Symbiosis: Stories about teamwork

This week, we present two stories about teaming up, whether it's to accomplish a scientific mission or save a life.

Part 1: Yael Fitzpatrick and her theater technician friends attempt to save a sea turtle.

Jump to Yael’s story >>

Yael Fitzpatrick is an art director, publications designer, sometimes writer, and science communicator. She spent the first part of her life concentrating on math and the sciences, and then took an unexpected detour into the arts. She has since managed to come somewhat full circle. Currently she is the Manager of Design and Branding for the American Geophysical Union, and previously was Art Director for the Science family of journals. She has almost accepted the fact that she will never be a backup singer or dancer. Follow her at @GazelleInDminor.

Part 2: As the only black woman on a two-month voyage, Dawn Wright tries to find her place aboard scientific drill vessel JOIDES Resolution.

Jump to Dawn’s story >>

Dawn Wright is chief scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (aka Esri), a world-leading geographic information system (GIS) software, research and development company, as well as a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University. Among her research specialties are seafloor mapping and tectonics, ocean exploration and conservation, environmental informatics, and ethics in information technology. Dawn is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of America and of Stanford University's Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, as well as an American Geophysical Union Leptoukh Awardee and board member of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc. She is also currently into road cycling, apricot green tea gummy bears, 18th-century pirates, her dog Sally, and SpongeBob Squarepants. Follow her on Twitter @deepseadawn

Dawn Wright's story was produced as part of a partnership with Springer Storytellers. Find out more on the Before the Abstract website.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Yael Fitzpatrick

A lifetime ago, I worked in a theater world.  I was a stage manager and a scenic artist and I did a lot of work with lighting.  I loved lighting.  Lighting is tangible and mechanical and it’s ephemeral all at the same time.  There's something so compelling about the fact that you can’t see light until it hits something. 

To create or change an environment using light, it’s heady stuff.  It’s magical.  I once made it look like it was raining on stage using nothing but light.  That was cool.  I loved lighting. 

The summer of 1990, I did theatrical lighting work as an electrician at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.  Spoleto is this amazing festival of theater and dance and music and fine arts, and I had a blast. 

The following summer, I wasn’t working for the festival any longer, but I did go down during the season for a visit.  I stayed with friends in a beach house on the Atlantic Ocean.  I went for walks on the beach multiple times every day.  I lived in St. Louis at the time -- go Cards! -- so walks on any beach were a rarity.  I just couldn’t get enough of it.  Just walking on the sand, hearing the ocean.  It was always grounding and calming and restorative.  It was always magical. 

The night before I went back home, my friends threw me a party. It was really sweet of them.  It was utterly lovely.  But I did sneak out at one point for one last solo walk on the beach.  I headed out going north, the sound of the water to my right. 

Now, there was a new moon that night so it was really dark out.  It was almost pitch black.  I don’t think there was any other person out on that beach, and it felt like a dream.  You know how sometimes if you look into darkness and your eyes start to play tricks on you, it just feels kind of unreal.  You can’t really be sure if you’re really seeing what you think you're seeing or if it’s kind of a phantom.  So that night took on that unreal quality. 

I was just walking along, just lost in my thoughts, just in my own little bubble.  But the bubble burst quite a ways up the beach when, to my right, I heard a [makes sound].  I looked and I saw this dark, shadowy something coming up out of the water.  It scared the shit out of me. 

I wish I could say I'd been brave.  I wish I could say I stayed to check it out.  And who knows?  Maybe if this had happened today, maybe I would have stayed, maybe I would have been brave.  But all those years ago, I was not brave.  I turned and I ran as fast as I could back down to the beach, back to the party. 

I burst through the door panting for breath and I said, “Does anybody have a flashlight?”  This was a party full of theater technicians, so pretty much everybody pulled a Maglite off a holster on their belt and held it out. 

I tried to explain what had happened.  I don't know that I was making much sense.  I couldn’t make sense of what I had just seen.  It had all happened so quickly and it was so dark out there and I was so scared and I was so confused. 

A group of about half a dozen or so of us went back out, back up the beach.  We were half joking, half nervous, not sure what we were going to find.  I know there was at least one reference to bad horror movies. 

Eventually, quite a ways back up the beach, we came upon the large, dark, shadowy something that was still coming up out of the water and up onto the sand.  But now there were flashlights and I could see.  We could see.  It was a giant sea turtle. 

Now, one of our group, a woman named Missy, instantly took charge.  I'd only met Missy that night, but she seemed to know what she was talking about.  She seemed to at least be confident in her knowledge so I, and all of us, really, followed her lead. 

Missy said that, first of all, we could not have flashlights on the turtle, that it would freak this animal out.  Missy said that it didn’t make any sense that the turtle was out on the beach that night.  She said that sea turtles come out of the water to lay their eggs but they do it when there's a full moon, and there was a new moon that night.  Missy said that if the turtle laid her eggs at the wrong time that all of the babies would die. 

So we stood there watching this turtle trying to figure out why she was out in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we realized that she was making a beeline, as much as turtles can make a beeline, for this one particular sand dune or, more precisely, for a streetlight that was behind the dune.  She must have mistaken the streetlight for the moon. 

But the streetlight was on the other side of a busy road that lay behind the dune.  We realized that she would keep moving towards that streetlight with singular purpose and most likely get hit by a car on that road and die. 

No problem, we said.  There's plenty of us here.  We can get around her, we can pick her up, we can put her back in the water.  But Missy, and to this day I don't know how Missy had all this information about giant sea turtles or how much of it was even true, but Missy said that we could not touch the turtle.  That if we did, she would panic, she would drop all of her eggs and all of the babies would die. 

So we all just stood there feeling utterly helpless just watching this resolute, determined turtle just move further up the beach, move further towards that sand dune and further towards that streetlight, toward the road, toward almost certain death.  We just stood there feeling utterly helpless for quite some time. 

Then, after we’d been standing there for quite some time, we realized that it seemed like the turtle was turning, just a littlest bit.  And that she was turning toward me, and toward my friend Steve who was standing right next to me.  And we all had this same crazy thought, almost without saying it. 

You see, I was wearing a white jean jacket.  Now, don’t judge me.  It was the nineties and white jean jackets were cool.  You would have done the same. 

So I was wearing a white jean jacket and my friend Steve was wearing a white button-down shirt.  So we all had the same crazy thought and we realized we needed to see if it might work. 

So Steve and I huddled as close to one another as we could, and everybody else shined all of the flashlights right onto us.  The turtle turned a little bit more, and we realized it was working.  Holy shit, it was working!  We didn’t know if it was that we were closer or looked larger or brighter, but it was working. 

Steve and I made a long, slow, wide, gentle, illuminated arc back down the beach.  And the turtle made a long, slow, wide, gentle, dark, shadowy arc following us.  Took a good long while, but Steve and I ended up in the water.  We were in the waves, we were slowly moving deeper out.  Darned if that turtle didn’t follow us into the water, follow us deeper out until she was swimming.  She swam back out to sea and we didn’t see her again. 

As scared as I had been when I first saw that turtle, my feelings were now completely turned upside down.  I was euphoric.  I was tingling.  I felt like I was floating above the water. 

That was more than twenty-five years ago.  And, to this day, saving a giant sea turtle by accidentally impersonating the moon is one of my favorite, most magical moments of my life.  It’s definitely the most meaningful lighting work I ever did by a long shot. 

Thank you.

Part 2: Dawn Wright

So I’m going to try to tell you a good old-fashioned sea story. Or maybe not.  You can be the judge. 

So this story takes place in 1987, in the cold, frigid waters of the Weddell Sea off of Antarctica, aboard the scientific drill vessel known as the JOIDES Resolution.  This is the story that I’m about to tell you about my experience on that five-hundred-foot-long, floating scientific laboratory where we were out in the Antarctic waters for two months.  And we were completely away from our family, completely away from our friends and, to me, it felt like I was completely away from the entire rest of the world. 

This was my first time out there.  It was a fascinating experience.  Out of about a hundred and ten people aboard this floating scientific laboratory only about ten of us were women and only one of us, me, was an African-American woman. 

So on this first voyage for me I was a little fearful, I was a little intimidated, but I was also super exhilarated, super excited because the stakes were really high for me personally and professionally.  I really wanted to make good on this first expedition, and I really wanted to be accepted. 

Now, this scientific laboratory is one of a kind and it’s still out there on the world’s oceans.  It can lower miles of drilling pipe all the way through the entire depth of the oceans and then drill, baby, drill into the sediments and the rocks to go even further. 

And what we were doing out there was we were drilling for science.  We were taking cores for science, not for oil.  And one of the things that we were trying to accomplish out there in the Antarctic was to reconstruct the paleoceanographic history of the Antarctic continent.  That included also understanding when the first ice sheets formed and how permanent they were.  So this was actually a climate change study way back in 1987. 

And because we were trying to retrieve these cores from… we were in water depths of around five thousand meters, or three miles, so we had to be anchored to the sea floor for several hours in order to get those cores.  Now, normally this is okay, to be anchored to the sea floor for several hours on end, particularly if you're working in the mid-latitudes and in warmer, calmer waters, but we were so far south in the Antarctic that we had to have a whole other vessel with us at all times. 

The ship that we had with us was called the Maersk Master, an incredible ship from Denmark.  And what this ship did was to literally lasso and drag out of the way icebergs to save us, to keep us safe.  This ship was amazing to see in action.  It would put down the big, huge rope at one end of the iceberg and it would steam around to the other end, pick up the rope, and then drag that baby out of the way while we were still anchored in the sea floor. 

One of the biggest icebergs that the Maersk saved us from was affectionately called Kyle Field because this particular iceberg was literally the size of the Texas A&M Football Stadium.  Texas A&M was the scientific operator for our expedition. 

And then there was this one guy on the Maersk Master who was an artist as well and he would take the leavings of the sediments that we would core -- there would be some that would drop on the floor -- and he took a scoop of those sediments and he put them into his little firing kiln on the Maersk, and he made a little penguin out of those sediments.  He painted the penguin and then he gave the penguin to me.  So that is one of my most cherished possessions. 

I was supposed to bring it with me tonight to show you, but I forgot.  It’s on Instagram, though. 

Now, getting back to the story, we were working twelve-hour shifts out there on that drilling vessel, and during those twelve-hour shifts, I would get to know the other scientists pretty well.  But I actually spent most of my time with my fellow technicians and with the drilling crew.  This was especially during breaks and then after we would get off duty and we would hang out for our twelve hours off. 

Now, most of the drill crew, there was sort of a town/gown thing going on aboard the ship.  So it was the white-collar, white-lab-coat scientist versus the working-class drilling crew.  And most of those drilling crew were from the Gulf Coast oil industry.  There was one member of the drilling crew in particular, his name was Macel, and he scared me to death.  He was a tall, lean, grizzly, tough-looking guy from Mississippi, sort of the seagoing equivalent of a Clint Eastwood.  He and I couldn’t have been more different. 

He was from the deep segregated south. He had been to sea for decades on ships like that. This was my first voyage.  I was just out of graduate school, and I was raised in the melting pot of Hawaii.  He was white, I was black, we still are.  He was a man of few words who didn’t seem to really want to get to know anybody else different from him.  There's so many things about him that actually frightened me because he was so different.  He would also just sit in the same part of the galley all the time with his other grizzled sea dog friends. 

So I would say to myself, Well, I’m going to stay clear of him for the next two months.  So I'll stay out of his way.  I’m not sure what he thought about me. But one day, one of the friends that I had made on the drilling crew who was a younger, gregarious, sort of a free spirit, he said to me, “Well, Dawn, why don’t you come over and sit with us?  Just sit down during the break time this time and just hang out with us.”  And Macel was there at the table.  And he looked at me as if he wanted to eat me for lunch and I thought, Oh, my goodness.  Here we go. 

So I went over there and I sat down with the group, with Macel there.  And Macel proceeded to tell all of these great stories about his other adventures at sea, just fantastic stories.  We were really enjoying them.  And he was telling all these great jokes, and the jokes, they were clever and they were clean.  We were just having a good time listening to his stories and his jokes. 

Then he started asking me questions.  He asked me about where I was from and what I had been studying in school and how did I like being out there for the first time at sea with them.  So it turned out that Macel and I would spend a lot more time together on these coffee breaks in the galley.  We started to hang out together.  And even after we got off shift, we would go and watch movies together.  I learned to like the kind of movies that he liked, which were, of course, the tough-guy, action Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, because there was no way that we were going to watch my Disney movies.  That was not going to fly. 

So people saw this unlikely friendship that was forming between us on the ship and it actually helped to broaden the circle of friends that I had, that I was making on the ship.  So that was a wonderful experience.  It was great to see the fear that I had of this man turn into a friendship, and to be rewarded for stepping out of my comfort zone to get to know somebody who was so completely different from me.  I think he was rewarded as well. 

Then there was this other part of our relationship, which was really fun, which was our common love of practical jokes.  So he would think of all of these great practical jokes and then he would let me in on it.  He would say, “Dawn, I’m gonna do this.  You just sit back and watch.”  And I can’t do a Mississippi accent to do it justice, but that’s sort of like the way he was talking.  “Now, you just sit right there and you watch what’s gonna happen.  It’s gonna be good.” 

And the nice thing about this is he was the one doing the jokes.  So if there was any retribution I didn’t have to worry about a thing because it wasn’t me doing it, but I was in on it. 

Our favorite joke together was the old rubber-snake-in-the-ice-machine-in-the-galley joke.  So he would take this long, rubber snake and he would put it in the ice machine and then he’d say, “Okay, Dawn.  Sit back and watch the action.  This is gonna be good.” 

And we would sit back and have the best time watching these big, burly drilling guys who were coming to get ice for their big, burly mugs that they were going to take out onto the drilling floor with them, open the door and then jump back five feet scared to death because of the snake in the ice machine.  And that was good.  That was fun. 

So in terms of my broader circle of friends, because of my friendship with Macel, that circle went all the way up to the top, to the captain of the ship.  So the captain of the ship would let me actually sit in his chair on the bridge.  So that was real honor because absolutely no one was allowed to sit in the captain’s chair while he was on the bridge, and yet I was afforded this great honor and was able to sit in the captain’s chair and to chat with him as we saw the icebergs float by and watched the Maersk Master drag them out of the way and save our lives. 

And he also cheered with delight when I was chosen by the crew to be the ship’s Santa Claus, because we were out there at sea over Christmas.  So we couldn’t go home for Christmas and we still had a few weeks to go until we were going to be able to see land.  That was not going to be until around mid-January and we were going to be going into port in the Falkland Islands, which is another story. 

But at any rate, just imagine the only African-American woman anywhere in the southern ocean being chosen to be Santa Claus, complete with a Santa hat that they gave me and a Santa coat and a big pillow so I could have a little Santa belly.  Then I had the most wonderful time going all around the ship as Santa giving away my little gifts to all the people on the ship. 

So I just wanted to share this story about overcoming fear of someone who is completely different from you.  I thought about telling this story particularly in the wake of the U.S. presidential election and so many of us are thinking about these kinds of things these days. 

Now, when I got off the ship after that first expedition, I was way more confident, I was way more aware of different kinds of people, I was even more adventurous.  And I would see Macel several more times over the course of about three years as I continued to work on that scientific drill vessel. 

But after I left working on the vessel to go back to school for my PhD, I would never see Macel ever again.  I've not seen him again.  But that first friendship with him taught me so much.  It was so special, gave me so much confidence, and it has actually stayed with me throughout my entire professional life.  It’s been a real, real treasure and of course it will continue to stay with me.  And so it can be for those of us who go down to the sea in ships for science. 

I thank you very much and wish you happy holidays.