$10K for seal research on the line for Yarmouth native

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YARMOUTH — Dashiell Masland wants to help save critically endangered monk seals in Hawaii. With enough online votes in a National Geographic Channel contest, she could win $10,000 toward making that dream a reality.

“Dash” grew up in Yarmouth and said she always knew she wanted to be a marine biologist. After she and her mother Esther Pappas traveled to Australia and New Zealand when she was 15 years old, she said, she knew she wanted to make marine research her life’s work.

“That expedition was the first time I had been scuba diving,” Masland said. “When I got under the water and saw all that I had never seen before, it was a huge eye-opener to me. It definitely helped to carve this path.”

At age 15 Masland became a certified scuba diver and by 17 she completed an advanced rescue and research scuba curriculum. She spent three months researching a devastated stretch of coral reef in Honduras and worked at the Bigelow Laboratory studying marine bacterial genetics.

Masland received a master’s degree in marine sciences at the University of New England and studied grey seals off the coast of Maine and Massachusetts. In studying seal scat, Masland was able to research their diet by using DNA analysis.

“There has never been anything else I’ve wanted to do than work with marine mammals,” she said.

While in graduate school, Masland was awarded a $5,000 National Geographic Young Explorers grant to help fund her research of the diet of grey seals. The students who won the Young Explorer grant were later considered for the Expedition Granted competition. She was notified that she and Trevor Frost of Virginia were selected for the competition and would compete to solicit online votes for the $10,000 prize to complete their proposed expeditions.

Masland said she would use the $10,000 to study the declining population of monk seals in Hawaii. They are the most endangered seal species in the United States, with only 1,100 animals, and a population that is declining at a rate of 4 percent per year.

Of the remaining seals, there is a small group of less than 200 on the main Hawaiian Islands that is not declining at such a rapid pace, she said. By studying the seal scat of this group, Masland said she will be able to better understand the biology and ecology of this small population and monitor its diet and growth.

“I am really excited to do this work,” she said. “It is exactly what I did in graduate school. I love working with the marine mammals and being in the lab and asking the tough questions.”

Even if she doesn’t get enough votes to win the $10,000 prize, the runner-up will win $2,500.

“I would still plan to go to Hawaii, but with less money, the project would look a little different,” Masland said.

The last day to vote is April 6 and the winner will be announced April 7 on the National Geographic Channel. Voters are automatically registered to win a four-person, 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands, paid for by National Geographic Expeditions.

In Yarmouth, Pappas said her daughter’s name suits her well.

“Dash has always lived on the water and has an adventuresome soul,” Pappas said. “She is always up for anything.”

To learn more about the contestants and to vote, visit www.natgeotv.com/expedition.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext, 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @amy_k_anderson.

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Yarmouth native Dashiell Masland is competing for $10,000 to help fund her study the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

“Dash” Masland collects seal scat to analyze their diet.