Surpassing Expectations

My summer internship at the New England Aquarium has wildly surpassed all my expectations and goals. When I first applied as a Marine Mammal Research and Education Intern, I had a broad understanding of what I would be able to accomplish in a single summer.

Dross Breaching

Contrasting the lack of Brandeis’s marine science curriculum, I originally hoped to academically broaden my marine science knowledge. During the last few months in a fieldwork setting, I have learned so much about whale behavior, physiology, as well as threats that they face every day from humans. After these few months I have a much more holistic understanding of the impact that anthropogenic activity has on marine life.

I also hoped to gain techniques and skills in the field that I could use in future research. I have become proficient in recording information such as weather data or distinguishing different behaviors of various marine mammals. This internship has taught me how to multi-task while consuming large amounts of observational data, overall teaching me how to better observe as a field researcher.

Taking a Humpback Vertebrae around the boat to Discuss Conservation

Finally, I hoped to progress in my articulation of environmental conservation. On the boat, I dealt with passengers from all over the world, with varying degrees of English proficiency, age, and understanding of marine science. When I discussed environmental conservation, such as the threats of Red Tide or Entanglement, I learned how to simplify complicated biological and environmental terminology into information that was digestible by a broad audience.

This internship helped solidify that I want to pursue a career in environmental conservation and marine science. I learned that I was incredibly passionate about marine conservation, and loved working in a flexible, dynamic, hands-on environment. I loved working outside conducting fieldwork, solidifying that I want to pursue a career where I can eventually conduct my own research. During our internship, we did a short research presentation about the impacts of marine debris on marine mammals, finding that many feeding behaviors that humpback whales exhibit in their feeding grounds (such as lunge-feeding) put them at direct risk for ingesting marine debris. I am incredibly passionate about the animals that I saw and am considering using the data I collected this summer to write a thesis for my senior year. I don’t know exactly the path that I want to take after I graduate, but I do believe that I want to take a year off in between graduate school to conduct research and broaden my field experience with marine-science.

Clamp Lunge Feeding

To any future interns that apply to the New England Aquarium, or specifically as a Whale Watch Intern, I recommend to fully take advantage of the amazing opportunities around you. The NEAq is an amazing institution that provides amazing resources, from career planning to monthly lectures about recent research. You have unbelievable access to so much information about the marine world, don’t be afraid to explore the aquarium or talk to people outside of your department. The naturalists that I got to work with on the boats are all amazing individuals; never be afraid to ask questions and take advantage of the amazing learning opportunity you have in front of you. Finally, allow yourself to become adaptable! Working with wild animals outdoors on boats with 300+ people means that no day is “normal”. Be ready for every day to be different and to expect the unexpected!

My amazing co-interns and naturalists!

 

Hornbill Upside Down!

I am genuinely sad to leave my summer internship. As the last few weeks wound down, it felt that the whales were exhibiting some crazy new behavior every day and I saw animals like Atlantic White-Sided Dolphin that I hadn’t seen previously in the summer. I was very proud to watch my own progress in identifying individual humpbacks from each other throughout the summer. Towards the end of the season, I was able to identify various humpbacks from simply their tail pattern or dorsal without the help of a camera.

My last day was bittersweet, but it was one of the most magical days on the water – with a fitting rainbow and crazy surface activity in the distance. However, I am thrilled to say that I was invited back in the fall! During the fall semester, I will help train the new fall interns and intern on the boat sporadically.

  • Kate Laemmle
Final Day: A lone Flipper Slap by Quote

Post 2: Lessons from the Field

Working on a boat is incredibly different than sitting in a traditional classroom at school. My internship is tied to the weather and the behavior of unpredictable wild animals. Often times, thundershowers and torrential down-pours do not stop our whaling adventures, and I have come to learn to be ready for anything. Recording data in brutal wind conditions or spotting for whales with reduced fog visibility has honed my observation skills and my adaptability in the field. That being said, occasionally work is canceled due to massive sea-sick inducing swells and brutal wind, and I feel like I do in school when we get an unexpected snow day.

Sunset Whale Watching

Whales are wild animals and therefore unpredictable; every day I get to observe them in their natural habitat. As much as we can make predictions about where the whales will be and what they will do, I have been shown many times this summer to never take anything for granted. For example, one day a whale named Diablo appeared right outside of Boston Harbor, 10 miles from where we expected to see her. Another day, we went to an area where whales had been feeding for weeks and found absolutely nothing.

Clamp Lunge Feeding

Visitors will sometimes come with sea-world assumptions, and an important takeaway from my internship is to understand how to balance expectation versus reality. While I get to see amazing behaviors frequently, such as breaching or open mouth feeding, some days the whales are less surface active.

An important part of my internship has been learning how to articulate critical messages of environmental conservation about these spectacular animals, and to treat each day as an opportunity to learn something new. Understanding marine mammal physiology and behavior has not only broadened my academic understanding but has allowed me to better understand why whales will behave in certain ways on certain days. Even on “average” days, my internship has provided me opportunities to learn something new every time I go out on the water. For example, just today I got to see a Mola mola for the first time! Mola mola, or Ocean Sunfish, are huge bony fish that look like big dinner tables in the water.

Mola mola (They’re super weird)

Over the last few months, I have seen myself expand in my comprehension of marine conservation and marine mammal behavior as well as gain field skills, technique, and knowledge through data collection and observation. One of the coolest ways I have been able to track my own progress is through the identification and behavior of humpback whales. I now can recognize many individuals by eyesight. By discerning individuals from each other, I have picked up on subtle behavioral distinctions between humpback whales that I would never have been able to recognize without spending months in the field. The Aquarium has provided an amazing opportunity and network, and I am so happy for this internship that has provided resources for my interest in a marine conservation/biology career.

Fan (One of my favorite whales!)

– Kate Laemmle ’20

 

 

Summer of Whales

 

A Double Breach

 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.

A single breach

 

Note the counter in my right hand, I use it to get a passenger count every day during boarding!

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

Triple Fluking Dive

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.

Open Mouth Feeding

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.