One of the first things I learned after being on a whale research boat for a mere hour was that those creatures have horrible breath. The putrid smell comes without warning and hits you with full force. The stench fills the entire air, but yet, it’s one of the most exciting smells in the world – it signals that a whale is coming right towards your boat.
I spent this summer performing marine research on gray whales on a remote island in the temperate rainforests of Vancouver Island, Canada. Quite simply, it was a biologist’s dream come true (or perhaps only mine). Our team consisted of two researchers and three interns. We spent our days on a 20-foot boat, doing focal follows of individual gray whales for ten hours, tracking every whale along a specific transect route, or collecting shrimp-like mysids from feeding areas. The data collected from these experiments were used in analysis of the population structure of Eschrichtius robustus, predator-prey interactions, and ecological community studies. While I unfortunately was not present when any conclusions were finally made, as the projects were a continuation of 30 years of study, the work I did contributed to the protection and conservation of these gentle giants.
And that’s what I took away from my summer internship: we need to begin to change our habits to protect the environment.
It’s an idea that everyone hears again and again. I’ll admit, I was one to simply listen and want to change, but never actually alter my ecologically damaging behavior. After being immersed in the unspoiled beauty of the Canadian wilderness and spending countless hours on the ocean surrounded by snow-tipped mountains, I realized that, as humans, we have one chance to return the Earth to its natural state.
Therein lays the problem. Unfortunately, many people do not have the chance to watch a pod of killer whales search for their next meal, hear the whooosh of a bald eagle as it dives for salmon, see a porpoise glide through the water only inches away from them, or even smell the awful but simultaneously amazing odor of whale breath. If people could see such breathtaking sights with their own eyes, feel ocean breezes and the sticky salt on their faces, or gaze into the eyes of a 60-foot cetacean, then I believe that the topic of environmental conservation would be a much larger issue than it currently is. After I was able to see animals and plants and all of wildlife in its most natural, untamed form, I wanted to change my habits now. We all need to change our lifestyles now, even if it means inconveniencing ourselves at times, because the thought of an emptied ocean is unthinkable.
Small differences add up, too. Buying wild-caught fish instead of farm-raised prevents the creation of dead zones in the ocean because it reduces the concentration of nitrogen in the water. Reducing our amount of trash even by a bag each week greatly helps the marine ecosystem because most garbage ends up in the ocean, only to form actual islands that inhibit oceanic growth. Supporting sustainable and eco-friendly companies and products are simple ways to help protect the environment that we so desperately need. It’s important to remember that while humans rely on our surroundings for resources and nearly everything in life, the Earth does not need humans.
After coming into contact with gray whales day after day, I realized that I don’t want to harm them or their home in any way, even if it is indirectly. I want to know that 50 years from now, I can gaze out to the west and know that those whales are still swimming about, breaching and fluking and thriving.