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Blogging from Biennial: Colleen's Final Thoughts

Colleen and Monica survived SMM 2017Well, we have returned (physically, but not yet mentally) from Canada and the chaos that is the Society for Marine Mammalogy Biennial Conference.  After five packed days of conferencing and two days of workshops, some recovery time was definitely necessary. Now we are starting to process all the information we learned and sort through the long list of to-dos and follow-ups.

This is my second Biennial, and it did not disappoint! After my experience in San Francisco in 2015, I was actually really looking forward to the controlled insanity of this year’s conference (though I think I failed in adequately preparing Monica for what to expect).  I love the opportunity to learn about new research and what’s happening in various parts of the marine mammal world.  The Biennial is a great opportunity to meet researchers face-to-face and learn more about their work, and how it applies to conservation and the work that we do here at WDC.

The workshops are the perfect example of opportunities for collaboration between people focused on more specific subjects.  I was a presenter at Saturday’s workshop and shared an update on WDC’s Beluga Sanctuary project, and learned about the status of other sanctuary efforts for whales and dolphins.  We are coming closer to developing sanctuaries to be a real alternative to current captivity options for whales and dolphins, giving them more space in natural settings where they have the opportunity to make their own choices.

As the Rekos Orca Fellow, my work is focused on orca populations around the world, and I was able to connect with researchers studying orcas in the Arctic (yes, there are orcas that far North!), Russia, Iceland, Antarctica, and of course here in North America.  In some areas of the world, orca research is still in the early stages, and the extensive knowledge we have about the Resident, Bigg’s and Offshore Ecotypes of orcas in the Eastern North Pacific (off the west coast of the U.S. and Canada) can help guide and inform developing research. 

My second workshop focused on some of these lesser-known orca populations, and researchers shared updates on their work and requested input from brainstorming for next steps.  The Far East Russia Orca Project has found that at least two ecotypes (fish-eating and mammal-eating) occur off the coast of Russia.  There appear to be at least two separate types off the coast of Japan as well, and no overlap between the Russian and Japanese populations.  The orcas of the North Atlantic are harder to classify – there are at least two types, but they don’t fall along dietary divisions as nicely as the North Pacific orcas do.  Some Icelandic orcas eat herring and seals, and we’re not quite sure what category they fall into.

Increasing our understanding about different orca populations, where they live, and if they are unique from other orcas, helps WDC develop our conservation work and decide where to target our efforts.  For example, knowing that there are different orca ecotypes in Russian waters helps our effort to stop the live captures of orcas destined for marine parks in Russia and China.  And understanding that some orcas in the North Atlantic also eat seals has implications for potential impacts from toxins.

In addition to helping inform and guide our efforts, attending the Biennial is just a lot of fun.  Not only do I get to catch up with old friends from various places in the field of marine mammal science, I get to meet new people and even a few “legends” in whale science! It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and geek out about whales with other people who love them just as much as we do.  Attending would not be possible without help from you, our supporters.  This conference helps us do our jobs better, and bring you the most current information and conservation concerns about whales and dolphins around the world.

Of course, while our time in Halifax was mostly marine mammals from sunup to sundown, we did find time to explore the beautiful waterfront, sample the local cuisine (vegetarian poutine does exist!), and see some of the historical sites of Halifax.  We had beautiful weather, at least until tropical storm Philippe showed up, our Canadian hosts were friendly and gracious, though no one could fully explain curling to us, and saw amazing sunrises every morning on our walk to the conference center.

A huge thank you to the Jessica Rekos Foundation for helping send us to Halifax, and to the conference organizers for all their hard work and a job well done. 

The next Biennial will be in Barcelona in 2019, in partnership with the European Cetacean Society, as the 2nd ever World Marine Mammal Conference.  I, for one, am definitely looking forward to it! – Colleen

Some stats from this year’s SMM:

  • Attendees: 1700+

  • Presentations: 516

  • Posters: 546

  • Plenaries: 4

  • Talks I attended: 90+ (I lost count)

  • Hours of Conference per day: 10-14

  • Miles walked to and around downtown Halifax: 15ish (24.14km)

  • Morning Pumpkin Spice Lattes: 6

  • Desserts eaten: 6

  • Poutines: 2