Oct. 14 will be my two-year anniversary with Newport. In 2019, this day was my first as Oregon State University’s new director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Hatfield Marine Science Center. It would be January of 2020 before my husband and I had sold our house and moved our possessions up here, fully ready to embrace this new life. Two months later, the pandemic sent Newport and the world into lockdown, and as a result, I still feel like a newcomer.
Fast-forward to early in the morning on Saturday, Sept. 11, when I was swept up in an event that will remain indelibly stamped in my brain for the rest of my life. One week earlier, after a Herculean effort from my larger team, I sailed from Newport aboard our research vessel Pacific Storm, with four crew and eight scientists to find a whale that is known only from dead animals washed onto beaches. Our destination was halfway to Hawaii, almost a thousand miles from the nearest point of land.
Halfway there, the vessel’s transmission suddenly failed. It was the expertise and dedication of our crew that got us home, four days later. (By the way, this is far from the first time a scientific project on which I have sailed has been interrupted by engine failure. I can remember several, separate, weeks-long periods spent in distant ports waiting for parts to arrive, and twice, research vessels had to be dry-docked for repairs before continuing their work.) It was 1 a.m. that Saturday morning when we sailed under the Yaquina Bay Bridge, under our own power but without the ability to put the engine into reverse. Once we took the ship out of forward gear, it would require an intense session in the engine room to get it engaged again. The maritime skill I witnessed that next hour in getting the Storm sandwiched in tight between two of Newport’s fishing vessels, and feet from the Chelsea Rose at Port Dock 3 was extraordinary.
Even more striking though, and what will remain with me, was the unplanned dynamic of human interaction that played out over that short period of time in the middle of the night. The group of professionals (our captain, chief engineer, crew, individuals from the Port of Newport, captain and crew from other vessels), family members and friends that, at short notice and without a second thought, came together in the darkness to help us had one laser-focus, to get us in safely.
The event was unscripted, and the stakes were high. I know that a community is a heterogeneous collection, and no matter how large or how small, has divisiveness within it. But for that short period of time, I watched extreme talent, brought together through deep connections and profound trust, working in perfect harmony toward a common goal. Newport, you have something that the world covets — the ability to instantly come together, regardless of our individual philosophies, to respond as one. I write in praise of you.
Lisa T. Ballance is director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, professor of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project, and proud resident of Newport.