University of Redlands

Dr. Lei Lani Stelle is teaching her students how to research human impact on marine mammals off the west coast

November 16, 2015

With the deck of a boat as her classroom and the ocean her laboratory, University of Redlands Associate Professor Lei Lani Stelle is teaching her students how to research human impact on marine mammals off the west coast. 

Using tools as simple as a pencil and as sophisticated as a global positioning system, the professor and her students work together to understand how humans can do a better job of sharing the ocean with whales and dolphins in the most populous areas of the United States. 

Through the University’s Student Science Research program, Stelle’s undergraduate students are funded to work with her on research full-time during the summer. At the end of 10 weeks, students produce a poster illustrating their work and findings to present at the program’s annual research poster symposium. 

The ultimate goal of the work is to develop strategies to reduce risks to the marine mammal populations Stelle and her students are studying.

The students also conduct individual research projects such as analyzing sea lion behavior and examining whale respiration patterns. Elise Walters ’16 focused her capstone project on identifying bottlenose dolphins by their dorsal fins to estimate their number locally. Through the summer internship she also worked with Stelle on data collection to see firsthand the impacts humans have on animals.

“We saw numerous sea lions with rope or fishing line embedded in their necks and there are a few whales in the area that have massive scars from entanglement or boat collisions.”

Stelle’s original focus of study was grey whales, but that broadened once at Redlands. “We were out on the ocean, seeing all sorts of things—fin whales, blue whales, humpback whales,” Stelle said. “So the project expanded. We started noting the boat traffic and how the animals are impacted. Now we record everything we see on charts and through the app.”

The “app” is Whale mAPP, a Web- and mobile-based application, developed by Stelle and MS GIS graduate student Melodi King with funding through the California Coastal Commission. Using GIS to monitor marine mammals, the Whale mAPP can be used on GPS-enabled Android-based devices to submit information about marine mammal sightings, including the sighting date, species category, species type, count, presence of calves, behavior, cloud cover, wind scale, confidence rating and notes from the water. The information is shared and saved through an online geodatabase at, where the sightings are displayed on an interactive map with photos, video.

So far, about 100 users have collected more than 2,000 marine mammal sightings and documented more than 25 different marine mammal species.

Stelle says the data collected is important to research in the classroom as well as in the field. When students access the site, they can view the marine mammal sightings, formulate hypotheses and test their conjectures using the collected data.

“This develops the students’ scientific inquiry, spatial reasoning and critical thinking skills while increasing their knowledge of the natural world.”

Stelle is working to write curriculum for the classroom geared toward middle-school age students to teach them basic hypotheses testing and spatial literacy. At that age, Stelle says, the students are already tech savvy and the work is engaging because marine mammals have “some charisma.”

Throughout the year, Stelle conducts research through funding from the Earthwatch Institute. Some of her most engaged students volunteer, as do “citizen scientists” who connect with the project through the Institute.