August 26, 2018

Photo: Emmett Johnston

Photo: Emmett Johnston


The hardest part of fieldwork is not braving the elements, fighting off nausea in rolling swells or sailing overnight through wind and fog. It’s not spending twenty-four hours traveling to and from your field site, fighting with security at two major international airports to convince them that your equipment really is for science (even as you admit to yourself that it does look a little suspicious). It’s not the long off-season with endless hours applying for (and being rejected from) grants to fund your study, or staring at your computer screen to try to figure out why your method of data analysis isn’t working. No – while I certainly look forward to most of these lovely tasks when I return stateside, I’ve decided that there is definitively one part of fieldwork that stands out as the most frustrating: the endless waiting.  

This field season has been a roller coaster of an experience. There have been weeks of complete bliss, sailing with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group and tracking blue sharks down in Cork. I’ve listened to traditional Irish music and fishing tales alike at pubs all over the country. I’ve strengthened relationships with old friends and formed new connections. I’ve seen sunfish, porpoises, dolphins, and whales. I’ve banded storm petrels and taken genetic samples from blue sharks, fished for mackerel with Ireland’s national angling team and learned how to navigate Malin Head at the helm of the Swilly Goose. I’ve camped on the island of Inishtrahull and sat at the most northerly point in all of Ireland. Every day on the water brought a sense of excitement and wonder, and there were moments, as the sun reflected on the green hills of Donegal and the waves turned an astonishing shade of blue, that I couldn’t quite believe it was all real.

The best science happens at kitchen tables . Photo: Emmett Johnston

The best science happens at kitchen tables. Photo: Emmett Johnston

Yet even as I reflect on all that I’ve taken away from this summer, I can’t help but notice that there is one significant part that is notably missing. In spite of the sunny weather and calm seas that characterized the early part of July, the basking sharks did not appear at Malin Head. I can’t say for certain that they simply weren’t there, lingering below the surface, and indeed, that’s a mystery I hope to unveil through my research. What I can say, however, is that we still have no way of knowing what exactly they do here when and if they are out of range of the human eye. As advanced as science has become in the last decade, we haven’t quite figured out how to tag an invisible shark. And while I’ve made a concerted effort to remain positive by familiarizing myself with the different types of wildlife that Ireland has to offer, I have not been immune to periods of immense frustration. There have been weeks of poor weather when I’ve sat at my computer for hours, analyzing sightings trends over the last twenty years to see potential environmental variables affecting basking shark movements in this area. I’ve read seven novels since I arrived, and taught myself signal processing analyses in anticipation for data I hope to collect. According to my phone, I’ve covered an average of five miles per day on foot as a result of my restless pacing along the waterfront, and I now have a favorite seat at every coffee shop in town. At face value, I recognize that these don’t seem entirely negative for being “downsides” of fieldwork. In fact, many would probably say that these activities would result in a fairly relaxing, productive summer. I don’t necessarily disagree – I’m grateful to have the opportunity to spend such a substantial amount of time in this amazing place. Perhaps it’s both the blessing and curse of being a researcher that the same purpose that brought me here is also leaving me slightly unfulfilled as this field season concludes. There’s undoubtedly one prevailing question that I’ll receive when I get back home, from both those who follow my journey and in my own mind.

What now?

Inishtrahull, the most northerly island in Ireland. 

Inishtrahull, the most northerly island in Ireland. 

Fortunately, at this stage in my career, the answer is still relatively straightforward. I have time to be patient, to reflect on these two years of unusual basking shark absence and think forward on how to take advantage of their presence when they do arrive. I’ll analyze existing data, write a few more grant applications, and return to Ireland in October to begin work on a new species, the giant flapper skate. I’ll stay in touch with everyone at the Irish Basking Shark Study Group and Queen’s University, Belfast, and together we will lay out a plan for the next three field seasons. There’s still plenty to look forward to in this particular research journey. Of course, all of this is assuming that the sharks will show up next season. Ultimately, however, whether the endless waiting will continue is entirely out of our control. Welcome to wildlife research.    

Thus far, my patience has yet to be rewarded. But it seemed appropriate that on our last day on the water at Malin Head, I had another philosophical moment that I hope will carry me through to next summer. I’ve had the privilege of having an oddly distinct sense of purpose since I was quite young. I think I was approximately twelve years of age when I learned the term “marine biologist,” and from that moment, through each progression of my life, my borderline-obsessive desire to become just that became even stronger. As I stood on the Swilly Goose in the late hours of the afternoon, watching the flopping dorsal fins of two small sunfish move just in front of our boat, I could only think about my younger self. I don’t think I ever could have predicted just how far years of cultivated passion would take me - where I would go, who I would meet, the lessons I would learn, the things I would see. Science can be challenging, the process riddled with obstacles, but I’ve found that adding a human element can provide meaning behind the research. For me, enjoying the full experience of my career means reminding myself just how lucky I am to be living my childhood dream.  



for the wonderful support in Ireland this field season: 

Emmett Johnston (IBSSG, QUB)
Dr. Jonathan Houghton (QUB)
Dr. Nick Payne (TCD)
Dr. Patrick Collins (QUB)
Dr. Tom Doyle (UCC)
Dr. Nann Fangue (UCD)
Dr. Damien Caillaud (UCD)
Dr. Pete Klimley
Rosemary Sweeney
Heather Vance
 Chelsea Grey
The Tullyarvan Mill Hostel
The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group
Queens University, Belfast
The Irish Basking Shark Study Group