Home for Christmas, Emma Shrack, a 2008 Pratt High School graduate, tells about her job in the world of marine biology and her passion for humpback whales, which she discovered almost by accident. She heads back to work at the end of this month, this time in Hawaii where she will drive a tour boat in warmer waters, following the whales and studying marine biology.
When Emma Shrack graduated from Pratt High School in 2008 she had no idea that someday she would be licensed to drive tour boats in the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Hawaii, but 10 years later, at home in Pratt visiting her family for Christmas, she said she definitely loves her job and wouldn't dream of doing anything else.
"After high school I had no idea what I wanted to do," Shrack said. "I went on to graduate from Southwestern College in Win- field with a degree in general biology, but it wasn't until I was searching on the internet and found an internship in northern California for a marine biologist that I discovered what would become my passion."
The native Kansas girl went from land-locked living to experiencing the thrill of the water and the marine wildlife living in it and has never looked back.
"I got that internship and fell in love the west coast," she said. Then, in the summer of 2015, I went to visit a friend in Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward, Alaska) and I decided that's where I wanted to work."
For three years now, Shrack has piloted tour boats that take tourists and school groups out on ocean waters near south central Alaska for marine science field trips. She teaches riders about the glaciers and marine life that draw many to the area. She also works as a senior deck hand for a company that owns nine tour boats in the area. Her duties include tying up ships at the marina, conducting engine checks and navigating the boats.
"I love all of it," she said. "But I would have to say it is the whales that keep me coming back. They are so curious. When they look at you, there is a connection there. They are so myste- rious. We see new behaviors all the time. And they are so fascinating. We get up close and sometimes in the water with them. There's just something you see when you look into their eyes. They are very empathetic. There is so much we don't understand about them yet."
On Alaskan tours, the whales Shrack and company observe are usually killer whales or hump- backs. She said it is the humpbacks that she is most taken with.
"They are gentle giants," she said. "They are not aggressive at all, and often when we get in the water with them, they swim away so as not to crowd us. They are incredibly vocal and I just love it when they sing."
Other marine life Shrack comes in close contact with as a tour boat director in Alaska includes sea lions, seals, Puffins (water birds), porpoises and black bears. She works the summer season up north, where temperatures range in the mid-40s, kept cold by the glaciers in close proximity. For several months it never gets completely dark on the Alaskan waters, because they are close to the North Pole. But when winter solstice hits and darkness comes, Shrack heads south, home to family in Pratt for a few weeks, and then on to her winter job, piloting a tour boat in the Pacific Ocean on the Hawaiian coast. This year, she leaves Dec. 30 for Kaui.
"When the seasons change in Alaska, the seas get bad and the whales migrate," Shrack said. "I decided to follow them and found a job with an elder- ly couple who own their own boat. I drive for them in the winter months."
In Hawaii, off the coast of Kauai, temperatures are much more moderate on the Pacific Ocean than in Alaska. Shrack said the humpback whales are the same, but other marine life changes some.
"I take snorkelers down and we see all kinds of fish, sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and dolphins," she said. "They have different teeth than the porpoises we see around Alaska."
Shrack said she hopes to someday work on a research vessel but can't imagine life without whales and glaciers.
"I love working in Hawaii in the off-months," she said. "But Alaska is probably the coolest place I've ever been. I love living there."