Q&A with Nan Hauser, Whale Wonder Woman

Editor's note: Leading up to World Oceans Day on June 8th, this week we’re spotlighting how some of our staff and partners are using science to assess the health of our global oceans and determine the most effective way to conserve them. Today we hear from Nan Hauser, a marine scientist who has devoted the last 21 years of her life to promoting whale conservation and marine management in the Cook Islands and around the world.

1. You were an artist and a nurse before becoming a scientist. What inspired you to make this major career change?

From when I was a young child, I always knew that my dream was to work underwater with dolphins and whales. But I was scared of the ocean — I used to get seasick just sitting on a dock. I knew that it was very dangerous, but I didn’t give up!

I realized very early on that I had to make a difference in the world and take responsibility for living on such a beautiful planet. I saw a video of the Iki Islands dolphin slaughter in Japan when I was 13, and that was it! I was sickened and sad.

“Walk your talk” became my motto. Follow your heart. Be passionate in what you do. I realized that I could jump the hurdles and move step by step … sometimes baby steps.

There was a lot to learn. I volunteered every free moment that I had, thinking that I would be a whale and dolphin educator, advocate and spokesperson. It never occurred to me that I would actually be doing my own research!

Focus, curiosity, overcoming fears, pushing myself to the limit and determination all drove me to where I am today. I took the challenges, the adventures, the chaos and the joy as it unfolded, and sometimes was shocked at how things fell so nicely into place.

I still practice medicine and I still do artwork when I can find the time. I think that maybe I need all three professions to feel satisfied and in balance.

2. You often tag whales with satellite tags to expand scientific knowledge about their behavior and ability to navigate. What is the process like to tag a whale?

Tagging whales is the most exciting, terrifying thing that I have ever done. When I first started tagging, it was very hard for me to approach the animal so intensely with the boat. I had written rules and regulations about approaching whales, and I was breaking them! I felt guilty that I was getting so close.

Of course, when we do this the whale’s well-being takes priority, and we make sure to never run into it or frighten it. With intense focused practice and even some tears, I learned how to do it well.

After you find a whale, you need to carefully assess whether it is a suitable whale to tag — most often an adult with very thick blubber. Your heart pounds so hard that it feels like it might come through your chest. Your task is to insert the tag into an animal that is 1000 times your size, knowing that with one swing of its tail you could be killed. (Watch one of Nan’s close encounters with a whale in the video below.)

Once you are in the right position, you keep the same speed as the animal, watch out for anything that might be in the way, insert the tag as quickly as possible and get away from the whale as fast as you can. You want to scream, shout and dance when you get the tag in … and we do just that!

People who watch from the shore think that we are crazy; some have even called the police thinking that we are harpooning them like the whalers did. The police laugh and say, “Oh don’t worry, that’s just Nan the Whale Lady. She is saving the whales, not killing them!”

From tagging the whales, we have not only learned about their migration routes, but have also unexpectedly and miraculously discovered how they migrate. We saw that the whales were making calculated turns at 23.439 degrees and multiples of that; we then realized that this is the same angle as the Earth’s axis!

Now we are delving into the bigger questions of how they are receiving celestial cues and using such precise mathematics. I hope we can ban setting fishing nets across the region where we know that the whales migrate.

3. Why are whales important for people?

It is an amazing experience to be with a whale. If you look into its eyes, you see something ancient and wise. Perhaps by being with them, they make us look more deeply into ourselves.

Although the world is a difficult place and it would be easy to give up and feel that we can’t move things in a positive direction, I am still a strong believer in change. I haven’t lost the faith that we can repair at least some of nature that we have destroyed. I feel strongly that if we look after the Earth and her inhabitants, that she will look after us!

4. What career achievement have you been the most proud of?

Creating a whale sanctuary in 2001 is my quick answer. It is over 1 million square miles [more than 2.5 million square kilometers]. By creating this park, the Cook Islands set a good example for other countries to follow suit.

However, I think what I am most proud of is the relationship that I have with all of the fishermen and the divers in the Cook Islands. Since we all spend most of our lives on the water, we work together as a unit to alert each other as to where the whales are at any given moment. We communicate on our radios and cell phones. Even some of the Air Rarotonga commercial pilots are involved; they call in whale sightings from their planes.

I adore every one of these guys. They are like my brothers and sisters and it is a family of friends and like-minded souls who know the importance of the ocean and the whales. Everyone in the whole country keeps a look out for the whales! There is an exponential power when surrounding yourself with like-minded people.

5. If you had to give readers of this blog one piece of advice for how they can help the ocean, what would it be?

In general, learn about the ocean so that you have great respect for it. Think about everything that you pour down your drains or bury in your back yard … it will eventually end up in the ocean. Be conscientious about sustainable seafood. Be mindful of the ocean and thankful for what it gives us. No more plastic bags or releasing helium balloons! Because they look like jellyfish floating through the water, I find them in the stomachs of whales and dolphins. Oops, that’s more than one piece of advice!

6. How will the Cook Islands Marine Park [the largest marine park in the world] impact marine management in the Pacific?

In summary: Liaising, listening and leading! Connecting people and places for sharing, learning and taking action.

We need integrated ocean management. That means focusing on all scales of management, resulting in the sustainable development, management and conservation of all the Pacific islands, which extend over a vast area of water larger than the surface of the moon!

This calls for adaptation to climate change and other environmental factors by developing suitable baselines and monitoring strategies that will broaden our understanding of the health of local habitats and species. Our inspiration came from Kiribati’s creation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area; we hope to inspire other countries the way that they inspired us!

Nan Hauser is a CI marine fellow and the president and director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation. Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature. To learn more about marine conservation milestones in the Cook Islands and Kiribati, check out our CI in Action: Pacific Oceanscape story.