Holly Kelchner has a tattoo on her foot that ties her passion to her way of life.
The microplankton tattoo speaks to her work at the Great Lakes Institute Cooperative Institute, her research on the coasts of Alaska and Africa, and how she does things in general.
“Plankton comes from the Greek root planktos, which means to roam or drift,” said Kelchner, an aquatic ecology research analyst at CIGLR. “I feel like that’s who I am as a person. I wander and drift wherever I’m supposed to go.”
Water is ideal for rafting, and Kelchner’s life and career are defined by what’s on the surface and below.
She grew up in Minnesota, and her family owns a cottage on the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Frequently going to a place kissed by the air of the Atlantic makes a lasting impression.
“From a very young age, I went out to watch the sea, lived in a house facing the sea, and slept in the sea,” she said. “That was the center of my childhood.”
She lists scuba diving as one of her many hobbies. Her father, a scuba diver who was injured shortly after Kelchner’s birth, shared stories of his scuba diving adventures that sparked her.
When she was 20, she got her certificate in the same lake where her father got his certificate. Around the same time, she moved to Alaska to study marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she did some unforgettable scuba diving.
“People thought I was crazy because I loved it. It was cold diving,” she said. “To this day, I consider those dives in Alaska to be some of my best dives, even compared to warm coral reefs elsewhere in the world, simply because of the vibrant colors of all the invertebrates.
“I wasn’t certified in a tropical climate where most people are certified. I did it in a cold lake in Minnesota where the visibility made it hard to see your hands when you were in front of you. Then I moved to Alaska Dive with sea lions and all those invertebrates in cold water.”
Kelchner earned drysuit and open water certifications in Minnesota, then advanced certification in Belize. She earned her rescue diver certification while researching toxins produced by phytoplankton in Mozambique, off the southeast coast of Africa.
She was studying for a master’s degree at Louisiana State University at the time. Her graduate advisor traveled to Michigan after accepting a position at NOAA through the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and helped Kelchner secure a volunteer position at GLERL.
Much of the appeal of leaving Louisiana for Michigan is the appeal of the Great Lakes.
“When I was in Mozambique, I was on the water every day,” she said. “When I got back to Louisiana, I missed it so much. That was my main driving force in wanting to come to Michigan — getting on a boat and actually working out on the water. That was the most at home feeling I felt.”
Kelchner actually hopes to one day make water her home. She recently started sailing and envisions it as a long-term pursuit. Last summer she worked at the North Point Yacht Club on west Lake Erie and was hooked.
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“I love being on the water,” she said. “When you’re on the water, things happen on a completely different time scale. You’re more aware of your senses, you’re looking at where the wind is coming from, how strong the wind is, and how that’s going to affect the water. You’re looking at all these different Something to manage your balance on the water.”
Kelchner said she became interested in sailing while in Louisiana, when a member of her graduate committee told her she lived in South Africa and sailed to Louisiana. When Kelchner tried to do it last summer, her coach called her a natural.
She said she hopes to one day sail the Mediterranean to experience the culture and history of the region. But for now, closer to home, she said she plans to be on Lake Erie as much as possible this summer and eventually get a boat of her own.
“When I came to Michigan, everyone told me, ‘The Great Lakes are a great place to learn to sail,'” she said. “I foresee myself turning it into a way of life. I want to make the boat my home. My partner has taken the title of first mate, I will be the captain and we will travel the world, in our Saw it at home.”