This question floated around the field station just a few days after my arrival, sparking both awe and excitement in the eyes of my housemates. “Believe it or not, I haven’t” I would respond, to which an amusing “Well, you’ve come to the right place” would encourage a series of laughter and jokes that carried through the evening. They weren’t wrong though, I had in fact come to the right place—a place I had dreamed of being for years after starting my collegiate career. Little did I know the days ahead would be some of the most magical I had ever experienced.
I was ten years old when I decided I wanted to spend my life studying whales. Inspired by a 5th grade research project I conducted on the whaling industry, I knew that one day, in some capacity, I was going to make a difference. I began writing letters to government officials, drafted a few petitions, and attempted to land interviews with news channels as a young, motivated “activist”. Few of my efforts made any headway, but the responses I did receive fueled my passions up until I made it to college. Being a first-generation student, this was a huge moment in my life—one I had anticipated since the age of ten. I was finally going follow through with what I had set out to accomplish all those years ago—everything was going to come full circle. Of all the places I could have ended up to study marine science, I found myself at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. You’re probably thinking “Texas? Really?” Well, me too, initially. Being a Texas native, it was home to many things close to my heart, and to my surprise a research lab full of whale people! I quickly found my place here, gaining incredible experience and familiarity with the field. Although I spent most of my undergraduate career studying the physiology of these beautiful beasts in the lab, one thing was still missing—I still had yet to actually see a whale. That was until the day all of my childhood dreams began to come true—the day I learned I would be coming to Alaska.
So many things filled my head leading up to the day I arrived at the Alaska Whale Foundation field station in Warm Springs. On the one hand, I was going to be stationed for an entire summer in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, finally getting to study the giants that had my heart for more than half my life in their natural habitats. On the other hand, I’ve spent most of my life having never left Texas, not venturing too far from home for that matter! Pushing past my anxious nerves, I packed my bags, boarded the plane, and found myself quite literally living in a dream. Everything I had worked for, everything I had set out to achieve in life, was finally falling into place.
When the day finally came, the day I got to see my first whale, there was a calmness in the air. We had spent the morning at the salmon hatchery anticipating their arrival, to which they never showed. I figured it was my luck that my first day in the field they chose to spend their day elsewhere. Saddened by the lack of activity in the water that day, I remained eager at what the days ahead might hold. Just as we left the hatchery, as if they were listening to my thoughts, the whales made their appearance. It was an adult pair of humpbacks, feeding and making their way around the southern arm of Takatz Bay. The water was glassy, the sun close to setting, casting warm hues of blue and purple over us as I made my way to the bow of the boat. For a moment all my excitement overwhelmed me and I fell silent, admiring their natural elegance and the way the water graciously gave to their movements. Still standing on the bow, I managed the words “Wow, they’re beautiful.” In that moment, a feeling of fulfillment consumed my heart, spreading a soft smile across my face and a tear I secretly shed.
I replayed this moment over and over again as we made our way home that night, still in awe of what I had seen and realizing that there was even more yet to come. The days following were filled with even more magical moments—my first sight of a whale breaching, a mother-calf pair travelling together in sync, and even a few groups making their way right to our front door in Warm Springs Bay—to which I still have yet to manage more than “Wow, they’re beautiful.” As I sit here writing this post, I am reminded just how incredible these animals are, why I want to spend my life studying them, and how lucky I am to have landed such an opportunity. Although I’m a lot farther from Texas, I’m a lot closer to finally fulfilling my childhood dream—for now, this girl has finally seen a whale!!!