Healthy Oceans Blog

20 questions with Lindsay Hirt

Feature photo credit: Dan Williams, July 6, 2016

Take a minute to reflect inward. What are you passionate about? What drives you? As you mull over your motivators, chances are your mind will transport you to a specific moment in your life – shining a light on an experience with a person or place that lit that fire within you. Those junctures in time give rise to who we are today and who we strive to be in the future. People like Lindsay Hirt, a Healthy Oceans Coalition member, marine biologist, and educator from Plymouth, Massachusetts are to thank for serving as the catalyst in our personal transformations, with their unwavering dedication to leaving this world in a better place than they found it. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lindsay and learn more about what compels her.

What organization(s) do you work for? 
Captain John Whale Watching and Fishing and SeaSalt Charters. I also work as a contract biologist and field staff for various animal welfare and wildlife conservation organizations, which changes with the seasons!

What are your job titles?
I am a marine biologist and naturalist. I specifically monitor marine wildlife, especially marine mammals like humpback whales, in the waters of Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay. I work with commercial whale watching companies, independent scientists, and conservation organizations to educate the public about the marine environment. I also take part in research efforts on the ocean and occasionally participate in rehabilitation and rescue efforts for wildlife in trouble. At times this can mean combining research science, veterinary medicine, and public relations all in one day!

How would you describe the missions and visions of the organizations you work with?
The mission of the organizations I work for is to play a leadership role in both ecotourism and marine conservation. The vision is that they not only offer an unforgettable experience in the natural world but also inspire environmental stewardship among the greater public.

Tell me about your background.
I love all things salty and my hobbies revolve around being outside or thinking about being outside. I like to joke that rather than a straight and narrow career path, mine looks more like a spaghetti plate! I knew from a very young age that I loved the ocean and wanted to “save the planet”, so to speak, but I dabbled in multiple environmental disciplines in order to find my truest passions. As a high school student, I took every science class I could get my hands on and I volunteered often for animal welfare groups and environmental organizations.

When I was in college I studied marine biology in the unique environment of Downeast Maine and started working in wildlife research, rescue, and rehabilitation. While responding to animals in need, I became interested in veterinary medicine and gained clinical experience with domestic pets at an animal hospital on Cape Cod – where I still work in the slow season.

While developing this skill set, I welcomed any opportunity I could find to get on a boat and respond to emergency wildlife issues, which led me to pursue a Master of Science in emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. All that craziness evolved into marine mammal observation and naturalist work. I strive to continue to learning every day.

Who inspires you?
I am inspired by the efforts of the general public and the everyday heroes that work in organizations with the noble mission of protecting the oceans. This is especially visible in the coastal communities of Massachusetts. Here, the tide is turning on the green movement and it is becoming the blue movement as people begin to feel the role that the ocean plays in the overall health of the world.

Describe a day-in-the-life of Lindsay Hirt.
One of the coolest things about my work is that it changes with the seasons, and sometimes, with the day. My favorite type of day occurs from April through November, which is the feeding season for our most visible marine life. The ideal day is one where I get to spend the entire day on the water with the whale watching company.

Rising before the sun and boarding a vessel before the hustle and bustle of excited crowds is a great way to prepare for whatever the oceans brings our crew. When passengers arrive, I board them safely and work with the Captain to make our way to Stellwagen Bank, which is where we expect to encounter whales and other wildlife. I work with researchers from a partner organization, photographers, and other crew to collect data on what we see, and interpret this information to our passengers while watching the whales. A typical day results in two separate trips to Stellwagen Bank and boasts a roster of incredible wildlife encounters in good weather!

What motivated you to choose a career path in the environmental field?
My parents encouraged me to choose a career in this field because they recognized the spark of interest that I possessed, leading them to do whatever they could to support my education and my work. I even remember the first little push toward the idea of it. I was five-years-old reading a book called “A House for Hermit Crab” by Eric Carle and my mother asked if I would like to be a marine biologist when I grew up. Now I continue to be motivated by encounters with wildlife and the success stories that I observe in the field or hear from my colleagues.

Who or what inspired you to choose a career path in science and education?
A number of people have inspired me since I began thinking about working in the marine conservation and education field. Initially, I looked to people who recognized the wonder and importance of the ocean, like Dr. Sylvia Earle. Then as a middle school student, I got a true taste of what my own salty backyard meant while attending a summer program at the Acadia Institute of Oceanography on a little island in Maine.

The Director of that program, Sheryl Christy Gilmore, designed and carried out a method of showing young people how fascinating and dynamic the marine world truly is – that lit a fire inside of me to protect it. I carry that passion to this day and, come to find out many years later, Sheryl is also a member of the Healthy Oceans Coalition. We recently connected again at a Healthy Oceans Coalition training event in Savannah, Georgia after almost two decades since my attendance at her program – a program that she still successfully runs!

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
This one is easy. Not only do I have the opportunity to enjoy wildlife encounters in the natural environment, but I also have the fortune to share these experiences with the greater public on a regular basis.

Have you noticed any trends or changes in New England’s waters? If so, what have you noticed?
In regards to the waters, the Gulf of Maine is warming much faster than most other bodies of water. This warming is unprecedented in both its temperature and its speed. With marine mammals, in particular, marine biologists are noticing that populations of whales are shifting their ranges. Scientists think that this type of change is caused by multiple factors – not only natural ones but also man-made ones.

In New England waters, this has been observed especially in the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The change in where whales navigate may be a response to a change in where their best food sources are, which affects their foraging behaviors. The right whale, for example, has almost completely stopped feeding in areas of coastal Maine, like Grand Manan Island, where its favorite food source – a cold-water species of copepod known as Calanus finmarchicus – are no longer as plentiful as they once were.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges we face in protecting, restoring, and conserving the environment?
The warming of our waters is one of the most challenging issues that we currently face in conserving not just the wildlife and the ecosystem, but also the economy and the safety of humans. There is no doubt that it has ramifications for the global ecosystem by influencing weather patterns, which manifest as increased rainfall and snowfall, more intense storms, and further acidifying coastal waters. Warming oceans also mean displacement of wildlife. This is evidenced by a dramatic change in commercially important fish stocks and the arrival of invasive species. In addition, warming waters create rising sea levels, putting coastal communities at further risk.

What steps do we need to take to overcome some of these challenges?
Warming of waters and climate change, in general, come with some pretty hefty consequences. With such a dramatic change in the health of our blue planet, it is easy to adopt a doom and gloom attitude when trying to overcome the challenge of turning the tide. Much can be done to reverse the damage caused by human impacts and the answer lies in our behavior. If our overall population can reduce emissions through the adoption of more responsible behaviors in the way we consume energy, grow food, and more, we have a real chance at reducing negative impacts on our oceans and our planet.

What goes into planning for whale watches and research trips?
Planning for whale watches and research trips is a big operation that goes way beyond the individual. It encompasses teamwork and cooperation. It requires experts in finance, marine safety, boat maintenance, detailed protocols that foresee unexpected circumstances, an observant marine biologist, well-trained deckhands, and an experienced and fearless captain. We are dependent on the best available science and good trip design to overcome challenges in an unpredictable environment in order to collect the best possible data. We also need lots and lots (and lots!) of sunscreen!

What are you doing in the “off season”?
My “off-season” from whale watching consists of crunching data, reviewing and cataloging a lot of photos, giving lectures and presentations to audiences and classrooms of all ages, and attending conferences to learn about the best available science in the marine world. This is a great way to look back on the trends, successes, and failures of the previous season. It also takes the sting out of a diminishing tan!

What makes your work special?
Reflecting on my above answer regarding what makes my work rewarding, it is an absolutely spectacular opportunity to be able to share some of nature’s most special creatures and the complex marine environment with the general public. Of course, the idea of spending time with whales is already special, but to take that a step further by utilizing an experience of environmental wonder as a vehicle to deliver the message of ocean conservation not only changes people’s minds about the world they live in but can inspire them to change their behavior – and I’d say that’s pretty special!

How does your work connect to the National Ocean Policy?
The National Ocean Policy IS everything to me. From my work in marine conservation to the coastal community in which I live, it affects my quality of life, the food I eat, the recreational activities I participate in, and the strength of my local economy. I have the platform to be able to communicate this to hundreds of people on a daily basis, through classes, publications, and experiences on a vessel floating in the ocean. Delivering this important message through a positive and rewarding experience in nature is an exceptional way to connect to the National Ocean Policy.

What are your hopes for the Healthy Oceans Coalition as we move forward?
I am hoping for better management in ocean planning and recognition of more responsible practices that can aid us in achieving healthier oceans. My hope is that the National Ocean Policy can be universally accepted and moved forward to encompass actions that reflect healthy oceans! The boots on the ground – or flippers in the water, as is my case – can drive this very worthy practice.

What are some career accomplishments that you are most proud of?
I will persist in declaring that the most amazing thing in the watery world is the opportunity to spend time with whales and communicate this to others while they, too, experience it! I will say that the turning point in my career occurred when other colleagues in my field began asking me for my opinion on the basis of my education and experiences, particularly for news publications, college-level presentations, and most recently, as a featured speaker on marine mammals in the unprecedented series of National Biodiversity Teach-In Talks. My most favorite milestone was when I reached my 1000th whale watch, which occurred this past summer!

What advice do you have for anyone starting out in their careers? What about those that are late in their careers?
Whether at the start of one’s career or late in it: Stay passionate, friends! If you care about the environment, learn all you can about it and be as involved as you can be. Your passion and interest are what drive you to success and self-fulfillment in the field. It also inspires others to be excited about what you’re doing and that’s the greatest success of all.