Whales play a pivotal role in our oceans, benefiting marine ecosystems, and humanity. These majestic creatures contribute to the nutrient cycle, maintain biodiversity, and inspire people around the world.
At the annual Human Animal-Studies (HAST) Speaker Series on September 28 at the University of Redlands, Ted Cheeseman — an ecologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Happywhale — gave a talk on how citizens contribute to ongoing research dedicated to identifying and tracking whales.
Cheeseman, who grew up whale watching in California’s Monterey Bay, worked as a company leader journeying around the seven continents at Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris, a company founded by his parents. With over three decades of experience in eco-tourism, with much of it in Antarctica, Cheeseman experienced first-hand the impacts humans have on marine ecosystems.
Motivated to make a positive difference, Cheeseman created an AI-enabled web platform named Happywhale; this platform helps researchers focus on whale science and marine conservation through whale identification. Cheeseman is currently working toward a Ph.D. in whale science while building connections between people, whales, and our oceans.
Individual animals have uniquely identifiable traits and personalities.
Cheeseman said, “in the case of humpback whales, their fluke can give insight into their experiences they may have had.” Each humpback whale has unique characteristics on their fluke from their ridges to the barnacle scars. These traits are what enable the program HappyWhale to be automated in identification and help researchers track individual whales.
Connecting citizens to science raises awareness.
Tourists and visitors who go on expeditions to the arctic or go whale watching at local beaches can submit their photos to HappyWhale. Information about their whale is then shared with them. This includes the whale’s name, migration patterns, and other information about the whale. It is as easy as set, submit, and share! This not only helps in the research process but enables people to connect with the whale they saw. Cheeseman believes, “connecting you with a whale, connects you to the whole ocean.”
Whale populations can indicate ocean health.
The ocean’s capacity to support whales has decreased dramatically due to climate change. The ocean is currently experiencing a marine heatwave, which is decreasing productivity while increasing whale mortality. Cheeseman believes that the ocean can heal itself if we do our part to mitigate climate change.
It only takes one individual to start a movement toward positive change.
Climate change will take collective effort to solve. Cheeseman had one final piece of advice for the crowd: “if you can’t do it by yourself, then try to get others to take action together.”
The HAST lecture series features world-renowned animal scholars and activists discussing topics of their given expertise. Sponsored by the Human-Animal Studies Department and co-sponsored by the Philosophy Department, the Stauffer Center for Science and Mathematics, and the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, the lectures bring students and community members together to learn more about various topics relating to animals studies and human connections to these animals.
For more information, visit the Human-Animal Studies Speaker Series page.