By Eleanor Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
A year ago, I was working for Northwest Asian Weekly as the editor when a crazy opportunity presented itself: to go work in Argentina at Punta Tombo, home of the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world.
I don’t know what I could write that would sound more random. The way it came about is that my husband, Eric, is a Doctor of Philosophy student in Biology at the University of Washington. Dee Boersma, one of his professors, worked at Punta Tombo for 25 years. Each year, she selects two full-time volunteers to spend the entire breeding season, from September to March, at the colony. The volunteers count, measure, band, observe, and conduct experiments on nearly half a million penguins.
Dee asked Eric if he was interested in spending the season there — and since they needed two people — hey, why not bring along his wife as well? Let me tell you upfront that I have no background in science whatsoever. I’ve never done field work in my life. But I do love the outdoors, as I have backpacked quite a bit, and I’ve done trail work a few times. I figured field work couldn’t be too different.
It turned out to be quite a bit different. We literally worked from dawn to dusk most days, for six months straight, without a single day off. It was all penguins, all the time. And it was phenomenal.
Most of us rarely get the chance to be tough, not yell-at-someone-who-cut-you-off-in-traffic tough. I mean get-injured-and-keep-going-anyway tough, work-outdoors-even-when-it’s-completely-dark tough, walk-around-with-blood-and-poop-on-your clothes tough. It’s invigorating in a way that working in an office — no matter how much you love it — can never be.
Also, most of us rarely get the chance to interact with wildlife, in a wild landscape setting, on their terms. Before I went to their world, I thought penguins were cute little birds that waddled around and looked adorable. But in the Patagonian desert, in the unrelenting heat and wind, I watched them fight. I watched them use the dry carcasses of their dead chicks as nesting material. I learned what their behaviors and signals meant. I learned to observe them for hours on end, and I never got tired of it.
Now that I’m back in Seattle, I notice the world around me a lot more. I would not have called myself an animal lover before, at least not any more than the average person. Eric loves to watch birds, and I used to make fun of him for it.
But after spending so much time around animals, my appreciation for wildlife has really developed. I find myself stopping to observe a robin or a little mouse, something I never would have done before. I notice small motions, behaviors, and markings that I never would have even known to look for before. What formerly served as just a backdrop to my day is now immediate and animated.
I’m still working for the Penguin Project. I spend my days entering all the data that we collected in the field — this is the less glamorous side of field work. It’s monotonous, and I miss working outside.
I also miss the creativity of working at Northwest Asian Weekly. Despite the difficulties and downsides of journalism, it’s certainly not boring or repetitive.
As I punch in number after number and check things off with a little red pen, I’m glad that I had the experience of working in the field, and I’m happy that I’m more aware of the natural world. I also look forward to eventually returning to the writing world, that is if Eric doesn’t get an offer to study elephants. ♦
Eleanor Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.