Cool Job: Humpback Whale Rescue Coordinator

Ok, so that’s not quite what it says on Justin’s business card. And in fact, that is only part of what he does. He also educates people all over the Hawaiian Islands about the dangers posed to humpback whales, which are often found off the coast of Hawaii during the wintertime (they are migratory animals, and migrate to Hawaii to give birth), monk seals, dolphins, and most other marine mammals. But disentangling humpback whales is certainly the most exciting part of the job, and that’s primarily what I spoke to him about. I highly recommend, before reading the interview, you check out the video above which will give you a better understanding of what Justin’s job entails.

The infamous 223 night. Notice what Justin is drinking out of.

My friendship with Justin goes back 15 years, when we worked together at a dolphin facility called Dolphin Quest. He was one of the few other guys on staff who was a sports junkie like myself, so we hit it off really well. Justin was not only a good friend but a mentor, who taught me a ton about dolphins and dolphin behavior. (He also once bowled a 223 while drinking beer straight out of a pitcher, a record I have been trying to top for 15 years now to no avail. The closest I’ve come is 196.)

Justin has since moved out of the training world and moved onto larger marine mammals (while I have moved on to land mammals who like to drink Lager and answer trivia). Here he tells us how a kid growing up in the Rockies got into marine mammals, what it’s like rescuing humpback whales, and what the hardest part of the job is. Enjoy.

JGT: First of all, just give us a basic synopsis of what it is you do for a living.

Justin: Ok here we go. I am the Hawaii Island programs coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In this position I have a variety of roles from the marine mammal response side of things to the community engagement and natural resource protection side where I work with schools, communities and volunteers to help educate people on the issues the marine environment is facing on a local and global scale.

JGT: Alright, now how did you as a kid growing up in the Rockies know that you wanted to work with marine mammals when you grew up? And what was the “A-ha!” moment when you knew you wanted to do that for a living?

Justin with one of his two beautiful daughters.

Justin: As long as I can remember I wanted to work with whales. I can remember as far back as 3rd grade in Berthoud, Colorado making a report on how I was going to work with whales and train dolphins. When I was working at Dolphin Quest and had just started my mom sent me a pillow with the pictures that I had drawn in 3rd grade of me holding a hoop and a dolphin jumping through. So honestly I can’t remember EVER wanting to do anything else.

Why whales? I have no idea what drew me to them. I grew up on a horse farm with large mammals but really wanted to be around the ocean even as a kid. It was always interesting for me growing up hearing what others wanted to do and how it changed over time but for me it was always working with whales. I have friends that still tell me they can’t believe I’m actually doing what I said I would do over 20 years ago.

JGT: I’m 38 and still have no idea what I want to do. It fascinates me when I meet people who knew exactly what it was they wanted to do when they were kids. That’s so wild. Ok, what did you study in college? Marine biology?

Justin: Marine biology and environmental ecology.

JGT: You get done with school, and it’s onto the real world. What career choices does a 22-year old with a marine biology degree have?

Justin: I actually went to Florida Tech and walked on the soccer team as I had played soccer all through high school and wanted to play in college. My first year we won the Division II National Championship and I decided that even though I was being offered a scholarship the next year I quit. Kinda wish that I had played more but in 1991 pro soccer in the U.S was still a pipe dream and I figured that I could do other stuff around Florida like surf.

So after quitting I met a good friend Ron who happened to work at the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach, FL. He got me a summer job where I was doing dive shows and cleaning the tanks at the end of the day. I would spend hours just swimming and playing with the dolphins after everyone else would leave the park so I got a lot of time with the critters and eventually got moved up to doing shows that first summer. This turned out to be an intership where I got school credit and got paid. Then when I graduated in Dec. 1995 I had a job dolphin training in Ft. Walton Beach, FL. Can’t tell you how many times I heard to change my career and that I was never gonna find a good job with a marine biology degree so it was pretty cool how it all worked out.

JGT: Did you think that you were going to make a career out of being a dolphin trainer, or did you see that as a step in your career progression?

Justin: Originally I thought I might make a career out of it but soon learned that there were bigger and more exciting things going on just over the wall out in the ocean, so it changed to a stepping stone after about 8 years.

JGT: You are one of the few people in the United States who can lead a humpback rescue. Tell us a bit about what goes into something like that. What happens when you get that call that there is a humpback caught in a net?

That's Justin at the bow of the boat.

Justin: The first thing that we do is get out on the water to verify the entanglement and determine if it is life-threatening. Sometimes we just have some loose rope on them and if it’s not life threatening then we don’t do anything. If it’s determined to be life threatening then we first attach a telemetry buoy to the gear that is trailing behind the animal. Once we have the telemetry buoy on then we can begin to document the entanglement and evaluate how we can get it off. This documentation is probably the most important part of the response as we are really trying to determine how these animals get wrapped so hopefully we can prevent it in the future. We know that while we may save a whale or two we would really like to find preventative measures to help keep the whales from getting entangled in the first place.

Once we’ve documented the gear then we work on getting it off which can happen a couple of different ways. The main thing is that we never get out of our inflatable as it is way too dangerous so we approch and utilize special knives that we have designed to cut away the gear. Sometimes we do this with a knife that is fixed on a pole (here is a link to a rescue we did 3 weeks ago off Maui in which we used a fix knife cut). Sometimes we will actually use a flying knife that we can place on the rope we want to cut then back off and let the whale dragging the boat on that line help the knife to cut through the rope.

JGT: What’s the best part of the job?

Justin: Large whale entanglement response! This is absolutely my favorite part of the job as I get to be out on the water working with amazing humpback whales. This part of the job can be dangerous and I am one of a few people around the country that are permitted to lead response efforts on large entangled whales. Another great part of the job is being able to see that I am actually making a difference for some of the endangered animals (humpback whales/Hawaiian monk seals) that I work hands on with.

JGT: And the worst?

Justin: Seeing the effects of humans on the environment and some species of animals. For example this year we have had a young Humpback Whale that is entangled and the line is actually cutting through the whale as it grows….there are times when we just can’t re-find a reported animal or they are too evasive and we lose them and its tough to see and know that there is really nothing we can do if we can’t find them and stay on them. Also lost a young critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal a few months ago that swallowed a fishing hook and it ended up causing the little guy to die after a few months. So tough to see the animals suffering and/or dying but it is a real part of the job.

JGT: How dangerous is the job? I mean, you’re riding in a little raft right alongside an animal almost the size of Moby Dick! That’s kind of insane.

Justin: Every time we go out on a response for an entangled whale there is danger involved and it is for that reason that we are federally permitted and train like we do to prepare for the worst case scenarios. In addition to trainings and constant evaluation of techniques and safety procedures we go through a series of risk evaluation exercises to determine if each response is not only feasible but safe.

JGT: Are you scared when you perform this part of the job?

Justin: The first few times I was definitely a bit scared as we are right on top of a 40 foot whale that weighs around 80,000lbs. But over time you learn to use the fear to help you stay safe and focus on the job at hand. Absolutely exhilarating experience to be so close to these enormous animals no matter how many times you do it.

JGT: What does the future hold for you in this field?

Justin: I think that the future holds more opportunities to help protect the marine environment not only on the local and individual animal level but on a more global scale. I like the idea of working with communities, industry and government agencies to find solutions that will help to better protect their coastal marine resources while providing for families and livelihood.

P.S. I love my job!

PREVIOUSLY: An interview with Philly rock legend Kenn Kweder.

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