Marine Mammal Conference

By M. Motley (w/ edits by Chris Petersen)

Students and scientists alike “geeked-out” at the bi-annual Marine Mammal Conference organized by the Society for Marine Mammaology, where marine mammal researchers from 72 countries gathered this past December in San Francisco.  There were over 3,000 people attending this event, including just about every big name in the marine mammal world.  Nine students from College of the Atlantic attended and presented their own research, including Marina Cucuzza (’16), Olivia Bolus (’16), Matthew Messina (’16), Grace Shears (’17), Abby St. Onge (’17), Siobhan Rickert (’18), and graduate students Evan Henerberry (’17), Lindsey Jones (’17), and Maddie Kellett (’17).  There weren’t a lot of other undergraduates at the meeting, and some of the COA students were mistaken for PhD students.  I spoke with Marina Cucuzza (’16), Grace Shears (’17), and Siobhan Rickert (’18) about their experience at the conference.


(Left to right) Molly Martin (’15), Abby St. Onge, Matt Messina, Marina Cucuzza, Evan Henerberry, Lindsey Jones, Olivia Bolus, Siobhan Rickert, and Grace Shears.

To say that the students had an amazing time is an understatement; when I talked to Marina, Grace, and Siobhan, their faces positively glowed when they relived the experience.  They not only saw their idols speak, but the students met them and received their advice.  Dr. Ann Pabst, Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen, and Dr. Peter Tyack are just a few of the big names that the students talked to- names that they have consistently cited in their own work.

Meeting a top researcher in your field might sound intimidating, but according to the three students I spoke with, the top-scientists were just as excited to meet them.  As Dr. Ann Pabst was watching a PhD student present, Siobhan said that Pabst was “hard-core geeking out about how exciting it was.”  Just imagine that your idol is watching you- still a student- present your research, and that your idol is not only genuinely interested but overly enthusiastic.

Grace was especially thrilled to meet Dr. Ann Pabst.  Like Pabst, Grace is extremely interested in beaked whales, specifically their anatomy and physiology.  To meet somebody at the top of your field, interested in the same obscure detail as you, is not an experience to forget.  This was a fantastic opportunity for students to get the most up-to-date information in marine mammal science, get career advice from scientists, talk to other students about labs they have worked for, and to network.

“It’s helpful to know what’s going on now, so that we can figure out what we potentially want to do in the future, or maybe even work with these researchers.”  – Grace Shears (’17)

A lot of the information at the conference was based on unpublished work.  It can take years for an article to get published, so the conference is one of the best ways to get information out as soon as possible.  The conference also included raw footage- something that wouldn’t exactly make it into a scientific article.  Students felt “honored to see” this side of the research.  Not only were they honored, but they were also inspired by the positive vibe at the conference.  There is often a pessimistic view around extinction and what global warming will do to our oceans, but everyone at the conference was full of hope that the oceans will recover.


Clockwise from upper left. Marina presenting her poster; Olivia proudly standing by her poster; Evan, Olivia and (below) Grace hanging out at a poster session, and Siobhan with her poster.

The event was also incredibly reassuring for the COA students.  College of the Atlantic is extremely well-known in the marine mammal field and recognized as an excellent school for marine biology.  Many of the researchers knew of COA alum in the marine mammal field.  There were a few COA alum and old Allied Whale interns that attended the event.  Alum Zack Klyver even arranged a dinner for the alums and current COA students to meet.  It’s always exciting to see COA students become “real scientists!”

So what did the students do to get here?  Each of them worked on a marine mammal project and presented their research during a poster session at the conference.  Although the students worked out of Allied Whale, most of the work was collaborative with another set of researchers from different institutions.  So at the meeting, not only did they present their findings,  but they were able to meet the researchers that they collaborated with.

Grace and Siobhan have been working on a project started by Peter Stevick at Allied Whale.  The project was in collaboration with the Reykjavik Marine Research Institute in Iceland.   Their goal was to map migratory patterns of Icelandic whales.  They had about 200 photographs of whale flukes to go off of, so they don’t have enough data to say anything for sure.  However, out of their samples, the number one breeding area for Icelandic whales seemed to be the Dominican Republic.  This is a project that Allied Whale will continue in the future.  Grace is actually going to Iceland this summer to begin her senior project, a new project on Icelandic Humpback Whales at the Reykjavik Marine Research Institute. She will be looking at the distinctive marks we use to identify individual whales, and which kinds of marks are retained, which fade with time, and how this affects our estimates of population size. Since she met the researchers at the Marine Mammal Conference and likes them, she is significantly more relaxed about her internship.

Marina has been working with researchers in Azores, Portugal to search for migratory stop over points for humpback whales using photo identification.  A stop over point is a temporary foraging ground used during migration, often called a “Snack Bar.” Using photographs of whale flukes that date back to 1990, she described the Azores as a stopover site for humpback whales traveling from the Cape Verdes and going to Norway.  Although Marina will not continue this project, Allied Whale now has a database for Azores and will be taking on the project.

Going to conferences is something COA strongly encourages its students to do, and if you are presenting you can use your expeditionary funds towards the costs of the meeting. Doing work that can be presented at a conference isn’t trivial, it involves a lot more than a project in a class, and the students at Allied Whale were typically working for over a year on their project at Allied Whale before heading off to the meeting.  We know there are students heading off to the Geological Society of America meeting in March, and students in several disciplines go off every year with or without professors to present work at meetings. At COA, we just happen to be lucky enough to have Allied Whale on campus, and thanks to the hard work by Rosie, Tom, Peter, and director Sean Todd as well as past efforts by Judy Allen, Steve Katona, and others, COA is able to offer some really unique opportunities.  If you are interested, go talk to them, its the office on the third floor of Turrets with the best view of the water that is full of fins and flukes.

About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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1 Response to Marine Mammal Conference

  1. To complete the geek-out, we would love to see the titles (and authorship) of the work that you presented at the meeting – could you share those as comments for us? Also, if you can remember any of the alums that were there that we didn’t mention, a shout out would be great.


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