27 August 2007

One day in the field

In a recent interview for a Swiss magazine, I was asked to describe a typical day of a researcher on site...

In my experience, this involves waking up early in the morning, rushing to the research boat after having checked and set up all the equipment, spending hours scanning the sea surface in search for dorsal fins. Sometimes dolphins will be found and sometimes not, but you know that you will come back with useful data that help explaining what is going on out there. And then spending the rest of the day entering data, lecturing to volunteers, training the assistants, discussing and solving personal issues that are inevitable when one shares the same roof with colleagues and students, fixing boats, engines and computers that never stop making trouble, refilling the fuel tanks, buying stuff at the supermarket (if one exists), running, running, running.

On some days you will have a good time over dinner, but on other occasions you may be forced to share the table with people who have little in common with you. Ups and downs, moments of glory and moments of deep frustration. Now enjoying a moment of peace with dolphins all around the boat, and then fixing a leaking toilet in a hell-like summer heat. But always having a sense of living your life at full speed, not wasting a minute, and being fully engaged in something that has a meaning.

To me, what gives a sense to this kind of hectic life in the field is the feeling that you are contributing to an attempt to preserve wildlife. If one loses track of this fundamental goal, life as a field researcher does no longer make sense. You are paid little money to work a lot and take care of a number of logistical, relational and other problems that do not look like research at all. Therefore, it is important to realize that conservation-oriented research needs people who are equally determined and capable of recording good behavioural data during a dolphin sighting, talking to the mechanic about that weird noise made by the engine, transcribing the contract for the renting of the field station, or moping the floor. All that is equally important, and nobody is allowed to sign off the most miserable of duties.

Giovanni Bearzi

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