Tag Archives: Marine Biology

The Day Job – Part 2

11 Aug

About this time last year, I wrote a post about what I do in my day job as a marine biologist. In this post, I want to revisit my day job again, and specifically one aspect of it: the academic conference. This is because I’m going to be spending the next week or so at one of these supposedly auspicious events. For those not familiar with academic conferences, these are events, usually held annually and somewhere exotic, where academics from around the world, all specialists in a particular field, come together to share ideas and so help to advance the very science which is their daily bread and butter.

At any rate, that’s what they are meant to be. In practice, they are quite different creatures, and are a mix of academic one-upmanship, back-stabbing, gossip, drinking and debauchery. In other words, they’re just like pretty much any other gathering of humans anywhere on the planet. Yes, ideas are discussed, advances made, but these won’t be in the rarefied atmosphere of the seminar room. Rather, it will be more likely to happen late at night in a dimly lit hotel bar, with half a dozen people crowded around a table, peering blearily at a paper napkin covered in scrawls and doodles that seem to make sense at the time, but which, in the cold light of day the following morning, when heads are pounding, will mean nothing.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that academic conferences are nothing but thinly disguised week-long parties which can be charged to expense accounts. They are serious events, it’s just that they are not necessarily always taken with the seriousness that most people associate with both science and scientists. Nonetheless, friendships are made and connections are forged, and although this may result in nothing more than hangovers in the short-term, in the long-term, they do lead to greater collaboration and real scientific advances.

The locations of these events can be almost anywhere in the world (places like Maui, the Canary Islands and Monaco to name some of the more exotic ones I’ve been to over the years). However, despite this, most of the time will be spent in stuffy, darkened conference halls, far from the reach of the beaming sun and blue skies outside, listening to dry and, to be frankly honest, quite boring talks outlining the latest advances. Worse, if you happen to be staying in the same hotel as the conference is taking place, there’s a good chance the only time you’ll catch a glimpse the locations exoticness will be from the cab as it travels from and to the airport. Yet, there will always be that one presentation which lights a spark deep inside your brain and sends you scurrying for the nearest bar napkin to start sketching out a new idea which might change your career in ways you never thought possible. These are the moments which make sitting through the rest of the talks worth it, even if you are continually reminded that scientists are rarely the best public speakers.

Still, when all finally finished, hair is let down and when this happens scientists can party with the best of them. This usually happens at the closing banquet, or to be more accurately after it, when all the business of the conference is out of the way and everyone can finally relax. This is when things can get messy. One memorable conference, the final night started with a drag queen cabaret show and an open bar (never a good thing to offer scientists!), and ended with the conference organiser being led away in handcuffs while several vans full of Spanish police in full riot gear waited outside for the order to move in because of all the noise we were making at what was by then some ungodly hour of the morning. Needless to say, that was the point at which I decided to leave, unclear as to whether the departmental finance officer at my university would find a bail payment an acceptable conference expense or not.

Of course, that was back when I was a grad student, and these days I am older and wiser (well, at least I like to think I am, but maybe I just lack the energy of my youth to stay up all night). This means that the conference I’ll be attending next week will probably not involve too much drunken debauchery (at least not for me), but it will be fun watching the latest in-take of grad students acting the same as we did many years ago, while they look at us old timers and think of us as boring party-poopers for not getting involved in their antics. If only they knew the truth, they’d probably have a lot less respect for their supervisors, their bosses and, indeed, the heroes of their field.

So that’s academic conferences for you and while my mind will primarily be focussed on that for the next week or so, you can be assured that during the more boring moments, my mind will be drifting towards my other career as a novelist. Story ideas will be thought of, zombie set pieces imagined, and possibly even rough drafts polished, as I wait for that one talk to inspire me, and remind me why I love doing science so much.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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The Day Job – Or What I Do To Earn A Living When Writing Isn’t Enough

26 Jun

Like many authors, I don’t as yet make enough money from writing fiction to have been able to give up my day job completely. Even if I did, though, I don’t think I would. You see for the last twenty years I’ve worked as a marine biologist who specialises in studying whales and dolphins. Now I know what you’re thinking, that sounds idyllic and that I must spend most of my time swimming in the waters around some tropical isle somewhere watching the dolphin play. While there have been times in my life when this was true, life as a jobbing marine biologist is usually much more mundane. I do, however, find it quite fascinating. So what would my typical work day consist of?

Well for a start, I don’t work Monday to Friday, nine to five. Depending on exactly what I have to do, some days I’ll work nine till twelve, giving me time to work on my fiction writing, others, especially if it involves field work, might run from sunrise to sunset, and in Scotland in summer, that can be as much as 20 hours seven days a week for several weeks at a time! If I’m working at sea, much of the time will be spent on the bridge of a ship, binoculars in hand, staring out to sea, looking for whales and dolphins. It’ll generally be two hours on, one hour off and while at times it can be very exciting, mostly when there’s animals around, at others it can seem like the ocean is dead and there’s nothing but endless rolling seas out there. Every fifteen minutes, I’ll log the position of the ship, so we know where we’ve surveyed, as well as information about the weather. Whenever I see something, I’ll log the position again, along with information about what species it is and how many there are. If I get the chance, I’ll take a few photos or shoot some video. At the end of the day (and before going to bed), this information is all transcribed into a spreadsheet and a summary of the day is written.

If I’m not working at sea, like pretty much everyone else I’ll start my day by checking my email. A lot of it will be fairly boring, routine stuff like requests to review academic papers or people asking to data, but every now and then it’s something much more interesting. The ones I like best are the ones where people are asking me to identify something. Sometimes it’s living animals, sometimes it’s a dead one on a beach or a skull. These always present a bit of a challenge but it’s like trying to solve a mystery from a load of little clues. You see, I happen to be a bit of an expert on an obscure group of whales known as beaked whales. There’s 21 species in all (or at least as far as we know at the moment!) and we know very little about them. In fact, some of them have never been seen alive and a few are only known skeletons found cast up on beaches. This makes identifying them a bit tricky, hence the reason my expertise is requested, and I may spend a happy hour or two pulling out books and academic papers, looking through photographs and digging up old measurements trying to work out which one it is this time. Much of the time, I can get an identification, but at others there’s no way to know because a vital piece of information is missing from the photos. One notable occasion it was because I was pretty sure that it was either something no one had ever seen before or that it was in completely the wrong ocean (this happens from time to time!).

Once the emails are out of the way, it’s down to work. Depending on exactly what I’m working on, this can be anything from analysing data and running statistical tests (always a bit boring, at least until you get the result), writing an academic paper or a presentation for a conference, to giving lectures to students, creating maps showing where different species occur and writing articles for magazines, books and encyclopaedias. None of this is necessarily fun but it has to be done. This is because doing science isn’t just about collecting data and hording it. Instead, it’s about communication what you’ve found out to the rest of the world. At the moment, much of my research revolves around trying to work out how whales and dolphins are going to be affected by climate change, and what we can do to stop these things happening; unfortunately, so far the rather depressing answer to this is not much unless we address climate change itself but I, along with many others, none-the-less keep trying in case we can come up with something that will work.

It’s my research on the effects of climate change on whales and dolphin which has probably led to the biggest change in how I do my work over the years. You see scientists like doing two things: science and flying to interesting places to talk to other scientists about science. This means that going to academic conferences and meetings to present your work to others is a big part of being a scientist (it’s also a great excuse to get drunk with friends and colleagues from far off places who you don’t get to see very often). However, this means a lot of jetting all over the planet. A few years ago, I took the decision that I couldn’t really criticise other people for their impacts on whales and dolphins which I was studying when I was part of the problem. This means I now only attend these meeting if I can do it remotely through video feed over the internet rather than in person. It’s not as much fun (having a beer at lunchtime with a bunch of old friends is one thing, drinking it at home on your own is quite another!) but it keeps my carbon footprint down.

Anyway, that’s probably enough about what I do to earn a crust when I’m not writing about zombies. While these may seem like quite different worlds, there’s a surprising amount of overlap. For example, while academic papers and talks can be quite dry and boring, they actually have a very similar structure to works of fiction. Both need to tell a story, have interesting characters, and have a beginning a middle and an end. It’s just that in academic writing, the story is the hypothesis you’re testing, the characters are your study animals and the beginning, middle and end are called, introduction, methods and results, and discussion. Similarly, it takes the same type of discipline to sit down and write a scientific thesis as it does to write a novel. You also need to know how to edit your work so that it flows nicely, and get used to dealing with both rejections (from publishers for fiction writing and from journals for academic writing) as well as hatchet-job reviews from people who, for whatever reason, don’t want you to succeed. Actually, I’ve had a lot more of that in academia than I’ve had with fiction writing – academics tend to get very territorial if you show that the cherished theory they’ve based their entire career on is wrong!.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Life On The Ocean Waves…

22 Apr

Much of my writing is influenced by the sea. Lighthouses turn up regularly in my short stores (such as When Death Came To Flannan Isle and The Lighthouse At The End Of The Road) while sailing and life on the ocean waves are very much at the heart of both my debut novel (For Those In Peril On The Sea) and the sequel which I’m currently working (or at least that I should be working on but at the moment I keep getting distracted by other things – such as writing this blog and indeed the Maths With Zombies one I’ve just started). Here, I’d like to give you some idea of why the sea and sailing are so important to me, and it goes deeper than the simple fact that I’m a marine biologist.

Sailing is something I loved from the moment I first did it. Not sailing on a dingy but proper ‘big boat’ sailing. My first time was on a 72 foot ketch called Taikoo owned and run by the Ocean Youth Club (or Ocean Youth Trust as it’s now known), a charity which aims to introduce sailing to young people. I’d grown up pottering around on the ocean’s edge but at 16 it was the first time I’d taken to the sea on something other than on a ferry, which hardly counts. Soon I found myself in thirty foot seas at the heart of a near-hurricane force storm. It was hard, physical work and pretty much everyone was sea-sick to a greater or lesser extent as we cowered in the cockpit, clipped onto the safety lines and clinging to each other to stop ourselves being thrown all over the place. At one point we ended up almost ship-wrecked when the engine gave out at a critical moment. Through all of this I discovered something: I loved every bit of it.

The only trouble with falling in love with sailing was that it wasn’t something I really had many opportunities to do. This meant it was a while before I got to do it again. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I went to do an internship in Newfoundland and within hours of stepping off the plane in St. John’s, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, on a yacht bound for Labrador in search of humpback whales. I spent a month dodging icebergs, fighting storms, photographing whales and drinking moonshine offered to us by the locals (after all it would have been rude to refuse their hospitality!). I also learned a huge amount about life at sea from the Captain, an ex-Maine fisherman turned professional yacht skipper (I’ll confess here that there’s more than a little of him in the character Bill in my book For Those In Peril On The Sea).

My next sailing experience was around Scotland on a beautiful gaff-rigged ketch, again looking for whales and dolphins (it was all part of my training as a marine biologist). I sailed on her a couple of times, enjoying the amazing scenery and the changeable weather. That was how I ended up visiting the remote and beguiling island of Mingulay. It’s now uninhabited and is somewhere you can only get to with your own boat but with it’s white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’m going to be drawing on these memories a lot as I continue my work on the sequel to For Those In Peril On The Sea as it’s set amongst the islands of western Scotland.

From there I moved onto the Bahamas. I didn’t get to do a huge amount of sailing there, but I spent a lot of time on the water and got to know almost every inch of the beaches, bays and islands around the Sea of Abaco. Again, I was there because of work yet I also had plenty of free time to just head off and explore. It was there that I bought the first and only sailboat I’ve ever owned, an old North Star 1500 called Gone-with-the-Wind. I loved that boat more than almost anything else in the world and spent ages doing her up (she wasn’t in good shape after she’d got damaged in Hurricane Floyd). She also holds a special place in my heart because it was while I was living on her that I met Sarah, the love of my life. I sold her a few years later, the boat that is not Sarah, and it broke my heart but that was how I learned that owning your own yacht can be an extremely expensive business!

Since then while I’ve spent time more time at sea, it’s been on motorboats and ships rather than sailboats and I have to say I miss it. I long to get back to it, to feel the deck heeling under me again as the sheets strain and the sails fill. I think this was one of the reasons I enjoyed writing For Those In Peril On The Sea so much. It gave me the chance to re-live my memories of times I’d spent under sail and places I’ve visited. While the infected aren’t real and nor are any of the characters, much of the sailing and all of the places are based on my own experiences. The same is true for the sequel I’m currently working on, although it’s focussed closer to home than the Bahamas, it will again be fun to revisit the memories of my younger days.

As I have grown older, my career has taken me away from the sea and more behind a computer (both in terms of my academic life and my more recent ventures into writing fiction – well rather the sharing my fiction with the rest of the world). I will, however, take to the water under sail again, of that I’m certain. It’s simply a matter of time and circumstance and, if I’m ever to own my own boat again, a not insubstantial lottery win! Until then, I’ll have to just settle for writing, whenever I can, about life on the ocean waves.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.