Voices of the Tongass - Tory O'Connell

This week's episode of Voices of the Tongass takes us deep under the surface of our coastal waters. To hear Tory O'Connell share stories from her underwater research career, scroll to the bottom of this post and click the play bar. To read more about why Tory chose to make her life in Alaska, read on.

Tory O'Connell's perspective on the ocean is usually reserved, well, for fish. Though she was raised in New Jersey, she first came to Alaska in 1978 to work on a bowhead whale survey in the Chukchi Sea. Her first gig in Sitka was working as a diver biologist for a rockfish survey earning $100 a month. It was the very beginning of the commercial rockfish fishery in Alaska, and Tory's life was about to become seriously entwined with one of Alaska's most colorful vertebrates.

"There's a little two person submersible called the Delta. It's this little yellow submarine, and originally in 1985, I was aware that there was this program called The National Undersea Program, and we were trying to figure out how many Yelloweye Rockfish there were. It was hard because they live in rocky habitats and deep water - normally you would just troll, but that doesn't work in rocky habits. And you can't tag them because rockfish have a swim bladder that inflates at the surface. So I got this idea to use the submersible. We wrote a grant and it surprised everyone when we got it." And so, Tory began to use the Delta to dive down and count Yelloweye Rockfish.

Flash forward to the present. Sitting in Tory's office at the Sitka Sound Science Center, her innovation and success no longer seem surprising. Tory is one of the premiere marine experts on the bottomfish of the Pacific. She has traveled all over the world talking about how to record and sample hard-to-find species in hard-to-access habitats, and racked up more than 600 dives in the Delta submersible, from California to Alaska. And though she has been SCUBA diving in almost every place she has ever been to, she says that the diving here at home is hard to beat. "Sitka, the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, has some of the best scuba diving in the world," Tory says, adding that while the water is not very warm, the visibility in deep water can be up to a hundred feet.

And there's more connecting Tory to this place than the time she's spent underwater. When we asked Tory how living in Alaska has changed who she is today, her response was that raising her two daughters in Sitka has had the most impact on her. "It's hard to figure out what's because of Sitka. I think I have become a better person because my children are such great people…I think this will always be home to them."

Because Tory grew up on the east coast, she can see how growing up in Sitka has been a different experience for her two daughters. "Popping tar bubbles with your feet in the summer in New Jersey. That I miss. And I miss downpours, thunder and lighting, I miss that in the summer and fall. Real bread, I miss real bread...fireflies. But on the other hand you get phosphorescence. And [Margot and Chandler's] experience has been pretty rich here...I can't imagine my life without Sitka."

Tory isn't the only one who feels like her life is intertwined with Southeast Alaska. Many Alaskans found their way here in their early twenties, like Tory, and came up with ways to stay. Tory started out as a research assistant making barely enough to get by, and in a few short years she was the point person running the Rockfish survey project. For Tory, Alaska was and is a place where she could make opportunities for herself, and literally choose her own adventure.

How have you shaped your life in Alaska? How has Alaska shaped you?


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