When Alexa Hilmer ’13 was 15 years old, she boarded a public bus to Provincetown, Mass., and rode it all the way to the end. At the edge of the old artist town, amid fishing boats and shipping boats, sailboats and charter boats, she found her way aboard a whale watch boat — and into a world that has captivated her imagination ever since.
Hilmer, who still had braces at the time, began working as a volunteer on the 100-ton ship, scouring the northeast shoreline for majestic whales.
“I was the nerdiest thing with all of these salty sea captains,” she said. “But I fell in love with it.”
The next summer, Hilmer was hired to work on the boat. Living at times with sailors, street performers and other “misfits,” she then spent several summers in Provincetown, despite being from Orleans, Mass.
At 19, she lived with five people in a one-room studio, “a chaos of futons and air mattresses,” she said. One summer, she added, “I was on the water more than I was on the land.”
Hilmer is now a Biological Sciences major with a concentration in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a Marine Biology minor, a stuffy title that she said belies her underlying love of a certain large water mammal.
“[My major] sounds super pretentious, but I promise it’s just a fun way of saying that I like whales,” she said.
“Like,” however, may be a bit of an understatement.
Hilmer’s room is adorned almost entirely with whale-related paraphernalia — magazine collages, photos, stickers. She can tell you that the blue whale is bigger than any dinosaur that ever lived, and that whales spend just 10 percent of their time on the surface of the water.
Her fascination dates back to a family trip to Sea World in Florida and the release of Free Willy, which Hilmer said lured her toward marine biology.
“I fell in love with the whole marine environment and never went back,” she said. “I’m sure my parents thought it was a phase that I would eventually grow out of … And then I didn’t.”
The interest developed quickly into a fantasy.
“I wanted to be the person to figure out how to talk to whales, and I wanted to be the person to figure out what they were doing underneath the ocean and how they were socializing,” she said.
But whether she would be able to pursue this passion at Cornell was not always ensured.
Hilmer worked hard to write letters and apply for scholarships so that her parents do not have to pay at all for her college education. She said her parents are supportive if she ever needs financial assistance, but that she hates asking them for help.
“I like doing it on my own because I’ve sort of been doing it on my own since I was 15,” she said. “I’m used to it and I like maintaining that sense of independence.”
She credited her fellow crewmembers for shaping her maturity and pushing her to continue pursuing studies in the sciences.
“They were really proud of me for going to college,” she said, “because a lot of them never went.”
Hilmer currently works with the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology as an undergraduate sound analyst, helping with social media and outreach.
Additionally, Hilmer is involved with the Cornell Institute of Biology Teachers, where she makes educational materials for biology teachers in the upstate New York area.
Hilmer said she will often return from the library after most of her friends have already left to go out, but loves to hang out with them in the kitchen when they return, making them food and hearing their stories.
“I’m a big proponent of French toast at 3 a.m., or quesadillas,” she said.
Andrew Simon ’13, a friend and current housemate of Hilmer’s, described her as a mother-like figure to her friends.
“She cleans up our messes, both literally and figuratively,” Simon said. “And she does it because of a genuine desire to make those around her happy.”
When discussing post-graduate plans, Hilmer said she plans on attending graduate school at some point.
But after four years of being “wrapped up in academic mode” at Cornell, she said she is ready to go back to being a crewmember.
“I kind of just want to find another boat again and go travel around on it,” she said.