They caught up with and coasted alongside earth’s largest mammals, endangered sea dwellers that can grow up to 100 feet long, have hearts the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and whose lifespans average about a decade shy of a century. It’s therefore no wonder that the blue whale research trip to Mexico, undertaken more than eight years ago by seven students and organized by a biology professor from The University of Findlay, strengthened their interest in nature and changed all of them for the better.
The seven alumni including Susan Young ’07, Lauren Bisson ’08, Tonya Kieffer ’02, Molly (Smith) Niese ’10, M’11, Laura Sass ’07, Bretta Bauman ’07 and Brian Labuhn ’07, are now fanned across the nation and globe. Science and education factor heavily into all of their full and fascinating professional lives.
Young is a senior marine mammal trainer at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium. “I train bottlenose dolphins, North American river otters and African great white pelicans,” she said. “I also help in the rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts of our organization.” A recent career highlight was training dolphins for and playing a small role in the recent “Dolphin Tale 2” movie that was filmed at the aquarium. It features an all-star cast ranging from Morgan Freeman to Ashley Judd, but it was Young who helped prepare and direct the dolphins, who were the biggest stars of the film.
“I still tell stories about this whale trip,” said Young. She partially credits the experience with helping her to break into her career field. She said it also helped her grasp the importance of ecological data collection and testing.
The UF group, which also included Dwight Moody, Ed.D., now a retired biology professor, was the first from the United States to work with Ecology Project International, a conservation nonprofit that conducts research voyages off the southern coast of Baja California Sur peninsula, in the Sea of Cortez. The area, protected from the dynamic Pacific Ocean to the west, serves as a nursery for blue whales, which give birth to calves that weigh as much as three tons. The species lives all over the world, but its existence is threatened by environmental changes and commercial fishing accidents. Scientists are therefore monitoring populations.
It was the students’ responsibility to spot whales. When they did, they jumped into a small boat, called a panga, approached the animals as closely as they could, and watched as Dr. Jorge Urban, a marine biologist with Autonomous University of Baja California Sur, shot a hollow-tipped arrow into them to extract inch-long plugs of skin and blubber. “It was like a mosquito bite for them. They’re huge, so it really didn’t bother them (whales) much,” said Rife. “It was a rush I cannot explain to see that large of an animal right next to you,” said Young. The sample testing revealed information about each animal’s nutrition, sex and more, and contributed to authentic population and environmental health studies that Urban continues to conduct.
Watch a video of Niese and Rife explaining and reminiscing about the trip:
“It was actually the research trip that got me the job I have now,” said Bisson. She grew up loving cephalopods – animals such as octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. Now, she is a wildlife biologist for an ecological consulting firm in Anchorage, Alaska. She has seen many Arctic animals, such as Pacific walruses, up close. “A polar bar growled at me once, and luckily a vehicle was nearby so I could hide,” she said. “I also work closely with the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team lead who is trying to save the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales. Last summer I was out on a small boat and surrounded by over a hundred curious beluga whales. It was a beautiful experience,” she said.
Kieffer described the 10-day February research adventure as “something dreams are made of.” It was also a solid lesson in detail-oriented work, which is a big part of her job as a wildlife recreation specialist and biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. In addition, she co-hosts an outdoor television show, manages the community fishing program for the central part of the state, and runs a walk-in access program that helps the public gain private land agreements for hunting and fishing. “My responsibility is to educate and introduce people to Utah’s wildlife and encourage them to become stewards of the outdoors,” she said.
The 2007 whale trip served a similar purpose, and not only for UF students. Cross-cultural exchanges also ramped up the learning. Niese said the group swapped data and observations with Autonomous University students who had recently conducted similar work with Urban. “When you talk about science, a big part of it is collaboration and getting different points of view and many forms of data, and so we got to really experience that collaboration,” she explained.
The trip has even had an educational trickle-down effect over the years. Neise, who now teaches seventh and eighth grade science at Arlington High School, says she considers herself her students’ “captain for discovery.” The trip is “a nice example for the kids (her students) of what science research is,” she noted, and has helped legitimize her teaching. “Working with biologists in the field in a beautiful area was something that I have carried with me and brought to my students in my teaching,” said Sass, who teaches biology and Advanced Placement biology at Garaway High School in Sugarcreek, Ohio.
And then there were the other serendipitous moments that also made the journey, with its passport issues and lost luggage incidents, worthwhile.
“There was one morning when we woke up and there were dolphins swimming around our boat,” said Sass. “We were able to jump in and swim with wild dolphins.”
“I really enjoyed the cultural exchange and the food. It was my first experience being in another country and learning about its culture,” said Bauman. She went on to serve in Niger, West Africa for the Peace Corps, living in a bush village mud hut with no electricity, running water or English-speaking residents. Last summer she began studies at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Labuhn said one of his memorable highlights was “sleeping in a tent on uninhabited islands. Being that far away from creature comforts and technology was great,” he explained. Today, Labuhn works at Hartman Aviary, a parrot-breeding facility in Sunbury, Ohio, where he manages products for the pet bird industry. He also operates an environmental education program, Walnut Creek OLC, and is the community events coordinator for two pet stores in the greater Columbus area, which enable him to bring birds to schools, nursing homes and other places. “I teach my students about the natural history and adaptations of the animals I take to events,” he said.
For Rife, a former dolphin trainer herself, the trip fulfilled for her a lifelong dream of “seeing the biggest animal on the planet.” She thinks that books she read as a child likely incited her curiosity. Her fascination with dolphins’ impressive echolocation ability led her to advanced marine science studies and to academia, she said. Along with being a professor of biological sciences and education, she now chairs the advanced professional programs in the College of Education.
The seven former students are at different stages of their careers, and understandably have different goals. Young would like to keeping working with animals but into a management position at the aquarium so that she can teach other trainers. Bisson said she has her dream job and intends to stick with it. Niese would love to one day take her students on a similar trip, and perhaps become a college professor. Labuhn intends to grow his environmental education program. Bauman aims to become a licensed vet and return to Niger to “help people feed themselves through increased livestock production and health.” Sass has applied to graduate school to pursue a master of science in biology. Kieffer intends to continue to educate and increase the public’s awareness of wildlife and wildlife-related outdoor activities.
Lessons and memories of the whale trip, however, will always remain with them and inform their lives. It was galvanizing, all seven said, in that it either strengthened their interest in a science-related career, or it sparked it. The expedition also served as a courage booster.
“They have all gone off to do some amazing things,” said Rife of the seven. “I think the trip did give them a nice perspective to move on. This experience offered them a lot of perspective and opportunity to feel some confidence in seeking out some of the more exciting things that they’re into. So I’m very proud of all of them,” she said.
Visit these website for more information on:
Ecology Project International: www.ecologyproject.org
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: www.seewinter.com
Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Plan: http://tinyurl.com/p9adn8u
This article appears in the Summer 2015 issues of Findlay Mag. To access the entire issue, visit http://epub.findlay.edu/FindlayMag/Summer2015/