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Updated: Jul 17, 2019

“It’s not a hippo!” I exclaimed, with both exasperation and childish bravado. Of course, I was allowed to be childish as I was 8 years old and arguing with my older cousin, who was convinced that the gray whale mom and calf we saw resting in a Catalina bay were actually hippopotamuses. For years I laughed at that memory, but it was not till I was in my first university class on the Biology of Marine Mammals, that I realized my cousin was not as far off as I imagined, since hippos are the closest living relatives of whales.

I can’t really remember a time when I was not fascinated by marine mammals. My dad helped to instill my love of the ocean as I was born in Hawaii and we lived on an old Navy reject ship he had insisted on buying, despite the fact that my mom suffers from seasickness. Apparently I was the only one of the family who enjoyed a stormy crossing from Oahu to Maui, giggling as I rolled back and forth in my crib. Although we left Hawaii when I was still a baby, I grew up in Huntington Beach, spending all of my time in the ocean: swimming, sailing, snorkeling, and exploring tide pools.

Photo from my birthplace of Hawaii with my mom. At age 7 months, I was already happiest when in the ocean!

Frequent trips to Catalina in our small sailboat provided me with the wonderful opportunity to observe gray whales, pilot whales, common dolphins, and sea lions. Those experiences, combined with watching Jacque Cousteau documentaries, and reading everything I could find on the animals, inspired me to want to become a marine biologist at a young age. When adults would ask if I wanted to work at Sea World, they seemed surprised when I responded that I planned to earn my Ph.D. and become a researcher.

I was incredibly fortunate to have early exposure to marine life and parents who supported what many thought was a crazy dream. Of course, I was also lucky enough to meet my now-husband, Shane Keena (more on that in a future post), who shares my passion for the ocean and has always been my greatest cheerleader.

Shane and I sailing off Catalina after a day of scuba diving (1991)

Now I have the career I always wanted; I am a biology professor at a small liberal arts university where I get to work closely with students, I am able to do research on topics that interest me, and travel around the world to experience unique encounters with marine mammals, from kissing gray whales in Baja to snorkeling with humpback whale calves in Tonga.

Shane and I have long wanted to share these opportunities with others and so formed Life Aquatic Expeditions to include other people in these incredible experiences!

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