A Calling Evolves

As I have grown older, I have become increasingly aware that my interest in nature is a big part of who I am. At age 81, I’m inspired to continue writing, including finishing projects that I planned for and started years ago, culminating for now with this blog. A big advantage in writing at this age is that I’ve been able to slow down enough to get a clearer view of how the different events and phases of my life have played out. It’s easier to see how they all reinforced and rounded out who I am now.

My interest in nature started when I was a toddler.  An early memory is of falling into Uncle Charley and Aunt Babe’s fishpond in the front yard of their home in Bell Gardens, California, then a semi-rural Los Angeles suburb. I had been on my hands and knees, intently watching goldfish in the pond and leaned over a bit too far. The next thing I knew, I was being lifted from the water by my Uncle James, covered with muck and pondweed, bawling my head off.

When I was 10, my Aunt Phyllis gave me a fish bowl and guppies for a birthday present.  That started my new hobby, raising tropical fish. Soon afterwards, I bought a used copy of the classic aquarium book, “Exotic Aquarium Fishes,” by William T. Innis.  I was fascinated to learn about all the strange and beautiful tropical fishes, most of which I had never even heard of before. I soon graduated from that first fish bowl to a 5-gallon aquarium, then one of 10-gallons, and finally a 25-gallon job, considered large in the day.  As a teen, I got a job for a spell cleaning tropical fish tanks at Shike’s Aquarium, the tropical fish dealer in my southwest Los Angeles neighborhood.

Later on, I became interested in trout fishing when my Los Angeles Boy Scout Troop 151 went on backpacking and camping trips that included visits to creeks in the nearby San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains.  As an older teen with my first car, my interest in fishing grew as I continued to explore creeks in these local mountains with teen buddies, and later in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I even became comfortable going alone when I couldn’t round up anyone to join me. Lytle Creek in the San Gabriel Mountains, and especially Deep Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains were my favorites.

Ever since the 6th grade at 74th Street Elementary School I knew I wanted to go to college.  A student teacher, Mr. Brown, took a special interest in me and arranged to give me an IQ test at the University of Southern California, where he was a student.  One Saturday morning mom took me on city buses to USC for the test.  I don’t recall much about the test except a part that involved Mr. Brown reading a piece from an article about baseball, and then me repeating back everything I could remember. I had remembered the baseball term “Texas leaguer” — a fly ball that lands between the infielders and outfielders. After the exam Mr. Brown told mom, “Gerry’s college material.”  That’s what planted the seed.  Later at George Washington High School, I consistently scored high in natural sciences on the annual Iowa Tests for scholastic achievement, so I knew I wanted to major in some kind of natural science field in college.

I enjoyed high school chemistry, especially the hands-on lab work, so when I entered El Camino Junior College my first year out of high school, I declared as a chemistry major.  However, I did only so-so in my freshman chemistry class, and in my sophomore year, I struggled, getting mostly C grades on the exams, and an occasional B.

One day I noticed a job advertisement on an El Camino bulletin board. The Union Carbide Chemical Company in nearby Torrance was recruiting for lab technicians at their new plant, where they manufactured antifreeze, polyethylene plastic, and acetylene gas. I applied, only half-expecting even a response. To my surprise, I was offered a full-time job.  Accepting would mean dropping out of college, an idea my parents frowned upon. I saw the possibility of exploring being a chemist, so I decided to take a break from college and give it a shot.

That turned out to be an interesting job, where my duties included bicycling to various parts of the large plant to collect gas samples, and then bringing the samples back to the lab and doing routine analyses to monitor various plant production processes — procedures that I am sure have long since been automated. My boss at Carbide knew I had taken some college biology courses, so he assigned me a job that was a little different. There was a fresh water settling-pond at the plant, from which I was to collect water samples and examine them under a microscope for signs of life.  I didn’t find much alive except for a few green algae cells, but that task rekindled my interest in biology, and inspired me to return to El Camino the following spring.  I did well in the lab work in organic chemistry that semester, but struggled with the rest, resulting in a “D” grade — the clincher that chemistry wasn’t my calling.

While researching possibilities for a college after El Camino to complete the last two years needed for a bachelor’s degree, I was fascinated to learn about Humboldt State College (now Humboldt State University) in the coastal redwood country of northern California. Humboldt State offered a major in Fisheries, and it was located in a small town I had never heard of — Arcata, not far from Eureka, the closest town of any size.  I also learned that salmon and coastal cutthroat trout thrived in the surrounding streams. That settled it — I applied to Humboldt, and I was accepted as a Fisheries major, beginning the next fall quarter.

At Humboldt, a classmate gave a slide show about his summer fisheries job in southeast Alaska. That planted the seed of my wanting to move to Alaska “some day.” When that spring quarter was winding down at Humboldt, I applied to graduate, but was disappointed to learn that I was six elective credits shy of the number needed. I decided to take the two required classes that summer session, rather than wait until the following fall.  That seeming delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because my major professor (Dr. George Allen) needed an assistant that summer to help with a research contract he had to study plankton off the mouth of nearby Humboldt Bay. That job involved going to sea on weekly day cruises on a chartered commercial salmon troller to collect plankton samples with a midwater trawl, and then sorting and identifying the samples back at the lab.  That job gave me valuable field and lab experience that helped me land future jobs in oceanography.   I was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Fisheries after that summer session.

Having applied to the Nevada Fish and Game Department, I was offered and accepted a job as a Consevation Fieldman, helping raise rainbow trout at the Washoe Rearing Ponds near Reno for the local sport fishery.  That job was fairly straightforward and included driving a tanker truck to the national trout hatchery in Hagerman, Idaho, bringing fingerling rainbow trout back to the rearing ponds, where we fed them fish food pellets until they were big enough to plant in streams and lakes for the local sport fishery.  However, I became dissatisfied with the routine of that job, which must have showed, because I was fired at the end of my one-year trial period.

Getting fired was a blow to my ego, especially since my new wife was pregnant with our first child. However, gettting fired turned out to be another blessing in disguise that led to my true calling — the research end of biology.  I had applied to the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now the National Marine Fisheries Service) while in Nevada, and soon after getting fired, I landed a job as a Fishery Aid with the Bureau’s lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus near San Diego.  While there, I subscribed to Alaska Magazine because I was still smitten with Alaska and the possibility of eventually living there.  However, that possibility was not realized until several years later, in a way that I couldn’t have begun to imagine at the time.

That job was mainly to assist a fish physiologist (Dr. Reuben Lasker) with lab analyses of Pacific sardines, but also to help with plankton survey cruises off the coasts of Southern California and Baja California, Mexico.  The surveys kept track of the planktonic eggs and larvae of sardines and anchovy, both important commercial species.  It was on those cruises that I first saw oceanic seabirds like storm petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses. I became dissatisfied with that job too, however, because there was no direct career track to being a full-fledged biologist from being an “aid.” A low point at that job was washing lab equipment that had been used by a visiting class of high school honor students, a blow to my fledgling ego.  In my immaturity and impatience, I hadn’t realized what a great training opportunity that job was, especially the seagoing experience and what getting those first, brief glimpses of seabirds would eventually lead to.

I wrote to my Humboldt State fisheries professors for advice for finding a better job track with my career and they got me in touch with professors at the University of Washington’s Department of Oceanography in Seattle. That led to a job as an assistant biologist on their studies of phytoplankton, the microscopic, one-celled plant life at the base of the marine food web.  That job involved more time on survey cruises off the coast of Washington and Oregon to study how the Columbia River influenced the surrounding ocean.  It also was an opportunity to enroll in more specialized biology and oceanography courses at the university, at their expense – a benny of University employment.

It was on those survey cruises that I became truly fascinated with seabirds, especially the albatrosses, which followed the ship and gathered around when we stopped to take water samples and make measurements.  Back at the University library, I learned that very little was known about Laysan albatrosses and other seabirds while they were at sea away from their nesting colonies.  That in turn led to my keeping a log on their numbers and behavior and taking a few pictures. So little was known about seabirds in that area at the time, that those simple, unsophisticated observations led to my first publications about seabirds in the scientific literature.

Those first papers began to lay the groundwork that led to jobs working full-time on seabirds. The first of those was with a seabird project for the Smithsonian Institution,  That was an interesting, rewarding job that led to more publications in the scientific literature.  However, dissatisfaction again set in, this time with living on the east coast, but especially with my growing concern about how seabirds might be related to the project’s Department of Defense funding source.

After a couple years with that job, I returned to Seattle with my young family, and soon got a job at the UW Oceanography Department again, this time as an oceanographer. That job was on a Puget Sound water-sampling project, where I continued to journal about the seabirds I saw during cruises aboard the Department’s two 65-foot survey boats, the M/V’s Hoh and Onar.

Meanwhile, also wanting  to be more directly involved with biology, I applied to the National Marine Fisheries Service (then the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries) at their Seattle lab. That resulted in a job as a biological oceanographer in their Marine Resources Monitoring and Assessment Program (MARMAP).  I was assigned to their plankton studies project, and tasked with learning about arrow worms (chaetognaths) and amphipod crustaceans, important members of the plankton community. It also involved more sea time on plankton survey cruises in the northeast Pacific Ocean, where I continued to keep track of the seabirds in my spare time, which led to yet more publications.

As fascinating and valuable as that project was to helping learn about how the ocean worked, the lab director at the time (Dayton “Lee” Alverson) was not big on oceanography.  He cut funds for the MARMAP project, and with me the low man on the MARMAP totem pole, my job was the first to go.  That seeming-setback turned out to be yet another blessing in disguise, in the form of a transfer to NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Division in Seattle.  My research papers on seabirds had qualified me to be a wildlife biologist, and especially with my solid experience at sea on research boats, I worked on their at-sea northern fur seal project.  My experience identifying plankton was a natural for their work with fur seal food habits, and how that was connected to the ocean environment, especially commercial fisheries.  On fur seal survey cruises around the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, I continued to journal about the seabirds I saw.

Meanwhile, I also began hearing about a big marine science program that was being planned for Alaska.  The program aimed to collect basic information about the little-known environment of the Alaskan continental shelf before opening it up for oil exploration.   Funding was included for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study Alaska’s little-known seabird populations.  I was invited to participate in a meeting of the then-sparse community of Pacific Coast seabird biologists at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory on the central California coast.  Soon after, I applied for one of several seabird biologist positions, and shortly afterwards, was excited to be hired.

My experience at sea, plus working with plankton identification and fur seal food habits, made me a good fit for their seabird feeding ecology project – to learn what seabirds eat, and how they fit into Alaska’s web of marine life. The project office was in Anchorage, Alaska, and I moved to Alaska with my wife and four young children on November 24, 1975. The actual move for us was via the Alaska Highway in our Dodge van, pulling a small travel trailer.

While the job and move to Alaska were good for my career, it also led to my drifting away from the organized church and an active faith in Christ. The strain of adapting to life in Alaska and striving to get ahead in my career also contributed to a divorce from my wife of 21-years about five years later, a low point in my personal and family life.

It was at this job that my interest in photography really took off. We field personnel were issued 35 mm cameras as part of our field gear to document our field work. That also led to my buying my own 35mm camera, a Pentax Spotmatic and first telephoto lens, a simple 150 mm Pentax job.

After many years on that project, I was becoming burned out with navigating the government bureaucracy.  The final straw to my growing dissatisfaction was the attitude and management style of our new lab director, which I found frustrating and discouraging.  During a camping trip awhile later with a friend in Prince William Sound in my outboard-powered inflatable skiff and an inflatable kayak, my friend idly asked, “Gee Gerry, why couldn’t you hire out your Zodiac to transport kayakers into the Sound?” The idea immediately clicked, but I knew the Zodiac wasn’t nearly big enough. However, that idea did inspire me to buy my first hard-hulled boat a couple years later in summer 1986, a fiberglass, 21-foot Lavro Sea Dory.

Meanwhile, I had also been encouraged by personal growth workshops I had attended in Anchorage in the 1980’s, especially Insight Transformational Seminars.  Those workshops reawakened me spiritually and helped me get in better touch with my basic values.  I met several people at Insight who went to the Unity School of Christianity church in Anchorage, which led to my joining Unity and becoming involved with the Course In Miracles spiritual philosophy.  Not long after that, on a leap of faith, I quit my secure career as a biologist with the feds and began a charter boat business, Sound Water Taxi, in Whittier on May 4, 1987.  Although not on the same level of understanding and renewed faith in Christ as at present, I look back on that time as continuing to follow my calling to be involved with God’s natural creation.  I had faith that God would guide me.

I continued to photograph Prince William Sound’s awe-inspiring marine wildlife and magically-beautiful mountains and glaciers with my 35mm Pentax on water taxi runs and sightseeing tours.  Later, as digital photography began to blossom, I bought my first digital camera in 1999, a Sony FD-91 “Mavica.” It was a so-called “consumer” model, but it did have a full suite of manual and automatic settings similar to more advanced cameras.  Plus, it had a decent zoom telephoto lens. That proved to be a good first step toward more professional Canon equipment that I began to collect a few years later. I joined the local Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers in 2003, and was a regular at their workshops and monthly meetings. I began learning about the fascinating new field of digital photography.  A couple years later I joined the North American Nature Photographers Association and have attended three of their bi-annual summit meetings and inspirational workshops.

My work as a biologist included lots of technical writing.  Then, as webmaster for my business, I wrote all the copy and took all the photographs for the web site.  The latter paid off big in a totally-unexpected way. The site caught the attention of Charles Wohlforth, author of the popular guidebook Frommer’s Alaska, and free writeups for the business in Frommer’s began soon afterwards.  That spun off yet more positive reviews in other guidebooks, like Fodor’s Alaska and Alaska For Dummies.  That  was a major factor in the business transitioning smoothly from the early years as mainly a water taxi, to more specialized sightseeing and nature photography tours during the last 10 years in operation.

The upshot for me is how these unplanned circumstances and events have all played their parts in defining who and where I am now.  Part of my aim in writing this memoir is to encourage others to follow their own dreams and hunches.

More later, but that’s it for now, on February 22, 2018.

2 thoughts on “A Calling Evolves

  1. Dave Nysewander

    Thanks, Gerry, for sharing all these thoughts and experiences in your various blogs. Somehow I come away with a feeling that you are probably “my brother from another mother”. I say this because of a number of parallel styles, interests, and proclivities that range from the spiritual to the marine world. Sometime we should catch up with each other again by phone or email. Did you ever finish your writing up of manuscript about the life of a puffin?

    Liked by 1 person


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