The Back-Up Plan

Probably one of the most important things you can do as a field biologist is have a back up plan. Research is incredibly expensive. The kind of expensive that it could cost you $10,000 per day just to rent a boat expensive. With costs like those, you need to make your sampling time counts. Data is valuable, and it is only valuable if it is good data. Therefore, you have to do everything you can to ensure your data are complete and reliable.

I’m the field, there are so many variables that have to come together just right that it is almost impossible to follow your original plan. You are using mechanical and electrical equipment in a moving outdoor environment, with Mother Nature, and possibly live animals. 

First things first- make sure you have a detailed initial plan. Then think about everything that could go wrong. If you are in the field and you have a problem, you can’t just hop in a car to buy more supplies, or call AAA to come pick you up. In my experience, here are some things that need back up plans:

Boat operation



Quantity of supplies 

Equipment operation


1. Boat operation (or other vehicle): if your mode of transportation fails you, what are you going to do? Make sure someone has your float plan and you have a way to communicate with them. In many remote locations, cell phones are not reliable, so have a satellite phone or some other way of calling. On that note, you must be able to relay where you are and the most accurate way to do that is by being able to give your GPS location. Be familiar with your vehicle. If it is the first time you have ever been in the boat, get some info on it. Understand what is available to you onboard, have safety devices, basic maintenance items, and know how to use them. Boy Scout skills! 
2. Weather: Keep up to date with the weather! All day long! Be prepared for rain and sun exposure. If a storm pops up unexpectedly, what will you do? Do you know the area well enough to find a safe place to ride it out? Will you try to run around it? If it’s hot, do you have enough food and water? What if your boat breaks down and you have to wait awhile for help. Do you have shade? Know your environment. 

3. Health: Have medical supplies with you in case of an accident. You most likely won’t be able to get right to a hospital if needed for a long time. Know basic and wilderness first aid and have everything you need to put it into practice. Also, if you or your coworkers take medicine, have them with you. 

4. Quantity of Supplies: “Sorry we couldn’t get all the samples, we ran out of jars.” I’m sorry but this is never acceptable. You must bring extras of everything. Expect for something to blow away, break, or get lost. Have more than you need in this situation. Also, research products are not sold in common retail stores but typically only available online. Plan ahead and order more way ahead of time so it can come in before you depart. 

5. Equipment Operation: This is a good one. I can’t tell you how many times the scale just stopped working, or the water quality readings went haywire, or the batteries died. This can often be solved by simply having extra batteries and power chargers on board. Have manuals with you too. This is often overlooked. I have had people call me from offshore that needed info on how to calibrate a scale. Think top to bottom with equipment- for example, if you have a fancy CTD and it stops recording, have a YSI as a backup, and if that isn’t working right (happens all the time), have a basic way to measure. Have a thermometer, jars to bring water back to measure at the lab, ways to collect the water, get my drift? Plan for the worst and you will be okay.

6. Protocols: Most important of all, know what is required for the project. Are there specific protocols unique to that project? A sample can be collected in various ways depending on the goals of the project. Read the protocols and have a copy with you for reference. 

I obviously haven’t covered everything, but I hope this jogged your mind for your unique situation. Many of these steps are overlooked and it’s often too late when you realize the problem if you aren’t prepared, and with someone else’s money on the line, it’s so important that you do your very best. Have any questions or comments? Drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you and offer some real world advice. 


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