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© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall

Right whale research in Cape Cod Bay

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Entangled up in Policy

I have known from a very young age that I wanted to work with marine mammals, but what I wanted to do & the area I wanted to work in changed as I grew, learned, and had a variety of experiences in different settings.  Learning about SeaWorld and captivity issues in a college class drew my interest to policy work, and field work in Alaska focused that interest on human interactions and our effect on marine mammals.  Our tiny research boats were dwarfed by the hulking cruise ships speeding through the area, a summer feeding ground for North Pacific humpbacks.  Zooming along in a tiny zodiac one day (8-10 knots feels like high speed when you’re in a really small boat), we noticed a strange patch of water ahead, barely visible among the 3-foot waves.  Slowing to approach, my companion and I discovered a logging humpback whale, its gray back almost completely blending in with the surrounding water, who had chosen a really bad spot to take a snooze.  We were lucky enough to have spotted the whale before we crashed into it (and in a 10-foot zodiac, it would have been much worse for us than the whale) and pulled out our oars to safely and quietly back away and give the whale a wide berth.  Had we been in one of the giant cruise or tanker ships that transited the sound, the story would have ended much differently.  That experience was the catalyst for my interest in ship strikes and other human-related threats to whales, and what we could do to reduce the danger.

A logging whale blends in with the waves.

The policy internship at WDC has been a confirmation that I have chosen the right career path to help protect these amazing animals.  While policy can sometimes be overlooked as being boring and less glamorous than the research activities of WDC, it is what ultimately protects whales and dolphins.  Research and policy go hand-in-hand: the science informs the regulations and recommendations, and the policies protect the animals, so that we still have something to study and learn about.  And policy can be as dramatic and hectic as research work, as my fellow policy intern Juan has pointed out.  You can be working on a project you’ve been meaning to get around to for months, and then you learn that Wendy’s is marketing SeaWorld toys or there’s a 700+ page DEIS being released that has a 60-day comment period, and your attention is re-focused as you work on more pressing issues, while still dealing with ongoing projects and smaller policy matters on a daily basis.  Throughout the summer, I have worked on ship strike and entanglement issues – both important threats to whales and dolphins in the wild – but also took on captivity issues, noise in the ocean, pollution from shipwrecks, worldwide stranding networks, and a host of other matters, all in the name of policy.

I have been following WDC for years and was thrilled at the opportunity to work with the organization, and in one of those random life coincidences, one of our adoptable whales, Colt, is a whale I had adopted for many years as a child through the Whale Adoption Project (now part of WDC).  Colt has been seen this summer and is still keeping whale watchers thoroughly entertained.  One of the best parts about working with marine mammals is their ability to strike awe even in those who see them on a daily basis.  Whether it’s seeing something really cool out on a boat or reading a new paper in the office, or just thinking about the amazing adaptation that is baleen, these animals constantly amaze and astound us, and I am proud to work on making a world where every dolphin is safe and free.