Marine biologist’s travels led to dream job on Sanibel
Stefanie Wolf, who grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, always knew she wanted to study marine biology from a young age making it her career aspiration.
“Growing up in Wisconsin we would take our yearly trips to Florida. I was never obsessed with the lakes up there. It was always the ocean that obsessed me,” she said. “I always had this obsession with dolphins. I just stuck with it to adulthood. It’s always been a love of mine.”
Wolf said the career choice might have also stemmed from not growing up around the ocean.
Although she toured schools in Florida, she decided she did not want to pay out of state tuition, so she did her undergrad at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She studied ecology, evolution and animal behavior. As an undergrad student, she spent a semester in Australia to obtain experience in marine biology.
“I studied at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia” Wolf said. “I was doing three marine biology courses and one Aboriginals studies course since I was in Australia to learn about the culture. So that was awesome, that semester.”
From there she spent time getting into graduate school, taking two years off of school and spending a year working in Minnesota. Wolf did a three to four month internship in Mississippi at the Institute of Marine Mammals Studies in Gulfport for a bottle nose dolphin photo identification program.
“It was a year after the oil spill, so they were rehabbing a lot of turtles. The turtles were taking fisherman bait. They would get hooked a lot because they said they were just kind of starving with the disruption of the oil spill,” Wolf said. “The ones that did survive and made it were going after the fish and they would get hooked. Fishermen, because they know that turtles are highly protected, would kind of freak out and they would cut the line. We were trying to educate that you are not going to get into trouble. The turtle bit the hook. You need to report it, so we can come and get it and rehab it. A turtle cannot live with a hook in their mouth.”
After leaving Mississippi, she traveled to St. Petersburg, for another three to four month internship with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute doing manatee research through a manatee photo identification program. She left there and traveled to the Florida Keys for a marine science educator position for four months.
Once she concluded the internships, she went back to graduate school at Western Illinois University for her masters program.
“I knew I wanted to travel again for my masters. I wanted to study marine mammalogy and wanted to do a project that had to do with marine mammals,” she said.
Wolf said a lot of students would do their projects at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, which was not her desire because she wanted to work with wild animals.
“It was pretty much me sending out emails to contacts all over the world. After six or seven months I got accepted to do my project in Croatia. There was a place called the Blue World Institute of Marine Research and Conservation. I lived four months in Croatia,” Wolf said. “It was really awesome.”
She stayed in a house in a small little town that had a rotation of volunteers and other interns giving her a chance to meet people from all over Europe.
Out of all of her internships, she enjoyed the Institute of Marine Mammals Studies in Mississippi the most because they were very good about giving her a lot of experience.
Wolf said she spent time on the boat researching the dolphins; time in the lab analyzing the dolphins fins from the photographs on the water; time with the turtles exercising them while they were being rehabbed, as well as feeding and giving them medicine. She also worked with the kids when they visited by showing them some snakes they had.
“It was the first time leaving the midwest other than Australia,” Wolf said of Mississippi. “There were a lot of firsts that were really exciting for me because it was really hands on.”
From Croatia, she returned to Illinois and wrote her thesis and analyzed data before finding a way to spend her life by the ocean. She stumbled upon a job at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum two months after graduating in February 2014.
“I had been to Sanibel a couple of years before just on vacation. That is what sparked my interest in shelling. I had always been an ocean lover, but I was never collecting shells, or anything whenever I traveled,” Wolf said. “I had been to the museum on vacation years ago.”
She spotted a position for marine biologist, which required working on a boat with Captiva Cruises for three days and two days at the museum, and applied.
“This is perfect. I have studied dolphins. I have studied manatees. I know stuff about sea turtles. I felt like I could interpret all that being on the boat and I had a love for shells, so it was almost like the perfect position,” Wolfe said smiling. “I always wanted to go into studying marine mammals, this position intertwined a bunch of different things I loved about the ocean.”
She spends a great deal of time executing the expansion of programs the museum offers.
“I am giving programs every day,” Wolf said. “Being here for two years, I have seen so many changes and so many improvements to the museum. We are always adding new things and that makes it a fun work environment.”
The Beach Walks at Island Inn, which were offered once a week, have since been added every day because of its popularity.
“Because we do them everyday, we usually have 10 to 12 (people). When I was doing it once a week I had 25 to 30,” Wolf said. “We offer private beach walks. We are contacted for special walks. I have done four Make A Wish program walks.”
When Wolf first started at the Shell Museum she had general knowledge about shells. Since then, her wealth of knowledge has grown by working with Dr. Jose Leal.
“I knew species of shells from coming here, but really being here and through Jose and being in the community, I have learned so much,” she said.
In addition to her internships, Wolf also spent time in Uganda, Africa with her sister, who is an anthropologist that works with a company out of Charleston called Water Mission, as a research assistant. They visited communities where her sister’s company had brought safe drinking water.
“I went for three weeks in August of last year. It was two weeks of work in Uganda, a safari in Uganda and then I went to Zanzibar for a weekend,” Wolf said. “I did four days in Zanzibar by myself. The water was crystal clear and there were shells all over the beach.”
Although she found the same families of shells, she did not find any similar Sanibel species in Zanzibar. Wolf said she found so many different families of shells on the beach in two days.
“I got really excited because ever since I started working here there is a shell, harp shell. It was just one of my favorite shells we have at the museum because it’s so beautiful. When I was on the beach in Zanzibar I brought back three. The first one was really tiny, but I was screaming. I was so exited. I told myself I wanted one of those. Oh my gosh the shelling was so good,” she said smiling.
She also went snorkeling and saw dolphins swim by.
“We were on a boat and they said if you see dolphins and when we say jump, you jump. All of a sudden they said jump. I was on the right side of the boat. They were there for 15 seconds and they went on there way. I was dying since I love dolphins,” Wolf said laughing.
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