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DC EcoWomen launched its spring photo contest in April and received more than 30 submissions of high-quality, on-topic photos showing how our great community is advancing environmental efforts in DC and around the world. The photos also showed how our members are learning and growing from environmentally-related experiences and putting their leadership skills to good work. Our grand prize winner, Elizabeth Hogan, shared a photo of three strong women who served as mentors while on an expedition to save marine mammals from entanglement in Alaska. We sat down with Elizabeth to hear first hand about the winning shot and the inspiration behind it.

DC EcoWomen: First of all, congratulations! What a powerful image. Take us back to the time this photo was shot. What was the experience like being there?

Elizabeth: This shot was taken in July 2015, on a trip to locate and disentangle injured Steller sea lions in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  We were onboard a research vessel on the water for two weeks, rolling the rescue work into a larger population survey of the species.  I had never been to Alaska before and to spend that time on Glacier Bay was an incredible privilege; the scenery was astounding and I was aware every second of how lucky I was to be there.  Glacier Bay is a temperate rainforest; which meant that it rained consistently every day and the temperature was in the low 40s, so eight hours in a skiff each day was definitely not warm (“In the interest of staying wet” became a group motto by the end).  But this trip was an opportunity to learn from leading experts in a new, emerging science: pinniped disentanglement. The three women in the photo are scientists whose work and research I had followed for years, so to join them on a rescue trip was an incredible opportunity to participate in the advancement of this field, and one of the biggest honors of my career to that point.    

DCEW: What was the purpose of the trip and what were you hoping to achieve?

Elizabeth: I was new at pinniped rescue (pinnipeds are a marine mammal that can use their flippers to “walk” on land, like seals, sea lions, and walruses) and as part of the work that I do for World Animal Protection on marine wildlife entanglement I had helped put together this rescue mission, to send a team of experts to this region to locate and rescue Steller sea lions with entanglement injuries. This usually means that the animal either has a hook and line caught in their mouth, from stealing a fish in one of Alaska’s commercial fisheries, or a plastic entanglement around their neck, digging into their muscle tissue from an encounter with some form of marine debris lost in the ocean. Both injuries are incredibly painful for the animals and prevent feeding and engaging in social behaviors. Our goal was both to disentangle as many sea lions as we could and to fine-tune the rescue methodology of remote immobilization, which is a long way of saying anesthetizing the animal via dart gun so that we could remove the material and apply medication.  Stellers can grow up to over 2000 pounds; it would not be safe to approach one when fully alert.  Any animals rescued on this trip would also give us more information about the anesthetics we were using, and establish protocols for rescues in the water in contrast to those done on land.

DCEW: We love opportunities that help DC EcoWomen members learn and grow. Did this experience help you grow and learn anything about yourself or about the environment?   

Elizabeth: Without a doubt. At the outset I hadn’t expected to go on the trip, just to make sure that an expert team could go and had the equipment they needed. But at the very last minute a spot opened up on the vessel and they asked me to join them. I was ridiculously excited, but also nervous – I was the new kid with very little experience and wanted to learn and to be useful without getting in their way. The willingness of these three scientists to give me this opportunity and talk me through each scenario was not only a huge step in my own experience with pinniped rescue but also a great reminder of what I hope to be able to do for others when I am further along in my career.

Seeing such horrific injuries to these beautiful animals in an environment as remote and pristine as Glacier Bay – miles from land – was also a firsthand view of how pervasive plastics are in the marine ecosystem.  It’s devastating to see the harm caused to wildlife from our plastic pollution.

DCEW: What words of wisdom do you have for future photo contest winners to try to snap a winning shot?

Elizabeth: No one should ever take my words on photography as “wisdom” as I am still someone who occasionally gets their thumb in the shot, but I will say that one of my favorite things about this photo was that none of the three women in this shot had any idea I was taking it; and we were on a very small skiff (I was at most two feet away) so it speaks to how completely absorbed they are in the job. It’s just a personal preference, but I always liked shots of people focused on what they are doing rather than looking at the camera.  The job at hand was to determine how best to approach a large, injured Steller sea lion in a very challenging environment – dangerous, slippery rock outcroppings in the middle of very cold & wet Glacier Bay, Alaska.  There’s a sense of that environment not just in the background but also in all the gear they are wearing (and I also liked the way our bulky “float coats” were this pop of bright color). It’s hard to explain to people that when it comes to the “action” of pinniped disentanglement, we sometimes have contact with the animal for 20 minutes or less, but hours of prep goes into those 20 minutes, and I took this shot in an attempt to convey that.

See the five winning shots from our 2017 Photo Contest >>

Elizabeth Hogan is the Program Manager for Oceans and Wildlife with World Animal Protection, where she specializes in marine wildlife entanglement in addition to work on marine debris, whaling policy, and wildlife in captivity.  For the last five years, she has researched the impact of derelict fishing gear on marine mammals and worked on establishing rescue networks and protocols for entangled marine life.  Her research on packaging and pinniped entanglement was published earlier this month in the Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy.  When not obsessing about marine animals & ocean plastic, Elizabeth can be found running in Rock Creek Park with her dog, reading about politics, exploring the globe, or baking something.

Follow her on Twitter: @EHHogan

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