Photograph courtesy Eric Patterson
Birthplace: Boulder, Colorado
Current City: Washington, D.C.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Ever since I was a little boy, I always knew I wanted a career that allowed me to work with animals. At first, I wanted to be a veterinarian or work in a zoo, but after a few internships in college, I realized I needed to surround myself with wild, healthy animals, rather than captive or sick ones. Ever since then I have been pursuing a career in wildlife biology.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I studied biology in college and decided my junior year that I wanted to eventually pursue a Ph.D. After I graduated, I took a year off to figure out where I wanted to go for graduate school and what programs would work best for me. Everything fell into place at Georgetown University and I have been going to Australia to study dolphins ever since.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to dolphins?
Dolphins are somewhat mysterious creatures. They have large brains, long life spans, extended maternal care, and are very social creatures so similar to us in many ways, yet dolphins are mammals that live their entire life at sea. It's this similarity and stark contrast that forever fascinates me about dolphins. The world they live in is one we can barely imagine, but I think very worthwhile to explore.
What's a normal day like for you?
Normal days while in the field and back at home are very different, as one can imagine. In the field, our life is governed by the elements. That means waking up at sunrise and heading down to the shore to check the weather conditions. If it's too windy to go out on the water, we tend to things on shore like entering data, cleaning house, caravan maintenance, etc. If it's nice enough to go out on the water, we head out as fast as we can and stay out until the weather turns for the worse or the sun sets. When on the water we are either aboard our vessel searching for dolphins, recording data, or diving below, collecting environmental data.
Back at home is when we make sense of it all and plan for the next season. So that means figuring out who is who, entering all data into our extensive 25-plus-year database, coding video, and finally analyzing our data and making sense of our results so we can publish. Then it's on to the next item, as usually the more research we do, the more questions we have rather than answers.
Do you have a hero?
I don't really have a hero per se nor idolize anyone in particular but I do admire people who follow their passions in life, no matter what the cost. It's extremely important to be happy with what you do, regardless of the time or effort it takes to get there and of the monetary reward at the end, so anyone that follows his or her heart is a hero to me.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
The most challenging yet rewarding aspect of my research is diving. My first two years of field research were entirely observational, meaning I collected behavioral data on dolphins by observing them above water. While this topside aspect of my research is invaluable, diving below the water to assess the world the dolphins encounter day in and day out provides a whole new perspective and really completed the picture for me. However, diving in Shark Bay is extremely challenging, especially in the locations of my dive sites. Shark Bay is fairly cold in the winter, not your typical reef diving, and the channels where dolphins prefer to sponge forage have extremely strong currents, making it nearly impossible to even stay still, let alone swim forward when the current is at its peak. As such, dive data collection was certainly the most physically taxing aspect of my research.
What are your other passions?
Beyond my research, family comes first, including pets. The people and animals I share my life with make it all worth it. I come from a fairly large family and we try to see each other as often as possible and make it a point to stay up to date on each others' lives.
What do you do in your free time?
In my free time I enjoy spending time with family and friends, especially my yellow Lab, Belle. I really prefer to be outdoors, so that means kayaking, hiking, running, riding, snowboarding, etc. I also really enjoy live music and try to catch as many concerts as I can, although often fewer than I would like.
If you could have people do one thing to help reduce the human impact on the planet, what would it be?
I would ask people to think about the type of world they want to live in and take every step they can to make the world that way. This simple thought can go a long way. It doesn't only apply to recycling and reducing our waste and energy consumption, but also to how we treat our neighbors, animals, and everything we share this planet with.
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