Kelly Gleason

Hometown:  Honolulu, HI

Current Job Title:  Maritime Archaeologist

Work Location:  Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Job Description:  Day to day, my job varies a great deal. I'm the maritime archaeologist for a huge marine protected area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument), but I'm also responsible for many tasks that go along with running a maritime archaeology program in NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Because the site where I work is very remote, I go into the field and explore and document shipwreck and sunken aircraft sites for a month at a time in the summertime when the conditions to work (weather, etc.) are at their best. When I'm not in the field, diving and documenting shipwreck sites, I am typically back in Honolulu, where I can be at my desk working to write reports and develop museum exhibits, short films and outreach materials about the shipwrecks and sunken aircraft sites we discover and document in the field. I'm not always at my desk in Honolulu, however, I often dig through archives in search of old newspaper articles and historic maps, and I spend time in libraries interpreting the things I find on the seafloor. I also need to make sure I keep proficient in my dive skills and do a lot of diving throughout the year in Oahu with other members of PMNM's field and research team. We park our boats right outside our office on Ford Island (in Pearl Harbor) and we can get to our dive sites in a matter of minutes. I love the variety of tasks I'm responsible on any given day and I never get bored. I like the intellectual challenges that come from solving mysteries about the sites we find in archives and libraries, and I am passionate about the time I get to spend outside and underwater up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which is one of the most breathtaking places on earth.

Company, Academic Institution, Government Agency or Non-profit affiliation: NOAA/Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Highest Degree Level Achieved: and Area of Study: The title of my PhD dissertation was: “To Run His Majesty’s Ship Ashore: A Multidisciplinary Strategy to Management of the HMS Santa Monica Shipwreck Site” Strategy to interpret and manage the shipwreck site of HMS Santa Monica, a 5th rate British Warship wrecked off the coast of St. John, USVI during the American Revolution in 1782.

What do you love most about your career?

One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to explore and find new things (who doesn't love exploring?!). Discovering a shipwreck site is one of the most exciting things that you can do as a maritime archaeologist, and I work in a place (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) that is so remote that every time I go up there to search for new shipwreck sites, we find something new. I also love that being a maritime archaeologist is a lot like detective work, and you are trying to solve an underwater mystery. You get a bunch of clues on the seafloor, but you have to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. Growing up, I always loved mysteries, and now I get to solve them for my work! I also love the variety of people I work with...not just other maritime archaeologists, but filmmakers, biologists, museum curators, oceanographers and sailors...they keep my job interesting because I am constantly learning new things from them.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science or STEM related field?

I've always been passionate about history, and solving mysteries about the past. I've also always been obsessed with the ocean, playing in it, working on it, and protecting it. Most people tell any young person who wants a career that involves the ocean they should study marine biology...but there are so many dozens of different careers that get you on and under the water! When I heard about maritime archaeology, I was a teenager and couldn't believe that there was a career out there that combined my love for history, solving mysteries about the past, and the ocean! It was too good to be true...but sure enough, I found a way to study it as an undergraduate and loved everything I learned and the opportunities I had to get outside and underwater.

Describe one of the most exciting moments you’ve experienced in your work.

Like I described above, finding a new shipwreck site is one of the most exciting things that you can do as a maritime archaeologist. I've been so lucky to be involved in many discoveries in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, where I work. There is one discovery that stands out as the most exciting of my career so 2008, I was leading a team on a 30 day expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We'd had incredible success, and fantastic weather. We'd already discovered an exciting new shipwreck site at Kure Atoll and the team couldn't imagine we could do much better. On the very last day of the expedition, we had a little bit of extra time, and we decided to check out an area that was marked as a historic anchorage on an old map. It was really just a shot in the dark, since we didn't know what we'd find, if anything at all. We decided to towboard around, which is a really fun way to explore for shipwreck sites in shallow water. You tow two snorkelers behind a boat moving very slowly, and they scan the seafloor for anything that looks like a shipwreck site. My teammate Jason and I were in the water, everyone else was on the boat, already talking about how close we were to being home. Sure enough, we came across an exciting new shipwreck site. We knew right away it was an old whaling ship from the early 1800s, but it would take us almost 3 more years of survey and investigation before we could positively identify the site as the Nantucket whaleship Two Brothers. The Two Brothers is a really exciting shipwreck because the captain of the Two Brothers was also captain of the whaleship Essex, one of the most notorious seafaring disasters in history, and the inspiration for Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, one of the most important works of American Literature. The shipwreck has been an exciting project and has shown how archaeology makes history come alive. We recently finished a short documentary film about the project, as well as a small museum exhibit, and it's exciting to be able to share the story with people all over the world.

Describe the biggest challenge(s) that you've faced, and how did you overcome it to achieve you goals? 

Early on in my career, I got some great advice from a veteran maritime archaeologist...she said "if you want to do something bad enough, you figure a way to make it possible." That advice has been invaluable as I've had my share of highs and lows in my attempt to become a maritime archaeologist. Maritime archaeology isn't an easy career to pursue, there are very few jobs, and a lot of competition. It's not going to be easy, but nothing worth it ever is! After I finished my masters degree in Scotland, I moved to San Francisco and thought I would find a job in the field of maritime archaeology. I searched and searched but couldn't find anything. I ended up working for a law firm for a little while, and it would have been easy to give up on my career goals as a maritime archaeologist, but I decided that it was worth pursuing. So I thought hard about how I could find a job and decided to get a PhD and spend my years as a student getting as much experience and meeting as many people in the field as I could. It paid off, and I was able to get a great internship that segued into a great job. Looking back, that time in San Francisco was a moment where it would have been easier to give up and find a job that I wasn't passionate about, but would pay the bills. I knew in my heart I wasn't ready to give up on my dream as a maritime archaeologist and I figured out a way to keep the doors open. There is always a way if you're willing to get creative and work hard to get there.

Who is your most influential mentor and how did they help you get to where you are today?

One of the best mentors that I've had in the field of maritime archaeology was my PhD advisor, Dr. Annalies Corbin. She was tough, and always challenged me, but it definitely paid off. Dr. Corbin was (and still is) brilliant and driven, and great at creating goals for herself and not just achieving them, but far surpassing anyone's expectations. She has a great combination of vision and drive, and is one of the hardest working people I've ever met. I admire her ability to face challenges head on, and I try to emulate not just her ability to set and achieve fantastic goals, but embrace the hard work that it takes to accomplish your goals.

How do you feel you are making a positive difference in the world?  

At Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, I feel like my work allows me to make very important human connections with an incredible, remote and important marine protected area. Through the mysteries I help to solve through archaeology, I'm able to make this special place come alive for people who may never get a chance to visit or dive there. Many of the shipwreck sites and sunken aircraft sites are important connections to our past; they tell stories and remind us how we have evolved in our roles as ocean stewards. It is powerful to be a part of making a very human connection between this place, and with people all over the world. Some of the sunken aircraft sites at Midway Atoll are the remains of World War II era aircraft and are poignant reminders of the sacrifices that the brave young men made during that time. These veterans and their families may still be alive. Sharing these stories with them, and helping them better understanding their own history is one of the most powerful things you can do as a maritime archaeologist, and I'm so grateful to have this opportunity. Archaeology helps us better understand our history, so the work I do to make connections between the archaeological sites, and human stories is an important way we remind people about the importance of protecting these places for future generations.