ecological conditions are optimal for answering research questions we are interested in (e.g., rainy season vs. dry season), or for me, when young, wild seals “strand” and require rescue and rehabilitation.

Home office view over the Rodeo Lagoon and The Marine Mammal Center perched up on the hillside.

Any kind of data collection schedule is time-consuming and tiring, however, because field seasons only come around every (you guessed it) season, additional pressure mounts since the time we have with our study species is fleeting. This results in a period where we eat, live, and breathe our research, finding few brain cells to focus on anything but getting. that. data. There is the possibility of having multiple field seasons within a PhD journey, however, for many of us, COVID threw off that groove in a major way. For example, I passed my QE (a.k.a. qualifying exam, a long, difficult oral exam that “qualifies” us as PhD candidates) in January 2020, because I wanted to begin collecting data in March, when harbor seal pups and elephant seal weanlings are more likely to be rescued and in need of rehabilitation and care. Datasheets were printed, enrichment devices were built, and momentum for the field season to begin screeched to a halt and the world shut down. Seals were still being rehabilitated but for health and safety, visitors and researchers outside The Marine Mammal Center volunteers and staff were unable to be on hospital grounds. Even in 2021, I had a limited field season because harbor seals and elephant seals are rehabilitated in separate areas by separate volunteer crews and thus I was quarantined to one part of the hospital, only able to collect data on harbor seals. 

Four years and only ½ of a field season’s worth of data collected made the 2022 field season an extremely high-stakes time period. This would be my one year to collect data for both study species and collect data for a full field season. The lead-up to my field season, which began when the first elephant seal pup was rescued on February 16, 2022, was like a perpetual tornado swirling in my head: triple checking my research to-do lists, my packing to-do lists, readjusting my research budget, updating contingency plans, training animal care volunteers on when to provide daily enrichment sessions, and how to use the feeding cues that were hooked up over each of the 13 research pens full of cackling elephant seals and cooing harbor seals.

Despite the exhaustion of data collection, I am always “slickered up” and ready to enrich seals!

Amid the swirling to-do list tornado, there were also bright moments of joy and excitement to 1) live in the Marin Headlands for 5 months, 2) work with a new species (elephant seals), and 3) be close to the ocean. But this intense mixture of emotions completely eclipsed any realization I had that this would be the season filled with many lasts in my PhD journey:

  • The last “first subjects”: Cone the elephant seal and Watson the harbor seal.
  • The last visit to Goodman’s ACE hardware in Mill Valley in search of a random PVC piece to reinforce an enrichment device.
  • The last day I would stay on site for 14 hrs to enter in data and help the volunteer crews.
  • The last rainy day I would be splashing around the pens, delivering enrichment devices to a mixture of aloof and curious seals. 
  • The last morning I would wake up to the sound of elephant seals and stellar sea lions echoing across the Rodeo lagoon. 
  • The last time my legs would accidentally get smacked by a poopy flipper or booped by a squishy snoot while pulling an enrichment device out of the pool.
  • The last drive I would take over the Golden Gate Bridge at 7am to get buckets of fish from the San Francisco wharf for my feeding trials, surrounded by sea birds hoping for a breakfast feast from a dropped bucket. 
  • The last fog horn I would wake up to that reminded me to bundle up despite it being the middle of summer.
  • The last walk through the corridors of the hospital on a quiet, sunny afternoon, peeking in on all the seals hauled-out dry and snoozing.
  • The last extravagant lunch with Wednesday’s harbor seal crew or last “beer-o-clock” tradition with topside’s Friday crew.
  • The last epic sunset from my cozy cottage on the hill overlooking the lagoon I would share with a mother deer and her two fawns in my “front yard.”
  • The last time I would watch my subjects get released back into the ocean, feeling pangs of pride and longing for them to make good decisions, much like a parent of a new college freshman.
Getting to see Cone, my first elephant seal subject be released was quite emotional. Make good choices, little buddy!

It really wasn’t until I began seeing more of my study seals get scheduled for release exams than admit exams that I realized I was experiencing the firsts of many lasts on my PhD journey. It is a surreal feeling that I don’t think, even 6 months post field season, I’ve fully processed. Sure, I still go to The Marine Mammal Center on a regular basis to double check data collected in the patient charts. And sure, I have a gabajillion hours of video footage to sift through and analyze, but that phase of my PhD and all the emotions tied to field seasons are officially finished. 

My five months with The Marine Mammal Center simultaneously dragged on forever and flew by with the blink of an eye, and even more dramatically, my five years of preparing and executing these field seasons also dragged on and flashed by. The concept of time gets real funky when you’re in your PhD and your memory can get warped by constant experimental troubleshooting and data collecting priorities. So, if I could leave a piece of advice for future researchers, it is that as much as you document everything research related during your field season, don’t forget to document highlights and even low points that you personally experienced during that season because what may feel like a blur while you are in it, will become some of the most cherished memories of your PhD in retrospect.

I got to  know the salty fishers at the San Francisco Wharf and all their feathered “co-workers” when I went to pick up bait fish.

Karli Chudeau is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and a part of the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute. She is interested in conservation management and improving animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation settings. Her current research examines how we can use behavioral management interventions, such as environmental enrichment, to improve reintroduction success with pinnipeds. She is also an avid ocean nerd.

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