Introducing the Gray Whale Expert
Meet Gray Whale Expert Kim Shelden
National Marine Mammal Laboratory
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
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.
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
Commerce) for 17 years. I received my Bachelor of Science degree
in Marine Studies-Environmental Science from Cook College at Rutgers
and my Master’s in Marine Policy-Conservation Biology from
the School of Marine Affairs at the University of Washington. As
I also took courses through the School for Field Studies studying
bottlenose dolphins and an internship with the Whale Museum in Friday
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.