field work aquatic ecology natural history

An Office in the Great Outdoors: The joys and challenges of being an aquatic ecologist

Being an aquatic ecologist means getting paid to explore some of earth’s most beautiful natural locations, but it also means dealing with the harsher side of Mother Nature as well.

DA Gull Pond

Fig. 1 – An early summer’s day on Gull Pond on Cape Cod, MA

It’s a beautiful, warm, and sunny day on Cape Cod on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend. I carry my kayak down to the edge of the pond and say hello to vacationers doing the same. There are several people out fishing. Some are perusing along on stand-up paddle boards. I begin to bring my gear down to the boat. I can tell I am beginning to spark the curiosity of the people along the shore because along with the usual kayak gear (i.e. paddle, personal floatation device), I am also loading up some unusual gear – a white, torpedo-shaped object with blinking lights on the end.

As I begin to attach this strange object to a chain and then to a rope which I fix to the back of my kayak, a small group has stopped to watch. I think part of the reason this seems so odd to onlookers is because I am not wearing any official uniform (perks of being a graduate student), instead I look like most vacationers on a day like this – board shorts and a ball cap.

They kindly wait until I don’t seem so focused on what I am doing to interject.

“Hey, what are you doing? What is that thing?”

I tell them that I am an aquatic ecologist and I study river herring that migrate into these ponds to spawn each year. This ‘thing’ is an acoustic receiver. It’s essentially a fancy microphone that listens for the pings of acoustic transmitters that I have placed in some river herring down at the mouth of the river that leads to this pond. The transmitters are very tiny microchips that are surgically implanted in the fish in a very quick and simple procedure. I am going to paddle around in this pond towing the receiver behind me to see if any of my tagged fish are in this pond today.

Acoustic Receiver DA

Fig. 2 – Preparing an acoustic receiver to search for tagged river herring

“Wait, you get paid to paddle around in a kayak? We’re paying to do that!”

Yep. I’m very lucky. I have these sorts of interactions fairly often this time of year (vacation season). Whenever it is really nice on the outer Cape and people are out enjoying the great outdoors, they bump into me doing my research and correctly remind me how good I’ve got it. But before you start questioning your own career path or suggesting to others that they should get in on this glorious line of work, I’d like to point out that it isn’t always so glorious. Because for every flawless weather day that I get to do something relaxing like paddle a kayak, there are several days of either rough weather or tough work.

Here’s a few of the unseen challenges of being an aquatic ecologist:

  1. Foul weather - During the herring migration, I work outside every day, seven days a week. Some of those days are truly wonderful. Others, not so much. I begin my fieldwork in early March, which means brutally cold temperatures on the outer Cape. I relish in the opportunities to soak in the sun later in the season because I spend so many hours getting hit with snow/sleet/rain/hail while standing in frigid water earlier in the year. Later in the spring when the air is warmer but spring rain comes down hard, I need to protect my electronic equipment while still getting work done. This usually means sacrificing my rain coat to cover my computers and just accepting that I am going to be soaking wet all day. This is the part of my job that those vacationers never see because they’re all inside staying warm and dry!

TG Snow

Fig. 3 – One of my study sites at the beginning of the season. Even thick neoprene can’t keep this cold out.

TG Dwnstm rain

Fig. 4 – Later in the spring snow is replaced by hard rains.

  1. Mother Nature doesn’t take holidays off - When I say seven days a week, that includes holidays too. This story began on the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend. Later that weekend, while others are enjoying a beer at a BBQ with friends and family, I’ll be back out on the river, working, because Mother Nature doesn’t celebrate Memorial Day Weekend. Unfortunately, the herring don’t take the weekend off from their migration and so I need to be out there collecting my data. Not having a day off for several months at a time begins to take its toll, even if all of those days were spent paddling a kayak.

  2. Time and tide wait for no man - Aquatic ecologists are also often at the mercy of the tide. Fish behavior is closely linked to the tide, so I need to be working when the tide is just right to catch my fish. The time of high and low tide shifts about one hour later in the day each day, which means that the “perfect tide” will eventually occur at highly unfavorable times of day. On some days, I’m waking up at 3 AM to work the 3:50 AM tide. On other days, I come home at 2 AM smelling like salt marsh and fish.

  3. The brush bites – Trudging through briars and sticker bushes on a regular basis is just unpleasant, but it also puts a beating on your clothes. Small holes from thorns are particularly a nuisance in clothing that is supposed to be waterproof like waders and rain gear! But what’s lurking amongst the briars bites more than the thorns themselves – ticks. Lots of them. The Cape has an exploding tick population and tick-born diseases are prevalent out there. On average, I remove about 5 ticks a day from my clothing. At that rate, you eventually miss a few, and Lyme disease becomes almost inevitable. Lyme is no fun, but I hear it is extremely rare in office-based professions.

The final word

This list of grievances might make it seem like I hate my job. To be clear, I don’t. The goal of this was simply to point out that, like all jobs, being an aquatic ecologist has its perks and its challenges.

I get to see beautiful new aspects of nature every single day and I love not being trapped in an office. I’ll take the weather and the tides over a desk any day (ok, some days I would definitely rather be at a desk, but most days…). I have the best job in the world. Now if only it paid better….

Wellfleet Harbor

Fig. 5 – Beautiful views of Wellfleet Harbor on the way to work never get old.


Fig. 6 – Osprey parents care for their young (not visible) near Wellfleet Harbor

Razor clam2

Fig. 7 – A razor clam comes out to feed at low tide on the tide flats while I download data from acoustic receivers.


Fig. 8 – A green frog waits patiently for a meal near the bank of my study river while I look for river herring

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