I have spent this summer working as a nature surveyor and a scientific diver for Metsähallitus, a state apparatus which is responsible for the protected areas in nature as well as dealing with forestry. A job like this is something I’ve been working towards for some time now. Do you know that feeling of really wanting something and building it up as you wait for things to happen – and when you get in, it’s even more awesome than you expected? I do now.
So, looks like all the effort I went through to get my Advanced European Scientific Diver certification paid off in the end, big time. For some time getting this job was a bit touch and go. There was an another job that was in a scheduling limbo, maybe starting on spring, maybe not, and there was a very nasty surprise with the diver medical checks required to get the job. Luckily the job situation resolved itself, and the medical problem turned out to be more about the nurse not being very good at explaining how to do a peak flow test. I was on hot coals over the latter, having to go to the navy base for further testing, facing a real probability of getting a no-dive stamp, which would’ve been the death of this dream. The doctor was ready to administer a full battery of tests, but with some better instructions I just exhaled into the tube the right way on the first try and everything turned out to be just a-okay. “Oh, no problems there, we’re done – sooo, do you want a tour of our pressure chamber facility as we have time?”
In mid June I packed my life into two backpacks and a trolley case, and headed up north to the Oulu region and the Bothnian Bay. I joined a team of eight field biologists, including Essi who is the team leader, Suvi who’s the main boat pilot, Niina the botanist, Lari the generalist, Jalmari who was the other newbie of the year and two trainees, Ines from Germany and Alejandra from Columbia (you can find more blog posts in Finnish and beautiful pictures in our Metsähallitus merellä blog).
The work started straight at the deep end, so to say. After a trip to a grocery store to get food for the whole week we loaded an ungodly amount of gear into a boat and headed out for our first field base in an island. I like to “preserve” moments as reference points, to see what has changed and how. Now, looking back at that boat trip where I actually fastened my life preserver wrong, it’s stunning and awesome how much I have learned during the summer – and I didn’t go in totally oblivious.
In a nutshell, these are some of the tasks I’ve done during the summer. About the terminology, a transect is essentially a 100-400 meter long measuring tape / rope that’s lowered on the seabed, and sometimes on the shores. We dive along it and every 10 meters of rope and every meter of depth (1.0, 2.0, 3.0…) we survey a 4×1 meter grid, writing down the composition of the seabed, the type and amount of plants on any given substrate, and make notes of animals.
- Surveying a transect underwater.
- Taking plant samples underwater.
- Wading on the shorelines with water binoculars, looking for endangered species.
- Going through the samples with a microscope and literature.
- Preserving samples by putting them in a dry press.
- Driving boats ranging from a small rubber boat to a 7,5m offshore work boat when traveling, filming underwater video and setting down transects.
- Building a permanent transect from rope, measuring tape, concrete blocks and a ton of zip ties.
- Archiving and handling dive logs.
- Photography over and under water.
- Driving a bunch of cars and pulling equipment and gas trailers.
- Filming drop video, and interpreting it. Drop video is essentially a video camera we lower to the sea with a cable, and take a one minute video of the seabed to be interpreted later.
- Dive gear maintenance.
- Electrical tinkering and maintenance.
- Refueling boats and the gas trailer, including wrestling with the hose hook-ups.
- Outboard motor repair.
- Launching boats and pulling them back up on the trailer.
- Being a booth guy at maritime events, telling the general public about the biology and state of Baltic Sea and Bothnian Bay, and what Metsähallitus is doing to preserve them.
- Figuring out the video and location data format of a drop video program, and trying to figure out a way to make the latter human readable.
- Giving an interview to a newspaper.
- Taking side scan sonar pictures of the seabed.
- Outreach and PR, for example by talking with people whose cabin shores we are currently surveying.
…and so on. There have been only a handful of days when I haven’t learned some new thing, like how to fix something, how to pilot a boat better, or how to recognize a new plant or animal. During the summer I think I’ve learned to recognize at least 20-30 new plants either by sight or under a microscope – largely thanks to Niina who has been endlessly patient with me asking a barrage of enthusiastic questions.
Our typical workweek starts on the Monday morning when we meet in front of Metsähallitus offices in Oulu. We pack our gear in Hilux and drive off to a store to buy a week’s worth of food. After that we head out to our field base, which is usually a cabin on some absolutely beautiful island, sometimes on the shoreline. Usually the electricity comes from a generator or sometimes from solar panels, there is no running water and toilets are outhouses. Sometimes it feels like about 70% of marine biology is about carrying equipment, of which there is a lot, 20% is maintaining and repairing the said equipment by channeling the spirit of MacGyver through duct tape and zip ties, and the rest is actual survey work.
On the field we start the days by grouping up according to previous evening’s brief and get on the boats to do our day’s tasks. Some people dive, some people film the seabed with the drop cameras, some endangered species are surveyed on foot and with water binoculars. Occasionally we do other things such as counting the young of sea birds by walking the shores. The days on the sea can be really long, but it’s not really a problem this up north since even at the end of August it feels the sun barely sets. A few times I’ve though it’s six in the evening, and it’s been around ten. When the groups get back to the cabin, it’s the time to maintain all the gear, archive and log all the notes (yes, we take written notes underwater on special paper) and to do microscopy on the day’s samples. Then there’s the dinner, followed by washing up in a sauna. After that people are usually fit to fall asleep where they sit, and tend to turn in quite early.
Speaking about dinners, in spite of long days on the sea and a lot of physical work I’ve gained a few kilos during the summer. Our bosswoman Essi is a serious foodie, and she cooks a dinner for everybody every day. And it’s not like porridge and BBQ ribs, but something actually fancy (Brie, strawberry and chocolate salad level fancy), which usually comes with a selection of 2-3 wines and a dessert. In addition to being awesome as food it’s also a really great way to create group cohesion. Everybody coming together for a shared dinner really ties up the group and it’s a great feelgood way to end even a strenuous work day.
The dinners aren’t the only feelgood moments, since there’s been a little bit of partying as well. We’ve gone out with group to celebrate the end of the field season, and earlier in the summer there was Pookitanssit dance at the old pilot station we were staying in at the time, on the protected island of Ulkokrunni. There was a great dinner, sunshine, dancing, sauna and fun ’till the sun came up. In the penultimate week of the work we went to help the Vaasa people on another picture perfect island cabin, and we had a joint official end of the year party with a five course meal and wine tasting.
This summer has been probably the best of my adult life, no exaggeration, and a really formative experience. This has been the best and most fitting lifestyle for me: wake up early in the morning, have a breakfast, head out into the nature to do things that combine physical activity with science. Come back in, have good dinner and sauna, early to bed – and every couple of weeks a move to a new beautiful and interesting location.
I left here two weeks after Heli and I decided to call it quits, and after this work is over I will (hopefully) be moving out to a totally different field and into a new city. This summer I’ve gotten to fulfill the dream of being a diving marine biologist which I’ve held since I was six, and I’ve learned a lot not only about my job but about myself as well. I have pulled up all the remaining stakes, and I’m in a curious state of rather pleasant limbo, living from a backpack, doing things I find intensely pleasant and rewarding, and just drifting on from one moment of beauty and accomplishment to other. I feel free in a way I haven’t ever felt in my life. At last.
The menu of the summer has featured a healthy dose of humble pie. All in all, for my adult life I’ve gotten used to thinking myself as if not the most effective and practical person in a given project, at least quite high up on that particular ladder. In this job I’ve had to play catch-up from since the beginning. This happens especially with loading and unloading the equipment. I remember where things are by visual memory, and I think in terms of responsibilities and staging areas: “it’s this guy’s job to carry that thing from here to there”, and so on. I was thoroughly confused in the beginning since things just seemed to move on their own volition. I set something down, turned around, and it was gone – and gone to the place where it’s supposed to be through some self-organizing system of people just moving stuff. I resigned pretty fast from the organizational duties, since apparently that part was handled better than I could have done it. Frankly, it’s fun to feel a bit slow now and then. That experience made the remnants of age old mental scaffoldings come clattering down and I guess I’ve really left one phase of life behind. And it’s not galling, since even objectively speaking, this group is very effective. We actually finished most of our tasks so far ahead of schedule that we had the time to loan ourselves out to help an another team with their work.
The other thing that has changed with me is that I think I got over my need for solitude. I’ve spent the summer with eight people in small cabins and even smaller boats in such a close proximity I think I can recognize our team by the taste of their elbows. I really don’t mind, quite the contrary. I spent one weekend alone in a colleague’s commune house, and getting to sleep in the first night was surprisingly hard – where were all the other people snuffling and snoring and farting in the same room! I did not expect that, but good riddance to bad rubbish – I’ve spent large enough swaths of my life alone as it is (though, rarely lonely). I’m really going to miss this awesome group of great personalities.
Soon this awesome summer is over, and September is looking very very “interesting”. I may get to move to another city, I may get to start a new job in a new field, we have to divide our belongings with Heli, and yes – I may get to start a new school. The world has a habit of throwing curve balls my way, and the latest was that I was accepted to two schools without actually applying for them. Looks like I have the chance to study nature and preservation for two years, and specialize as environment maintenance, which means for example restoring natural habitats back to health and reverting changes made by people. I’m hard pressed to think of a more interesting field of study right now, but the goddamn unemployment bureaucracy is making my life difficult. It is possible to study with your unemployment benefits in certain cases, but that requires a prior decision from the unemployment officials. Contacting those officials is humiliatingly hard, though. You can put in a contact request, and they will just tell you “we’ll call you between 13.8 and 20.8”. And that’s it. If you miss that phone call, that’s all she wrote. And miss it I did, by four minutes, since I’m working on the motherfucking sea, driving a boat or diving, not waiting with my phone glued to my ear 24/7. Even when I’m unemployed I can’t structure my life around waiting for a phone ring on an arbitrary moment in time.
I don’t miss the capital region, and as a matter of fact I’ve realized that part of my life has been over for some time, and it’s the time to turn the page. I think I’ll be moving to an another city whether I get a job there or not. Oulu has sold itself to me as a summer city, with all the light and activities, but I suspect that in the wintertime the only things to do here is to drink booze and sort your gun collection according to the barrel taste. Turku it is, looks like.
On my last visit to Espoo Heli and I spent the Friday night driving around in her new car, doing geocaching, bouldering and urbex, with a side order of picking fresh raspberries. Being together like that felt easy, uncomplicated and fun. I’m really thinking our read on the situation was correct: we’re good at the adventure buddies side of thing, but suck at the relationship stuff, so let’s keep the former and drop the latter. The fact that it seems to really work couldn’t make me more relieved.
So, here I am, at the end of one dream, looking at a future that looks much more interesting than I could have ever hoped. Considering the fact that I’ve been living in cabins in uninhabited islands for most of the summer, I’ve also managed to rustle up surprising amount of romance and dates. (Yes, human. No, not imaginary. No, last name is not gif or jpg). It remains to be seen how things will develop on that front.
I’m currently sitting in the terrace of Kauppuri 5 restaurant, medicating my rather robust hangover and melancholy with their excellent burgers, watching the sun set in the end of the street. The bright vibrant greens of June have turned into the deep Technicolor hues of August, and last night your breath started fogging up outside the first time. Yesterday I said bye bye to another colleague, whom I won’t be seeing on the job this week, and maybe never again. It was also a farewell party of a commune, and a lot of fun was had. Commune farewells hit a nerve for me, though, since I’ve lived in ones for about a quarter of my life. It’s hard not to feel positively wistful, but the great thing about melancholy is that it comes with joy built in.
The last week of the work is about to start. The future is bright, the possibilities seem endless, and I’m free and unfettered to pursue whatever I want. I understand my luck and privilege, and I couldn’t be more content – and contentment is something I have traditionally sucked at.