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It Was One Whale of an Internship

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  Intern Clarisse Hart '03 (front row, left) with members of the Center for Coastal Studies staff.

Iíve been interested in marine life for as long as I can remember. I spent a big part of my childhood devouring every ocean-related book I could find. By the time I was nine, and putting the finishing touches on my own marine species classification chart, it became clear that my interest in the world beneath the sea was more than just a phase. But it wasnít until my sophomore year at Mount Holyoke, after taking Introduction to Oceanography with Assistant Professor of Earth and Environment Kirt Moody, that I found my callingóbaleen whales.

The following winter, I applied for an internship at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the best-known baleen whale research facilities in the world. Getting the internship was a long shot, since I was only a sophomore, so I was ecstatic when I received my acceptance notice four months later.

By the first day of my internship in September, I was so excited that I could barely keep my composure as CCS Humpback Whale Program scientists Jooke Robbins and David Matilla showed me around the center. A private, nonprofit organization that has been in operation for twenty-five years, CCS focuses on marine conservation, coastal planning, and education in the waters of Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau of sand just off the Massachusetts coast. This area is home to seals, endangered birds, and four main types of baleen whales: minke whales, and the endangered humpback, finback, and right whales. The bank has been deemed a National Marine Sanctuary because of the wide variety of animals that take advantage of its rich nutrient content.

My work was in the humpback whale section, one of the strongest programs in the nation and a part of the centerís science and rescue department. CCS scientists have compiled a one-of-a-kind catalog of more than 1,100 individual whales from the Gulf of Maine, noting features about each, including age, sex, and family lineage. The center also has naturalists aboard every whale-watch boat of the Dolphin Fleet, a popular whale-watching company. CCS naturalists and interns collect photographs and behavioral data during each cruise and take special care to impart to each whale watcher the importance of marine life conservation. The center is also the only institution on the East Coast authorized to disentangle large whales from fishing nets and other ocean debris. So far, center scientists have freed fifty-five whales, including sixteen critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

As the only intern last fall, my job was multifaceted. I helped Jooke and David with their work in population studies and rescue, from shooting photographs in the field to scanning photographs in the office. Twice a week, I went on a whale-watch boat to record data on the dynamics and behavior of the animals we encountered, including whales, basking sharks, ocean sunfish, and harbor seals. My independent project for the semester was to catalog the centerís thousands of dorsal fin pictures into a coded system of identification. I also participated in research cruises on the centerís vessel, the Shearwater, to identify, monitor, and collect skin biopsies from humpbacks. I even attended the autopsy of a beached humpback whale. By matching its tail pattern and dorsal fin shape with photographs in the CCS catalog, we were able not only to identify the whale, but also to determine its age, sex, and maternal line, and the date it had last been seen in the Gulf of Maine.

Each day, I saw something spectacular: an enormous mother whale with her calf mimicking her every move; a close boat approach by a curious whale with a tail wounded from past entanglements; the synchronicity of five whales surfacing at once. Each day, I realized that I want to spend the rest of my life studying whales. There is so much still to know about them. No one has seen a humpback whale being born, and we have no idea how long they live. The center is making steps to change all this, and I feel proud to have been a part of that.

Back on campus now, I am spending much of my time in Clapp Lab, working with Callan Ordoyne í03 to identify New England wetland spiders. Whales are my first love, but this opportunity for independent study came during my first-year honors tutorial with Aaron Ellison, Marjorie Fisher Professor of Environmental Studies. Though the research didnít involve whales, it seemed a good way to broaden my horizons while gaining field/lab experience. In fact, it was my extensive background in spider research that got my foot in the door at the CCS.

Research experience is what sets an undergraduate apart from her peers, even if the research itself is not directly related to her field. Professor Ellison introduced Calley and me to his wetlands ecology work during our first week at Mount Holyoke and has continued to advise our research. He has provided us with the tools and ideas to acquire graduate-level knowledge in spider taxonomy, a summerís worth of field experience, and a network of scientific contacts. This spring, Calley and I hope to publish a paper on our research, and this summer, I plan to return to the CCS to begin my thesis on humpback whale population studies. After graduation, Iíll likely put arachnology aside to earn a Ph.D. in humpback studies, but I know Iíll never forget the journey that led me thereóthe incredible launchpad I found at Mount Holyoke.

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