CALL ME ISHMAEL
JULY 23, 2018
Whenever I’m at sea, I like to think. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, or maybe it’s the simple fact that I have nothing to do but let my mind wander. Either way, I tend to find immense clarity when I’m on the water. For the past week I’ve had the chance to indulge in this philosophical side for hours on end, onboard the sailing vessel Celtic Mist as she traveled along the western coast of Ireland. And for some reason, more often than not, I found myself thinking about my mom.
My mother wonders a few things about me. First among these is how she ended up with a daughter whose greatest joy in life comes from seeking out the “monsters” of the ocean around the world (sorry, Mom, that’s a hard one to explain). In close second are the lengths I will go to do so. These often include enduring periods of tremendous discomfort and voluntarily placing myself in potentially dangerous situations. Over the course of this past week, I've alternated between scoffing at her bewilderment and wondering if perhaps, sometimes, it had a rational foundation.
After we wrapped up the Coastal Explorer’s program a few weeks ago, Emmett and I decided to bide our time until we got word from fishermen and local shark-spotters that the basking sharks had returned to Malin Head. Fortunately for me, that period coincided with a unique opportunity to somehow spend more time at sea. I had been asked to serve as the senior scientist onboard Celtic Mist as she traveled from Derry/Londonderry down to Galway, the last leg of her research expedition in Iceland. Celtic Mist is owned and operated by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG). As it turns out, the seas in this part of the world host much more beyond the basking sharks I had come to study. Nearly one-third of the world’s known cetacean species (whales, dolphins, porpoises) have been recorded in Irish waters, and in 1991, the Irish government declared all Irish waters to be a whale and dolphin sanctuary. The IWDG was formed in 1990 to monitor these animals and generate support for their protection. It has since become Ireland’s leading marine conservation NGO (non-governmental organization).
I had actually heard of the group through their contributions to the basking shark sighting scheme around Ireland. That is why on Monday, July 16, I threw my bag onboard the deck of the Celtic Mist and made myself comfortable in my tiny bunk, preparing for a week at sea. I was joined on this trip by four younger students from Buncrana and the surrounding area, as well as skipper Patrick Hartigan and first-mate Noel Bright. Both senior crew members had sailed with IWDG previously, but the rest had no real sailing experience. I found myself somewhere in the middle, having spent ten days on a tall ship during my time with the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies program in 2014. Of course, that trip took place in Puerto Rico and I was anticipating slightly different weather conditions here. Needless to say, my supply of Dramamine (seasickness medication) came in handy more than once, and it was directly correlated with the number of times my mother’s voice entered my head.
Sailing, even in the best conditions, is not for the faint-of-heart or the adamantly inflexible. At one point on Celtic Mist, we faced two-meter (six-foot) swells and over twenty knot (approximately 25 mph) winds, and anchoring actually became more dangerous than sailing on through the night. For reference, these conditions would be considered “moderate” among experienced sailors. On another occasion, our engine (which we relied on more than the sails for this trip) simply ceased to run. We had to be towed to the nearest port, and didn’t arrive until near midnight. We frequently made dinner preparations on deck instead of in the galley, because the younger members of the crew experienced severe seasickness when going down below. And of course, the whales only made their brief appearances when we were preoccupied with any and all of the above.
As with most things, however, the lowest lows were accompanied by the highest of highs. There’s nothing quite like sitting on the bow when the sun finally emerges. The coast of Ireland glows green on your port side and the horizon stretches for miles on your starboard. I spent hours with the binoculars scanning the waters for a fluke or a spout, becoming occasionally distracted by the ghostly outlines of jellies in the dark blue below the ship. Pods of common dolphin would emerge out of nowhere and ride along our bow, and gannets and the occasional puffin could be seen floating at the surface. Minke whales popped up amidst the traffic of ferry boats in the harbors through which we passed. Perhaps what I love most about sailing, however, is the camaraderie. I shared these experiences with others who, though of different backgrounds, possessed the same respect and fascination with the sea and its creatures. And societal norms and social pressures largely don’t exist - you can easily pass the hours sitting in silent contentment with almost total strangers or huddling together in the main cabin as rain pours down outside.
This same camaraderie extends well beyond those onboard your same vessel, applying to the sailing community at large. Of course, you can imagine this would be particularly true in Ireland, where the atmosphere is already more friendly and hospitable than almost anything else I’ve experienced. One of my favorite memories is of the night we arrived at Arranmore Island to anchor. We had gone onshore for a much needed visit to the local pub, where we met three Irish fishermen sailing from London to Scotland. By the night’s end, they had made their way onboard our ship, carrying a guitar and a bottle of whiskey. Then, as the sun went down, two of our youngest crew members, perhaps the quietest thus far, regaled us with some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard, harmonizing through song after Irish song. As a scientist, it can be easy to get lost in a world where your worth is defined by a tangible result: a paper, a data set, a clean conclusion. Yet these are the moments that remind you that the process can give you purpose.
More details of the trip, from the weather to the wildlife, can be found in my piece for the IWDG. But to conclude, as I reflect on this past week with Ireland’s cetaceans and prepare to return to my shark searching, I’ve decided my mom’s concern for me as I pursue this career is largely reasonable. Even I will admit that the Ishmael life is not for everyone. However, these experiences also make me realize just how grateful I am to have a mother who lets me go.
Special thanks to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group for providing me with this experience, and to the crew onboard the Celtic Mist for making it so enjoyable: Patrick Hartigan, Noel Bright, Erin McMenamin, Austin Ramsey, Niamh O'Raw, and Eadaoin O'Raw.
Photo credit to: Noel Bright, Erin McMenamin, Austin Ramsey, Niamh O'Raw, and Eadaoin O'Raw.