Illustration by Caetano Santos
Illustration by Caetano Santos

Understanding how whales behave is key to helping them survive in times of environmental crisis. On Jan. 20, the Seymour Center will give the public a chance to learn about whale behavior and ecology during a talk given by Ari S. Friedlaender, a marine biologist from Duke University.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to talk,” Friedlaender said. “And I hope I get a lot of people who don’t know much about these animals so they can learn.”

This talk is part of the Science Sunday series offered by the Seymour Center. On the third Sunday of each month, the center invites a researcher to come and speak about their work and their lifestyle in a noncollegiate lecture format.

“We have researchers from all over the world that come and talk,” said Chris Reeves, visitor programs manager at the Seymour Center. “Often it’s one of the few ways that people have direct access to UC Santa Cruz [and other university] professors and researchers.”

The Seymour Center is unique in its fusion of a research laboratory with a more public space.

“We’re not an aquarium, we’re not a science center, we’re a visitor center for a working marine laboratory,” Reeves said.

Although Friedlaender does not live in California full time, his more recent research has taken him to the Channel Islands off the central California coast.

“There’s such a wealth in marine life out here, and there are such interesting people that work in Santa Cruz,” Friedlaender said. “It’s a place to make a new home, and it’s a place where I want to conduct a lot of research.”

Friedlaender’s research in California, among other places, focuses on whale behavior and ecology, especially in deep ocean water where whales are invisible to human observation.

“Most of the research that I do is study how whales behave underwater,” Friedlaender said, “and try to understand the importance of how they move underwater, how they behave, how they feed, how different whales do the same things and how the same whales do different things.”

Tagging technologies are integral to Friedlaender’s work because whales spend most of their time underwater, invisible to the human eye.

“We have small tags that are about the size of a candybar,” Friedlaender said. “We put them on the backs of whales. They’re designed to measure the orientation of whales that are underwater. About 50 times a second, [the tags send us] messages telling us how deep a whale is, how fast they’re going, what direction they’re going in and what sounds they’re making.”

Information yielded by these tags led him to several discoveries, one of which concerns whales that migrate through the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

“In California, blue whales, humpback whales and fin whales end up getting struck by large container ships,” Friedlaender said. “We want to understand why that’s happening and mitigate that happening.”

With the tagging technology, Friedlaender discovered that blue whales are most often struck by ships while asleep.

“One of the areas blue whales happen to be during the summer time is the Santa Barbara shipping lanes,” Friedlaender said. “Perhaps the shipping lanes can be moved to a different shipping area. The shipping lanes in Nova Scotia, Cape Cod and San Francisco have been moved for the whales. There’s a precedent for industry to make these changes so they’re not interacting negatively with whales.”

Additionally, about half the marine animals in Massachusetts have scars from fishing nets or boat propellers, Friedlaender said. However, data collected by the tags indicates when and where the whales are. With this data, it is possible to create a system that informs fishermen of the areas where whales may be harmed.

“There’s no reason to think that industry and fishing and whales cannot coexist,” Friedlaender said. “It’s just a matter of making practices better and modifying all behavior to make sure both exist as easily as possible.”

Researchers are not the only people who can make a difference for whales, Friedlaender said.

“[You can help by] educating yourself on issues and understanding them,” Friedlander said. “Helping whales could be as simple as writing letters to congress.”

For Friedlaender and members of the Seymour Center, Science Sunday is an opportunity for Santa Cruz residents to educate themselves.

“Most of the work that we do doesn’t make it outside of the scientific world,” Friedlaender said. “I want to promote the science we’re doing, and make it accessible to as many people as possible.”

“A significant portion of the problem with the changing climate is that too few people have scientific research given to them in a way that is accessible, and that can translate into their own lives,” Reeves said.

Christina Miller, a third-year marine biology major from College Eight, said that along with events like Science Sunday, there are plenty of opportunities for non-scientists to educate themselves about threatened marine life.

“You can find a lot of good information online and in books,” Miller said. “There are a lot of aquariums that have a lot of good information.”

Miller said there are also more basic lifestyle changes that can be made to help marine life.

“The best thing [you can do to help marine life] is to recycle plastic and not litter, ‘cause that shit winds up in the ocean,” Miller said.

Along with recycling, Friedlaender said Santa Cruz residents can make a difference by attending events like Science Sunday, where information is made easily available.

“The more people become aware of these things, the more pressure there will be made for changes to be made,” he said.

Science Sunday will be held Jan. 20 at 1 p.m. at the Seymour Center at Long Marine Laboratory.
UCSC students are admitted free of charge with valid student ID.
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