Harbor Seals, Killer Whales & Lifelong Memories: A Conversation with SeaDoc's Summer Interns

 Left to right: Joe Gaydos, Alexa Dickson, Tamsen Polley, and Lauren Mathis aboard the Molly B. 

Left to right: Joe Gaydos, Alexa Dickson, Tamsen Polley, and Lauren Mathis aboard the Molly B. 

By Justin Cox

For the past decade, SeaDoc has hosted veterinary interns each summer to help run the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in collaboration with The Whale Museum. This summer’s interns were Alexa Dickson and Tamsen Polley, who have since returned to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for their third year. They did a great job and we loved having them around, so we took a moment to ask about their experience on Orcas before they dive headlong into their next year of vet school:

Why did you pursue the internship at SeaDoc?  

Alexa: I’ve had a love for marine mammals since I was a kid growing up in San Diego. The SeaDoc internship provided me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work closely with marine mammals in a capacity different from a lot of other experiences we get in vet school.

Tamsen: Growing up with an intimate relationship with the ocean and the sustenance it provides was a big factor in deciding to apply for the SeaDoc internship. Combined with the opportunity to gain veterinary and field/emergency response skills while making a difference in the Salish Sea was the icing on the cake so to speak. The more I learned about the goals of SeaDoc, the more excited I was to participate in such an amazing organization. 

How did the summer enhance your experience as a vet student?

Alexa: This internship really pushed my communication skills. Working with the general public in a very emotionally charged capacity helped me to rethink and improve how I work with people when the situation may not be the most positive, and how to explain why we make certain decisions. I was also able to experience aspects of veterinary medicine outside of clinical practice including pathology, research, and conservation. 

Tamsen: The internship broadened my scope of what a veterinary degree can be utilized for in a professional sense. It made me realize I can continue to have an environmental impact with my veterinary degree in addition to my goal of being a research pathologist. I plan to volunteer and be an active member of environmental groups that focus on the rehabilitation, health, and future enjoyment of our natural resources. 

What specific memories that stand out?

Alexa: Volunteering with Soundwatch to help them monitor J35 while she was carrying her dead calf. That day was a balance of scientific intrigue and emotional awareness like I have never before experienced. Trying to understand the behavior and physiology behind it, but also feeling so sad for this grieving mother was a rollercoaster of thoughts and feelings. I will never forget that day.

 Tamsen helping track J35 and her calf aboard the Soundwatch boat. 

Tamsen helping track J35 and her calf aboard the Soundwatch boat. 

Tamsen: The opportunity to do a “ride-along” with Soundwatch to assist with the monitoring of both J35 (and deceased calf) and J50 during a very sensitive time for J-pod was an unforgettable experience. I had seen wild baleen whales and porpoise in the wild but never orcas. To be given the opportunity to see these amazing creatures in their natural environment was an almost religious experience.

What will you miss most about your time on Orcas Island and monitoring the stranding network? 

Alexa: If I had to pick one thing I miss most, it has to be working with all the amazing people at SeaDoc and The Whale Museum. They were all so welcoming, and I learned so much from everyone I worked with. I’ve come away with some friendships that I will cherish forever and I could not be more grateful for that.

Tamsen: Honestly, the “small town” environment combined with the supportive and close-knit environmental organizations is what I already miss. Being included in the Orcas community for a short time was almost nostalgic to me since I grew up in a similar community. I will never forget the amazing individuals that make up the SeaDoc Society, The Whale Museum, the Orcas Animal Protection Society and the volunteers we interacted with and depended upon for the Stranding Network response. I hope to eventually find my own community to be a part of in the future.

How are you acclimating back to the summer heat in California? 

Alexa: Not going to lie, it’s a lot hotter here than Orcas; I have been melting since I got here. But I do have to say, even with the amount of work the stranding network was, I’m starting my third year of vet school feeling rejuvenated and excited for what’s ahead in my last two years. Maybe there is something special in Orcas’ water.

Tamsen: As a native Oregonian, I will never acclimate to the California weather system. I still don't utilize 50 percent of my wardrobe due to the lack of Fall and Winter as seasons in the valley.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Alexa: This summer was my first experience in the Salish Sea, and I have to say, it is such a special corner of the world both on an ecosystem level and cultural level. It is one of the most beautiful places I will ever see, and I want to applaud SeaDoc and everyone else who works so hard to preserve its magic.

Tamsen: I can't thank the SeaDoc Society enough for the opportunity to participate in the internship program over the summer. It was a priceless experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life and I hope continues to influence my future professional decisions.