"What's It Like to Work for the National Park Service?" Interview

This interview with Gary E. Davis, a park ranger, environmental steward, and research scientist from 1964 to 2007, details both the potential opportunities available with the NPS and the satisfaction that Gary gained from a National Park Service career.

Inside NPS: How did you begin your career with the National Park Service?

GED: Accidentally… in 1963, while searching for a summer job, I cavalierly applied for a career position as a park ranger. I’d been working on fishing boats in San Diego, CA, for five years, but a 5-hour interview with Ranger Tom Hartman at Cabrillo National Monument and four summers at Lassen Volcanic National Park as a ranger trainee with people like Ranger Bill Ehorn convinced me to give up the sea and go with the National Park Service. When I finished graduate school in 1968 with a Master of Science in biology, I accepted a “permanent” job as the campground ranger at Cinnamon Bay, in Virgin Islands National Park, and discovered I could have both the sea and national parks.

Inside NPS: What was your toughest NPS job?

GED: While at Virgin Islands National Park, I replaced Astronaut/Aquanaut and Navy Comander Scott Carpenter as a Project TEKTITE Aquanaut. I found the challenges both exhilarating and exhausting. Coordinating logistics and park operations with NASA, Navy, and Department of the Interior interests in this “man-in-the-sea” project was a full-time job by itself. I also helped evaluate the efficacy of living undersea to conduct ocean research as a member of a 7-man aquanaut team. After nearly six months of pre-dive physicals and training on the TEKTITE Habitat in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, PA, we launched a 120-day expedition into the sea. The core effort was a 60-day mission living 50 feet below the surface of Lameshur Bay. We routinely spent 13 to 16 hours a day in the water tagging and tracking lobsters (and the sharks that ate them), mapping coral reefs, and conducting other research on reef structure and function. We came home only to undergo tests for the NASA behavioral psychologists and Navy and University of Pennsylvania hyperbaric physiologists who were studying us aquanauts like guinea pigs. The boundless energy of youth, a passion for discovery, and the excitement of adventure took us beyond the pale for this pioneering exploration of human limits in the sea. Anything seemed possible for me after Project TEKTITE.

Inside NPS: Tell us about some of your funniest NPS experiences.

GED: Humor is an important part of my life and career, but difficult to express here. To appreciate most of my amusing times “You just had to be there.” For example, while sonically tracking tagged lobsters in Lameshur Bay one night, a lobster that had been foraging slowly across a grass bed suddenly began zigzagging all over the bay, zipping around much faster than we thought any lobster could walk or swim, and then it disappeared. Puzzled, the next morning we reacquired the lobster’s sonic signal on a nearby reef and dove down to discover six large nurse sharks resting in a large reef crevice, one shark beeped with the sound of our tagged lobster. That explained the speedy lobster: the shark had eaten it. The experimental sonic tags were expensive and we needed that tag back. So we set out to retrieve it from the shark with a bang stick and a movie camera to record the event. My dive buddy, Aquanaut Ian Koblick, led the recovery effort and I followed in his wake with the camera. He swooped down and planted the explosive end of the bang stick on the shark’s head, but it failed to detonate and his momentum vaulted him over the shark. Instantly, all six sharks “jumped up” off the bottom and scattered, several coming my way at high speed. I jammed the 80-pound camera into the nose of the first shark and somersaulted over it as it sped away. As I rolled over, I heard the bang stick go off behind me and saw Ian’s fin floating by my head. When he fended off another shark with the stick between his feet, it finally detonated, harmlessly knocking off his fins. We never saw the sharks or the sonic tag again. We did spend some time afterwards with the Navy Dive Safety Officer, which I’m sure improved our diving program.

Inside NPS: What were some of your most memorable NPS moments?

GED: Going where no one has gone before, experiencing nature’s power and beauty, discovering how nature works, and inventing solutions to restore nature, these are a few of my favorite things about working for the National Park Service. I will remember forever: exploring the inky depths of submarine canyons 1,200 feet below the surface in Channel Islands National Park; discovering clouds of fish and peacock-hued giant clams in sun-drenched coral canyons at Sanganeb Atoll in the Red Sea off Port Sudan; shepherding a pod of 29 stranded false killer whales safely off Dry Tortugas National Park beaches and walking on the back of a lost and sun-burned, 31 foot-long, female whale shark while guiding her out of shallow Florida Bay in Everglades National Park; gliding silently through towering amber pillars of kelp in the company of giant sea bass at Anacapa Island; pondering the mystery of nesting sea turtles on park beaches and the thrill of watching 3,000 spiny lobsters adopt the “low-cost” concrete-block housing we designed and built to keep them from harms way during marina construction in Biscayne National Park. These, and so many other memories, weave the tapestry of my NPS career.

Inside NPS: What was the best part of your most recent NPS job?

GED: Exploring with 85 coastal park superintendents and their staffs and partners how to better connect people with underwater resources, so we can assure that the nation’s ocean heritage is as well protected for future generations as are those on land. It’s the people who share our passion and commitment to make a better world that spark my passion for the job.

Inside NPS: What were the best assets you brought to the NPS?

GED: I think the best things I brought to the NPS were an enthusiasm for park stewardship (especially in the ocean), a passion for using science as a way of learning, and an ability to communicate to many audiences the joys and values of parks.

Inside NPS: What most excited you about your NPS career?

GED: I most enjoy seeing the NPS and its partners adopt scientific principles for practical conservation, as exemplified by such programs as environmental Vital Signs Monitoring. After working with people all over the world for more than 40 years to improve ocean conservation, I also find very exciting the recent establishment of more and larger fully-protected marine reserves in the Florida Keys, Virgin Islands, and California, as well as in Victoria and Queensland, Australia, in British Columbia, Canada, and in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Marine reserve establishment is a political process, based on decades of science and advocated by people who want to see fish around forever. The reserves are reversing a century of unsustainable exploitation in the sea, helping to restore seriously-depleted resources, and will assure that future generations of people will be able to enjoy the bounties and wonder of the sea as did my generation.

Inside NPS: What most frustrated you about your NPS career?

GED: I find most difficult convincing coalitions of people to learn from other people’s experience, and not to wait for disasters of their own from which to learn of nature’s perilous plight. Guiding conservation of public resources seems like steering a supertanker with a committee on the bridge. Convincing that committee to change course and hold a new course long enough to make a difference was the most frustrating part of my job. My solution is to invoke the power of persistence… endless pressure applied endlessly.

Inside NPS: What other things do you want to do?

GED: Over the next few years, I anticipate traveling widely to learn how other people of the world preserve their heritage, and helping to inspire the next generation of Americans to care for their heritage.

Inside NPS: What advice would you give to new NPS employees?

GED: To paraphrase the late NPS Director Horace Albright, “Don’t let the National Park Service become just another government bureau.” Discover your own personal reason for protecting and preserving the parks, nurture it, make it your raison d’être. It will serve you and your family well. Share your passion for parks with others, they will love you for it and you will be better for it.

Last updated: May 25, 2017


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