On a rainy, winter day in South Florida, long-time Wild Dolphin Project member Pat Weir ventured into a local dive shop looking for a rash guard. It was a slow day and while there, she started talking to instructor Tyler Hazelwood. They ended up talking for hours and she told him all about the project. “By the time she got around to explaining how WDP collects fecal samples, I was hooked,” says Tyler.
“To have discovered a local operation of such stature that conducts their research via just mask and fins from a boat in the Bahamas… well, it seemed as if the universe was paying me a very special visit that day,” says Tyler. “I took it upon Pat’s advice to go seek out the WDP and submit a resume.”
Immediately after their chat, Tyler prepared a resume and contacted the project. After a few months and meetings with research director and founder Dr. Denise Herzing and the team, Tyler secured himself a spot on the boat as a first mate for the 2018 season.
Originally from North Carolina, boats have been a part of Tyler’s life since he was wet in the diapers (and he’s got the pictures to prove it!). During college at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Tyler started his scuba diving journey, earning his advanced open water certification. After graduating, he moved to Florida to continue his career as a waterman. Since then, he’s earned a Master Scuba Diver Trainer level of instruction through PADI with over 600 completed dives, most of which were professional in their nature. He also began developing himself as an an eco-instructor and created his very own adaptation of the Shark Conservation Specialty Course featuring all of Florida’s famous toothy faces.
Here are a few thoughts from Tyler about his time with the project and what it’s like to captain a research vessel:
Q: Can you describe your job with the project?
A: My job with the project is first mate, and also to be a friend to my colleagues and at times, co-captain. I try to always take on larger roles because I know I can handle more than what most people throw at me. I come from a technical and safety-orientated background as a scuba and emergency first responder instructor. My chief priority is ensuring people do not get hurt, the boat remains operational and we all come back with smiles on our faces. It’s a personal mission of mine to make sure all things are orderly on the boat as that’s my method for observing and detecting any potential hazards. As the captain will say in his safety briefings, small problems like a cut on your toe, can become larger if not treated and so we must be vigilant in catching things early. This of course extends to everything else on the boat like, mechanical issues, and so I spend a lot of my time around the various systems, keeping a close eye on it all.
Morale is also a big thing while at sea and through the years, I’ve learned a lot from the long list of charismatic and endearing teammates I’ve had. I try to be flexible in my resolves, as there’s simply no room for an ego out there. Each year I put my priorities as this: Have fun and be a team player. It’s as simple as that for me.
Q: What was your first research expedition to the Bahamas like?
A: My initial feeling living on the boat was that it felt completely normal and it’s a sort of rhythm I find easily. Putting people in the water for an hour at a time is what I did as a dive charter captain. So for me, watching over a handful of snorkelers was a day in the sun!
My first trip, however, was something very exciting. I not only got to find my footing on this new boat, but was able to discover the rhythms of everyone else. I had zero idea of what to expect on a science-based excursion and so I purposefully left myself open to all the new and wonderful encounters. It happened like a dream. I fell right into a groove with the team and it’s still to this day my all-time favorite trip.
Q: What are some of the worst or hardest parts of the job?
A: Well, I’ll say this… someone has to fix the broken heads (marine toilets), right? So, that’s definitely top of the list for me on less than glamorous, but we make a laugh of it and it gets easier the more times you do it. And honestly, it’s a part of what I signed up for. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of boats and their systems and that’s just one of them. Even when I’ve just come off a sixteen hour shift, eating a bowl of dinner and someone comes in and says, “ummm the toilets not flushing,” you still can’t convince me that there’s another place I’d rather be. There’s something to be said for being surrounded by pristine waters, having animal encounters that blow my mind and an experience that will live with me for all my days. It’s truly a position of fortune and I want to cherish all of my days at sea with the project.
The hardest part for me is the offseason. I can’t wait to get back on the water and do what I love — it’s a lifelong passion of mine and I go stir crazy thinking about it.
Q: Do you have any favorite experiences?
A: I’ve had so many heartfelt nights of laughter out there, so a favorite has to be in there somewhere! Maybe the night of charades where we nearly summoned the undead in our inadvertent incantations, or the first night I heard Captain Brad tell all of his jokes and stories. I guess one that isn’t a “you had to be there” kind of moment would be when we swam with the whale shark off Memory Rock. I get shivers each and every time I think about that unforgettable experience.
Q: For people considering this type of career on the water, what do you think makes you successful in this position?
A: What makes me successful as a captain is that I have a cool head, can think under pressure and have a willingness to learn. You have to be the leader on that boat at all times. People look to you for your confidence, whether you are aware of it or not and sometimes you just have to trust those instincts you’ve been sharpening all along.
For people wanting to get into the boating profession, I recommend spending as much time as you can on a boat, out on the water and just waiting for events to happen. That’s where you will really learn the tricks of the trade. Before I became a licensed captain, I shadowed others on my days off and was really fortunate in that they were tolerable of this. If you find a captain that is open to sharing their expertise, invite them to lunch, pick their brain and pry into that as much as you can. Some of the very first things I heard those captains say, I still say to myself over and over again, like: “slow is pro” or “I do things the same way, the way I was taught or learned, so if I ever were to find myself in a court room, I’m able to re-state my actions clearly and sensibly.”
That last one has a lot of weight to it, but it’s the reality of the situation. You take into your hands the souls of every person on that boat and it’s not a position one should take lightly. Every decision counts and your actions should always reflect the training you received. At least the good ones, anyway.
Q: How has being on the Stenella impacted your thoughts on science or research?
A: I consider myself a student when I’m aboard the research vessel Stenella and around the company of my colleagues. I’m always asking questions and I marvel at their ability to conduct research while underwater. Also, my heart lies with the ocean, so any further understanding of it is like getting to know a partner more intimately.
This is a hard question because I’m a poetic, emotional, sensational kind of guy and these traits have no place in science. I get turned off by some of the harsh realities I witness in nature, but the researchers see it as valuable data and are there to observe and record information. But I am feeling in those moments, and while I’m sure they are too, it seems as though they can put the science first.
If you’re interesting in more about Tyler and his experiences:
“As a person who sees the world through the lens of a graphic designer and photographer, I continue to work these muscles by presenting images, producing video content and translating my travel experiences into a narrative form. If you’re interested in following along, my stories can be found at: www.mandogsays.com and a direct link to the video content can be found at: www.youtube.com/user/