Putting in overtime for conservation

Bass Pro Shops Outfitter Rob Swanson devotes his spare time to protecting endangered beluga whales in the Port of Alaska

For Rob Swanson, a Fishing/Marine Lead Outfitter at Bass Pro Shops in Anchorage, Alaska, displaying a commitment to conservation and love of the outdoors is more than just part of his job. It’s a way of life.

When Rob isn’t helping customers connect with nature, he spends his spare time manning a spot at the Port of Alaska, helping endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales as a Protected Species Observer.

It’s a selfless commitment to conservation, when you consider the conditions he faces in the shadow of the Arctic Circle – in below-zero temperatures as he’s being slapped in the face with bone-chilling wind gusts.

All this to help wildlife in the region. He keeps an eye out for the beluga whales and other marine mammals, reporting their presence to construction crews at the Port of Alaska. Those crews then alter their work to not create noise at levels which may be harmful to the animals.

The Cook Inlet Beluga Whales are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, and designated as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Their main threats include disturbances from industrial activities, construction and shipping.

That puts Rob on the frontline of the work to help save them from extinction.

A lifetime of adventure in the seas of Alaska

Back in 2014, Rob was part of the team that set up the Anchorage store, where he started as an Archery Lead. Now he’s part of the Marine/Fishing Department, helping customers enjoy the region’s abundant beauty and natural resources.

His assistance at the Port of Alaska is the latest chapter in a lifetime devoted to conservation. He worked as a Fisheries and Marine Mammal Observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) and Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 10 years, then for the NMFS for 10 years in Kodiak, Alaska.

He said the job of observing can be a very demanding one, with hazardous conditions, often far away from home, and separation and isolation that makes it a mental grind.

But even with all that, “it is sprinkled with tremendous rewards,” he said. “The project has its brutally harsh days, but in a long career of observing, it is definitely the best assignment to date.”

It has provided countless memories and experiences that most people can only dream of.

He has encountered monstrous seas, watched walrus casually riding on the ice pack, seen giant squid in the catch, and witnessed polar bears feeding in the arctic.

It’s not all glamorous, though – there was the time he was at the rail of a small longliner covered in the reeking stench of sperm whale breath. Then, on that same rail, he peered over and spotted the whale’s 2-foot-wide eye, checking him out.

“Locking eyes with an animal that intelligent, strange and powerful from only 3 meters away isn’t a thing that anyone ever forgets,” he said.

Outfitters like Rob truly live the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s mission to inspire everyone to enjoy, love and conserve the great outdoors.

“Stewardship of our world’s oceans and fisheries comes in many forms, from boots-on-deck observers, to government management agencies, to large donors like Bass Pro Shops and right down to the customer who rounds up their change for conservation,” Rob said.