Sabbatical reconnaissance: making connections

Previously on drblakegillespie, I was on my way home from giving a talk at a STEM meeting. Spent a day with the family, saw the PEP friends, and turned around the next day for Costa Rica to figure out sabbatical details.

I have been working at CSU Channel Islands for 10 years now: 3 years as an adjunct, tying up my postdoc; taken on in the tenure track in 2006; tenured in 2011. I’ve been eligible for a sabbatical for several years, and I begin to think it shows… much as I love my work, and trying to express my creativity in the classroom, I need to walk away for a while. So, about a year ago I applied for, and received, a sabbatical. I’m headed for southern Costa Rica to learn about the winter population of humpbacks that use the waters between Parque Marino Ballena and Bahía Drake as a nursery.

A bit more backstory: several years ago a colleague, Dr. Rachel Cartwright, invited me to join her humpback whale behavioral ecology research group, known as the Keiki Kohola Project. At the time, she was interested in exploring what the abiogenic determinants of humpback behavior might be. Though we eliminated water quality and characteristics pretty quickly, monitoring of whale habitat choices, whale social structures, and human boat traffic was pretty productive. Our most striking observation was that the animals tend to avoid the most boat-dense areas. Being a part of that published work is really fun and gratifying, but – as I am a teacher – perhaps the greatest thing about that project has been the inclusion of undergrads. For the last 5 years, Rachel and I have taken a small cadre of students to Maui over spring break to participate directly in the field work. You can read more about that in the New York Times, and Rachel posted several articles prior to mine that described her work in more detail.

As for the sabbatical, Joy and I have been discussing a Latin American sojourn for a long time, even making a test run to Mexico City in June/July of 2011. We both found productive work in the Distrito Federal, and we had lots of fun… but Mexico City was very stressful for us and for the kids, and we both wanted something less urban (I should point out that Joy has earned a sabbatical concurrent with mine!). After listening to me whine for a while at a PEP birthday party last year, a good friend asked, “So why not do something with those whales you study?” — pure genius! So I discussed other humpback nursery areas in the Americas with Rachel, and of course Costa Rica was high on that list, and Drake Bay became my principal target.

In any case, I started doing my research, activated some networks, and colleagues at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica led me to Fundación Keto, a Costa Rican nonprofit pursuing a wide array of marinelife conservation projects. So I made contacts, and let things percolate (read: I procrastinated doing any real planning for several months). I knew I needed to make a reconnaissance trip down there, but couldn’t pull the trigger! There was spring semester, then summer programs, summer classes, and that monthlong Portland trip… life seemed to conspire against me. Finally, I decided that the middle of Fall term would be a perfectly logical time to leave the country, and leave my wife with the kids for a week. I bought a plane ticket, rented a 4×4, grabbed an out-of-date travelguide, and left.

Things came together in astonishing fashion…

Arriving in San Jose at 6am last Monday, the 4th, I picked up my Rav-4, fired up the GPS and drove into downtown Heredia, home of the University and, as it turned out, a cetacean biology workshop hosted by my new friends at Fundación Keto! After settling into my little hotel, I went straight to UNA’s Escula de Ciencias Biologías and started hunting for my contacts. For now, I’ll just say that I met many great faculty there, and built a foundation for some interesting collaborations. But the meat of the trip came during the conference at SENASA, organized by Keto’s leadership. Lead veterinarian Dra. Gaby Hernandez invited me to join the meeting, and during lunch with David Palacios, founder of Keto, my trip was made. ‘Pala’, as he is known, is a remarkable individual – starting Costa Rica’s principal marine mammal conservation non-profit while finishing his biology degree – but I will save more about him and Keto for another entry.

After we discussed the various projects we’ve been involved in at Keto and Keiki, Pala mentioned that his own research permit was up for renewal. He offered to include me as a co-applicant on his new proposal! Generous and welcoming? Absolutely! But more than that, Pala has offered me the formal bona fides to investigate the animals in a research context in Costa Rica. If that sounds dry and uninteresting, let me put it this way: without a research permit I would be one more tourist paying for whale-watching tours. Costa Rica, like the United States and many other nations that value biodiversity, has very strict regulations on whale watching and harassment. For now the permit is a work in progress, but I believe everything will be in place by January.

Assuming the permit comes together, the rest of sabbatical recipe includes:

  • where we’ll live/how we’ll rent our house
  • how I’ll pay for the research vessel
  • what to do with the kids

Stay tuned for these and other interesting detours through the academic trail of drblakegillespie.

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