The Science of Sustainability

Why I Do Science: Dan Costa

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One of the great things about my job is to be able to talk to some of the world's greatest and most charismatic scientists, like Professor Dan Costa of UC Santa Cruz. I remember trying to get a hold of Professor Costa in December, when my colleagues and I were researching TV story ideas for the fifth season of QUEST. We were eager to do a story on elephant seals, focusing on their rookery at Año Nuevo, but we knew that to tell this story, we needed to secure the participation of Dan Costa, a foremost expert on these amazing animals.

Dan Costa has been studying elephant seals since the mid-1970s, and has been at the forefront of using satellite tags, time and depth recorders and other sophisticated electronic tags to gather information about the amazing depths to which elephant seals dive, their migration routes and how they use oceanographic features to hunt for prey as far as the international dateline and the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.

I recall finally catching Professor Costa by phone on a Friday evening at a rare moment when he was in his office and had time to talk. During a conversation that lasted no more than 20 minutes, he emailed me some background articles on elephant seals he had authored, answered a few questions about his current research, confirmed his availability for an interview in January, suggested another graduate student to also interview for our story and gave me the name of another student in his lab with whom to coordinate filming of the recovery of a satellite tag from a female elephant seal sometime in January or February.

UC Santa Cruz Professor Dan Costa standing next to the bluff outside the Long Marine Laboratory in Santa Cruz.

My thrill in securing the participation of Professor Costa was tempered by the logistical reality of getting time with this immensely busy researcher who traveled for months on end to exotic locales, including Antarctica, Australia and the Galapagos Islands. Fortunately, Professor Costa cleared his calendar to accommodate our crew for four hours albeit the day before leaving for a research trip to study seals and penguins in Antarctica.

My boss, QUEST Series Producer Amy Miller, suggested that I ask Professor Costa some additional questions, time permitting at the end of our main interview on elephant seals, which could be used for a two-minute profile of him as part of our recurring segment, "Why I Do Science".

Within the first minute of my interview with Professor Costa, I knew that he would make a phenomenal "Why I Do Science" profile. His nearly forty years of fieldwork around the world, to study a diverse array of marine animals, including albatrosses, seals and penguins, would provide a rich trove of experiences to mine and subsequently craft into a compelling portrait of a scientist passionate about science.

What I didn't know at the time is that in addition to being a highly skilled marine biologist, Professor Costa is also a talented photographer. This would prove to be a huge boon, as I would need photos of the animals he had studied over the years, as well as photos of him through the years working with marine animals around the world.

Weddell seals sleeping on the ice at the McMurdo station in Antarctica, where Dan Costa and his graduate students conducted research in early 2011. Image courtesy Dan Costa.

Over the next couple of months, he sent me a couple dozen photos, including photos he was taking in the field (or rather, on the ice) at McMurdo Station, a research center located in Antarctica. I marveled at the quality of the photos – beautifully framed, expertly exposed and richly illustrative of the hardy animals and the wind-battered tundra they called home.

After making my photo selects, I wrote the script and asked Professor Costa for any video he or one of his students may have filmed during their months of fieldwork in Antarctica, weighing and tagging Weddell seals.

Just in the nick of time, a day or two before the start of my edit, a DVD arrived containing video clips Professor Costa had personally filmed while in Antarctica. The highlight of the DVD was the material filmed just inches from Weddell seal pups; there they were, on the ice, vocalizing, looking straight into the camera – a furry bundle of wide-eyed, barking curiosity, wondering perhaps who was this tourist, swaddled in a red parka, ice clinging to his beard, braving the elements to see me up close?

Then I smiled and pressed play again and again, watching the seal pups wriggle and bark, seemingly oblivious to the unimaginably cold, harsh environment, thankful of my good fortune in securing the participation of this intrepid scientist with a camera for this latest edition of "Why I Do Science".

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Category: Biology, Television

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Sheraz Sadiq

About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.