Building scientific friendships: A reflection on the 21st annual meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy

By Dawn Barlow, M.Sc. student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I recently had the opportunity to attend and present my research at the 21st meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. This gathering represented a community of graduate and undergraduate students from the Pacific Northwest, networking and discussing their research on the biology of marine mammals. Dr. John Ford, whose name has become synonymous with killer whale research in the Pacific Northwest, delivered a compelling keynote speech on not only the history of his research, but also the history of the relationships he has built in the field and the people that have shaped the past five decades of killer whale research. This theme of cultivating scientific relationships was a thread that carried us through the weekend. Beautiful weather had us all smiling happily as we ate our lunches outside, musing about science in the sunshine. A philosopher’s café event facilitated roundtable discussions with experts in veterinary science, spatial statistics, management consulting, physiology, and marine pollution. Students were given the space to ask questions ranging from manuscript writing advice to the worth of our work in the current political climate (and write notes or doodle drawings on the paper-covered tables as we listened).

The oral and poster presentations were all very impressive. I learned that bowhead whales are likely feeding year-round in the Canadian Arctic, adjusting their dive depth to the vertical location of their copepod prey. I learned that the aerobic dive limit of stellar sea lions is more of a sliding scale rather than a switch as it is for Weddell seals. I learned that some harbor seals are estuary specialists, feeding on salmon smolt. And I learned about the importance of herring to Northeast Pacific marine mammals through an energy-based ecosystem model. I had the opportunity to present my research on the ecology of New Zealand blue whales to an audience outside of Oregon State University for the first time, and was pleased with how my presentation was received.

Aaron Purdy, MSc student with the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, moderates the first oral presentation session wearing the designated “fluke tuke”. I may have giggled at the Canadian word for beanie, but I have to admit, “fluke tuke” has a much better ring to it than “fluke beanie”!

But beyond the scientific research itself, I also learned that there is a strong community of motivated and passionate young scientists in the Pacific Northwest studying marine mammals. Our numbers may not be many and we may be scattered across several different universities and labs, but our work is compelling and valuable. At the end of the weekend, it felt like I was saying goodbye to new friends and future colleagues. And, I learned that the magnificent size of a blue whale never fails to impress and amaze, as all the conference attendees marveled over the blue whale skeleton housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia.

Left to right: Michelle Fournet, Samara Haver, myself, and Niki Diogou representing Oregon State University at the student conference. Behind us is a blue whale skeleton, housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the University of British Columbia campus.

Many thanks to the graduate students from the University of British Columbia who organized such a successful event! At the end of the conference, it was decided that the next meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter will be hosted by the Oregon State University students here at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. It is a year away, but I am already looking forward to seeing these newfound peers again and hearing how their research has progressed.

A happy student selfie at the end of a successful conference! We are looking forward to a reunion at Hatfield Marine Science Center next May!

Reporting back on the Whales in a Changing Ocean Conference

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

My flight back to New Caledonia gives me time to think and process all that I have experienced in the last few days. From April 4th to 6th, I had the great opportunity to attend the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference held in Nuku’alofa, in the Kingdom of Tonga. This conference organized by SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme) as part of the “Protect Pacific Whales – Ocean Voyagers” campaign brought together members of the Pacific Island governments, whale-watching operators, NGOs, IGOS and scientists.

Opening ceremony

As a relatively novice PhD student studying humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia this was my first experience attending a conservation and management focused conference. To be completely honest, when I was asked to attend the conference as part of the work I am conducting on the effect of environmental changes on humpbacks of the South Pacific breeding grounds, I gladly accepted the offer, as an opportunity for me to learn more about the political mechanisms underlying international conservation plans. However, I was a little sceptical as to what tangible outputs could come out of such event. How would the science be integrated into this rather political event? How many delegations would be able to make it? Would they manage to agree on strong objectives regarding the conservation of cetaceans in the region?

Leena Riekkola, a PhD student at University of Auckland, and I with traditional flower necklaces offered by the organizers

On the first day of the conference, we sat through several hours of formal opening ceremony and comments from the governmental delegations that had travelled to Tonga from all over the Pacific: Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Niue, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, Palau, Fiji and many others. These comments mainly consisted of a succession of (well deserved) acknowledgments to the Tongan government for hosting the event and the enumeration of the endless list of threats faced by cetaceans in the region. Despite the tedious nature of this inevitable display of etiquette, I was impressed by the sight of all these governmental and non-governmental delegations sitting around the same table to discuss the future of whales. I was surprised to hear a note of emotion in several of the speeches that day. I clearly had not realized how valuable whales are to the Pacific islanders. Valuable economically of course, as whale watching is one of the most important drivers of tourism to several of these islands, most of all to Tonga. But also importantly, whales and dolphins bear a strong cultural value to the people of the Pacific. Many of the attendees shared stories and legends about whales, and I quickly realized that these animals were indeed a “cultural heritage” that people were eager to protect and preserve.

The next two days of the conference were built around a series of plenaries and workshops surrounding 3 themes: sustainable whale-watching, scientific research and emerging threats. While I was initially a bit lost and did not quite understand where all of this was going, I progressively saw several recommendations and objectives emerging from the discussions. By the end of the conference, I realized how much had been accomplished in only three days and that these achievements were more than just words. Four main outcomes resulted from this conference:

  • The commitment to adopt and sign a Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration by 11 nations/territories of the region (out of 21), namely: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Not all of the governmental representatives were able to sign but it is likely that some will join later.

  • The agreement to a voluntary commitment to “Protect, conserve and restore whale populations in the Pacific islands, which will be presented at the UN Oceans conference in June 2017.
  • A technical and scientific input from international working groups to help establish the next SPREP Whale and Dolphin Action Plan for 2018-2023

  • Tonga’s announcement of a whale sanctuary in their waters.

    Governmental representatives group photo after signing the Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration

Whether these declarations of intentions and recommendations will actually lead to tangible actions in the short term, I could not tell. But I am glad I got the opportunity to witness the very first regional conference on whales in the Pacific Islands, and the celebration of these beautiful creatures and their place in Pacific cultures.