Introducing the Gray Whale Expert

Meet Gray Whale Expert Kim Shelden
Marine Biologist
National Marine Mammal Laboratory

1. Was any childhood memory important in guiding you into your occupation? How did you become interested in this field?
The ocean has always been a big part of my life. I grew up on the East Coast and my family spent lots of time at the shore. All summer long we would be sailing or swimming. Looking back I feel like I spent most of my childhood on the water or under water.

2. Any person, role model or leading authority that greatly influenced you?
My Dad was a big influence when I was young. He taught me how to use a mask and snorkel and we would explore all kinds of places. We watched lots of nature shows, especially Jacques Cousteau. He remembers me telling him when I was 5 that I wanted to be an “oceanogaffer.”

3. What is your background?
I have been a Marine Biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (part of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce) for 17 years. I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Studies-Environmental Science from Cook College at Rutgers University and my Master’s in Marine Policy-Conservation Biology from the School of Marine Affairs at the University of Washington. As an undergrad I also took courses through the School for Field Studies studying bottlenose dolphins and an internship with the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington, where I studied killer whales.

4. What is a favorite work story or experience?
Wow, there are so many. I would guess the most memorable was the first time I went to Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is a town in the Arctic Circle that is at the very top of Alaska, as far north as you can go. We were there to study bowhead whales when they migrate from their winter areas in the Bering Sea to feeding areas in the high Arctic. I got to ride snowmobiles out to the ice edge where people were counting the whales from the tops of huge pressure ridges of ice as they swam past in long, narrow, open stretches of water. The whales swim through these small areas of open water between the ice floes and sometimes have to smash through thick ice to breathe. I remember standing on the edge of the ice and we were surrounded by fog and you could hear the whales’ loud exhale as they swam by but you couldn’t see them – it was amazing. We also had to keep an eye out for polar bears! I have never been any place like that where the sun never sets and everything is covered in ice.

5. What advice can you provide to a student who might be interested in working in your occupation some day?
It’s funny really, I always expected to work in the area of coastal oceanography and I never in the world thought I would be studying marine mammals. I just happened to end up here by chance. Many people I work with come from all kinds of academic backgrounds including computer science, math, genetics, chemistry, oceanography and environmental science. To see if you really want to have a job like mine, there are a number of volunteer and internship positions with my agency as well as local aquariums and stranding response centers.

6. Any family members, including pets?
My husband is a Transit Planner for Sound Transit in Seattle. We have two terrific kids, Brandt (4 years old) and Kate (1 year old) and two crazy dogs, an 11 year old Labrador retriever and a 1 year old English Setter, and a bunch of fish (mostly tetras) in our 60 gallon aquarium.

7. What are your favorite book(s)? Food(s)? Hobbies?
Most of the time these days I spend reading to my kids. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is my favorite! When I do have time to read for myself I usually devour the current Harry Potter book. As for favorite foods, sushi is way up there (figures, huh?), but I also like Indian curries. When I have time and am not chasing the kids and dogs around, I like drawing (scientific illustration mostly), and I am learning how to do stained glass.