June 2, 2016

So you want to be a Marine Naturalist?

Naturalist watching orcas pass by the boat

What do Orca Naturalists in the San Juan Islands Actually Do?

Sarah's Childhood Orca Drawing
Sarah's Firstt Grade Art... Whale obsessed from a young age Martha McCullagh

“So, what do you do for work?” Anytime that I travel, or really any time that I find myself talking to a stranger, the "career" question always comes up.

“I am a marine naturalist, with a primary focus on killer whales or orcas, in the San Juan Islands in Washington State,” I always answer.

“Wait, so you watch orcas and you get paid for it?”

“Pretty much!” I smile. If I told my five-year-old whale-obsessed self that I would be working with orcas as an adult, my young self would probably be rendered speechless, unable to really process my dream future unfolding. My process to become a Marine Naturalist has been an interesting one, and hopefully will shed a bit of light for those of you aspiring to join a staff of naturalists.

Naturalist and a black bear cub
Sarah and a black bear cub while studying at the University of New Hampshire Sarah McCullagh

I have always had a love for the outdoors, especially for the world’s oceans. After watching the movie Free Willy at age three, it was all orcas all the time. This passion continued through elementary and high school, and even directed my course of study in college. I went to the University of New Hampshire and received a B.S. in Wildlife and Conservation Biology. During my four years of school I worked with a number of wildlife species, everything from bobcats to sea lions, gaining a lot of great hands on experience. The highlight of my time at UNH was spending a semester in Ecuador, where I spent a month on the mainland, exploring the Amazon, cloud forests, and high elevation paramó, and then three months in the Galapágos Islands. 

Marine naturalist with children
Sarah working as a Naturalist for Pacific Whale Foundation in Maui, Hawaii Courtney Cox

During school I was working for Mass Audubon Society’s Camp Wildwood as a Naturalist and Counselor, writing and running a lot of their Naturalist programming. Fresh out of college I applied for a job out here in the San Juan Islands, working for San Juan Safaris and San Juan Outfitters, and I was lucky enough to be hired by our owner/operator Brian Goodremont for my first summer out here. I am currently in my third summer with Safaris and Outfitters, and I have worked as a kayak guide, in reservations, and as a naturalist out on our whale watching vessels. I have also had the opportunity to work in Hawai’i watching humpback whales in the Washington offseason.

I have absolutely loved my time working out on the water, and love to shed any light on careers in marine biology for anyone interested! Our days are long, but rewarding. Plus, we get to experience some of the most amazing scenery on the planet. I have outlined what my typical day looks like, if this seems fun, this might be the job for you!

Day in the Life of a Naturalist in the San Juan Islands

8:03 AM- Alarm starts going off. Snooze. Snooze. Snooze.

If you are familiar with the Michael Jackson anthem from Free Willy, “Will You Be There,” you are familiar with the alarm I wake up to each morning. If you are not, you can find it below for your listening pleasure, and you should probably leave it playing until you finish reading this post.

8:32 AM- Actually Wake-up and Make Lunch & Dinner

After snoozing my alarm clock (I know it’s a bad habit, I’m trying to break it), I finally roll out of bed

I then pack all of my food for the day, lunch and dinner. We are usually out on the water 12-9:30pm, and there is little time to run to the store to get any provisions. Packing food is a must.

9:00 AM- Coffee

I run out of the house for coffee. This is an absolute necessity. Preferably black, preferably at least two piping hot mugs full. During the hottest days of the summer this can be consumed cold over ice. If you are visiting Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, most whale people hit up Café Demeter for their awesome baked goods and their delicious coffee before jumping on their boats. There are usually a group of us in there that you can find geeking out about our most recent sightings.

9:45 AM- Listen to the Hydrophone Network

During the summer, you can often find the whales by listening to the network of hydrophones spread out all over the Salish Sea. If you are interested in listening to the waters around the San Juan Islands in real time visit OrcaSound. You can often find me wandering around town with the speaker of my phone up to my ear waiting to hear faint vocalizations or echolocation clicks.

10:04 AM- Review Current Articles and Events

It is very important to stay up to date on everything going on in the Salish Sea, as well as environmentally around the world. Every morning I make sure to do some reading as I head to the boat so that I am totally caught up!

11:00 AM- Check in at the Boat

We need to be on the boat an hour before our trips depart. Once there we are preparing for the day, making sure all of our education materials are in order, the windows are clean, and helping the captain fill up the boat with fuel if needed.

11:40 AM- Pick up Guests & Load the Boat!

Load the boat and provide guests with a safety briefing. Make sure everyone understands the safety features of the vessel and the basic emergency procedures.

12:00 PM- Underway!

Untie the boat and provide a briefing on the natural history of the area. Throughout the trip, we need to be able to interpret the environment in front of us and to be able to answer any and all questions about the area. Though knowledge of the environment is important, I consider customer service and public speaking to be even more important skills in my day-to-day life.

3:14 PM- Back on the Dock

As soon as we arrive back to the harbor, we disembark and we have to prepare for the next trip that departs at 5:30! Windows have to be cleaned, seats wiped down, and trash removed from the boat so that the vessel looks perfect for the next group of visitors.

5:15 PM- Gather Guests & Board the Boat

We do it all again! Everyday we run two three to four hour trips, and ensure that the guest experience is the same on each! We have to be on our game all of the time!

 8:43 PM- Back on The Dock

We disembark the vessel and then have to make sure that the boat is totally clean for the next day’s trips. We vacuum, scrub the head (bathroom), disinfect surfaces, hose down the deck, and generally get the boat looking sparkly for the next day.

9:34 PM- Blogging!

Once I get home I write a blog post for our webpage including the day’s sightings. These get posted to the webpage with photos from the day!

10:36 PM- BED!



The days are full, but fun! I can’t imagine having more of a blast at work than when I spend time on the boats watching wildlife. If this sounds interesting to you, definitely engage one of your Naturalists out on the water! We love to talk about our jobs and love to get others excited about a career in Marine Biology.