2002 VOLUME 6, NUMBER 3
CLARISSE HART '03
Clarisse Hart '03 (front row, left) with members of the Center
for Coastal Studies staff.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.