By Christina Whiting
Raised in Homer and surrounded by Kachemak Bay, 16-year-old Axel Gillam’s passion for the ocean has been nurtured since a very young age.
At just five years old, Gillam met naturalists Carmen and Conrad Field during a Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies dock tour.
“Carmen and Conrad’s excitement about marine life rubbed off on me,” he said.
His enthusiasm was further inspired when he was in fifth and sixth grade at McNeil Canyon Elementary School, and teacher Sheryl Sotelo took his class on field trips and invited scientists to the school.
“One time, Jane Middleton taught us about plankton and winter ecology,” Gillam said. “Another time, a scientist from the Kenai Watershed Forum took us out to the creeks near the school where we learned about the impact and health of the streams based on what was living there.”
When the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve opened their Discovery Labs to the public at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, Gillam found his niche. During the labs, scientists and researches shared their studies and findings and Gillam listened, asked questions and soaked it all in. Eventually, staff invited Gillam to shadow some of the scientists, and before long, he was teaching his own Discovery Labs.
“I love teaching others what I know and in many cases, I come away having learned something new myself,” he said.
When Alaska SeaLife Center staff presented a Discovery Lab, Gillam was so enthralled by their work that he signed up to volunteer for them. When the SeaLife Center staff was called to rescue a sea otter pup near Diamond Creek beach later that day, Gillam was invited to join them.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said. “On the same day that I signed up to volunteer, I got to go out and help rescue a marine mammal.”
Gillam continues to volunteer as part of the SeaLife Center’s stranding network.
During the summer before his sophomore year, Gillam interned with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Youth Conservation Corps. He worked at Islands and Ocean, where he greeted visitors, presented discovery labs, built rat traps for the eradication of rats project in the Aleutians, did grocery shopping for field camps, and other duties.
“We pretty much did whatever needed to be done,” he said, referring to himself and co- worker Katherine Dolma.
During the last two weeks on the job, Gillam and Dolma traveled aboard the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s research vessel, Tiglax, with senior researcher Ingrid Harrald. The trio traveled through the Shelikof Strait and down the Aleutian Chain, restocking field camps.
“We loaded supplies onto Zodiac boats and shuttled them over to the islands,” he said. “Then we’d hike around and explore.”
They spent a week on remote St. George Island, assisting field researchers in studying Auklets and Red-legged Kittiwakes. They also taught discovery camps to local youth.
“We taught them how to use a GPS, about geo-caching and marine debris, and we even did a mini coast beach cleanup,” he said. “I was impressed that — even on a tiny island in the middle of the Bering Sea — the youth were interested in learning about conservation and marine sciences.”
Last summer, Gillam interned for Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, hiking with the Stewardship Coordinator to their various properties and learning about land conservation work. This summer, he hopes to be one of five students selected by the Natural Science Foundation to help researchers at a field camp in Greenland.
“The NSF Greenland science camp would give me a chance to see what scientists are researching in another area of the Arctic,” he said. “And the experience would be irreplaceable.”
While he is most passionate about science, Gillam also likes to explore his artistic side. No stranger to the stage, he sang in the high school choir and performed, most recently, in the productions of “The Color of Plaid.” He has recently been drawn to the technical aspects of sound and lighting, and ran sound for the local talent show, “Stepping Out.” He will also run sound for the HHS “Colors of Homer” performances.
Part of his work with the SeaLife Center stranding network includes taking photographs of the marine mammals he is helping to rescue. This has inspired in him a love of photography. Gillam recently bought a camera and has been teaching himself exposure and composition. He is currently the HHS yearbook photographer and others have noticed his talent. He is primarily interested in candid photography.
“I like to photograph people in their natural habitat, without any distractions by the noticeable presence of a camera,” he said.
Gillam appreciates the unique opportunities that growing up Homer have afforded him.
“Here, you can talk to scientists and artists and explore the dynamics of both worlds,” he said.
Gillam is considering studying marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast, with a focus on field research. For now, however, his future is wide open.
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