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Meet a scientist: the whale whisperer

Editor’s note: A recent survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International (CI), we have  lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one.

Olive Andrews is a marine program manager for Conservation International, where she works with Pacific Island nations to protect the ocean — and the resources coastal communities rely on — in the face of climate change, pollution and overfishing.

We spoke with her about what whales can teach us about the health of the oceans — and her longtime friendship with a humpback named “Nala.”

Question: What is it about the ocean and marine life that interests you?

Answer: Whales are my favorite.

I participated in a youth marine education program when I was a teenager in Australia, which culminated in a voyage at sea on a tall ship researching humpback whales — and from that moment I was inspired to work in marine conservation and science. Primarily I work on marine migratory species: whales, turtles and sharks. My passion is still very much around whale research and learning about how whales are recovering from past exploitation in our region here in the Pacific.

Q: How did you go from participating in that program as a teenager to doing what you do now?

A: I got my boat captain’s license when I was about 19 and started working on whale research expeditions in Hervey Bay, Australia. From there, I traveled the world volunteering and interning for various projects and expeditions in Canada and in the Pacific researching humpback whales.

While I got my marine science degree, I became involved with the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, a group of scientists working across ten countries in the Pacific Islands that study stock structure, abundance and distribution of Oceania humpback whales. Other populations of whales around the world have been recovering, but in our region the population is growing slowly. So, I’ve been working to increase the conservation of these animals that are still endangered.

Q: Do you have any interesting stories about your interactions with whales?

A: I have a special relationship with a whale called “Nala” — she is a humpback whale. If you could have an auntie in the whale world, she would be mine. I have known her since I was 18, when I met her in Hervey Bay. She comes back to Hervey Bay every two years with a newborn calf. She knows all the boats very well by the sound of their engines. So, she knows our research boat, and over the years, Nala would present her new calf to us by putting it on her nose and pushing it towards the side of the boat as if to introduce us. She is an incredible animal, and a mature breeding female. She takes the other juvenile females under her wing — so to speak — and teaches them behaviors. Every time I see her, I’m reminded of our incredible journey together. Each year, she travels more than 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) through the Southern Ocean across huge seas and icebergs, and she manages to come back to the same place. So, when we meet, it’s quite an emotional meeting, and it’s special to see her on the occasions that we do.

Q: What advice would you give to a young scientist that wants to do what you do?

A: I am very lucky to work at Conservation International. Now, of course, I don’t work just on whales — I work mostly on large-scale marine protected areas and their management. The advice I would give is that if you’re very passionate about anything in particular — any kind of science or any kind of creature — to volunteer for a research program and get some experience learning about that animal or topic. If you are persistent, as I was, eventually you work yourself into an organization or into a field by becoming good at it. I was a volunteer for many years before I started having my airfares paid to go to various research projects. So, follow your passion, whether it be bugs or whales or anything in between — and just be persistent with those people in your field that you want to mentor you. They will eventually say yes.


Q: How do you stay optimistic in the face of so much negative news about oceans?

A: It’s easy to be disheartened when you read the news about plastics killing our whales, overfishing and how climate change is impacting our oceans. What keeps me going is the connection that I have to the sea. I make sure that I spend a few weeks out at sea on a boat doing research every year to reconnect with the environment. It inspires me every time.

I’m also inspired by the people that I work with — and by the good news stories that come out. I think humans like to focus on the things that are going wrong, but what I see in my work every day are things that make me hopeful about the future.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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