When I was little, I wanted to be a marine biologist. This summer I get to live out that reality as a Marine Mammal Research and Education Intern at the New England Aquarium. The New England Aquarium employs approximately ten whale watch interns over the summer, who are part of a team of hundreds of other volunteers and interns dedicated to the NEA’s mission to protect the blue planet. Every day, my work on the whale watch boats has direct implications to ensure the conservation of these amazing animals.
I go on one or two whale watches a day, each lasting 3-4 hours. My “office” is the wheelhouse of boats with grand names such as Aurora, Sanctuary, or Asteria. My coworkers include a naturalist, who is not only my supervisor on the boat who oversees the data collection, but also the main scientist/researcher.
After the boat leaves the dock in Boston Harbor, it takes us 1 – 1.5 hours to see the whales. During this time, I begin the first part one of my internship: educational outreach. The interns discuss in person with the passengers information about our destination (Stellwagen Bank Natural Marine Sanctuary), or the most common species we are likely to see (humpback whales, minke whales, fin whales). Most passengers have never been on a whale watch, and I spend a large part of the ride explaining questions like why we may see White Atlantic Sided Dolphins, but not orcas, or why Humpback whales only spend time in the bank between mid-March to mid-November.
Once we begin to approach the whales’ feeding ground, I run back upstairs for the second part of my internship, grabbing a GPS and compass for data collection and research. We don’t use radar or sonar to track the whales as it is harmful to the whales’ hearing. Instead, we find the whales simply using our eyes and the word of other whale watching boats. The naturalist and I stand from an elevated observation area and spot. Once we see the whales, I record preliminary data like weather, as well as information on the whale’s behavior, location, and identification. When a humpback whale shows its
tail (or fluke), we can actually identify individuals from each other. Their tail pattern is unique like a finger print, enabling the ability to identify individuals from each other using a large naming cataloging system
The data and research we collect helps scientists better understand and protect these animals. For example, boat strikes is the major cause of death for the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. Using data on population density collected on whale watches, Boston Harbor moved its shipping lane one degree north, reducing the probability of boat strike by 80%. I plan on potentially doing my own research during this summer, such as studying mother-calf relations or the impact of local marine pollution.
On the way back, I give a more specified talk around the cabins about general conservation. Passing around baleen (what humpbacks use to filter their food) or a vertebra, I answer and discuss questions about biology, hunting policies, climate change, conservation, and history.
I absolutely love my internship. I get to see breath-taking whales every day exhibit amazing behaviors. My goals in the beginning of the summer were to expand my marine science knowledge, gain applicable fieldwork skills, and improve in articulating environmental conservation that I am passionate about. Even in the first few weeks, I have already begun to succeed in my goals through the education of marine mammal biology as well as learning practical skills like LCDing a whale from two miles away.
My mom and brother came to visit me on the 21st! Cajun’s 2019m calf did a lot of cool behaviors that day.
Some photos and a brief summary of all my trips can be found under recent activity on our blog.