My Cetacean Story

Those who know me well are familiar with my interest in programming, but few are aware of my passion for cetaceans 1, especially dolphins. I’m equally fascinated by both topics, and I’ve spent a lot of time delving into Computer Science over the last couple years, but I haven’t had many opportunities to further my interest in cetaceans… until now.

Even from an early age, I’ve always been fascinated by marine mammals. As an infant, my favorite stuffed animal was a white “snow seal”. I also had cartoon dolphin and whale cutouts hanging on the walls in my room. As a toddler, I used to watch SeaQuest DSV with Mom and Dad, where I admired Ensign Darwin. Star Trek even starred humpback whales in Episode IV: The Voyage Home 2. Finally, the first time I visited SeaWorld I was utterly amazed by Shamu and the other marine mammals; I imagined how fun it would be to work with them when I grew up.

Fast-forward to middle school: my first “programming” experience was with the LEGO Mindstorms RIS 2.0 kit’s drag-and-drop interface. I spent a lot of time learning the basics of JavaScript (and HTML as a scripting environment 3), PHP, and Java (to represent my school in computer science competitions) while dolphins took a back seat through middle and high school. I’d occasionally take the time to learn more about them, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became: Their intelligence intrigued me, and my exposure to SeaQuest’s dolphin translator inspired in me several ideas about a possible “delphinese” language.

In high school I had to decide between technology and cetaceans as I planned my college career, and technology was the more practical choice. I was also slightly embarrassed at the time since—in my immaturity—I thought that liking dolphins was “a girl thing” (I would later learn that very many excellent cetacean studies have been carried out by male researchers). My dream occupation would have been to do something involving both dolphins and computers, but dreams only come true in fairy tales and Disney movies

Semesters passed, and it didn’t seem like I would be doing anything related to dolphins any time soon. But last semester I had a great lab instructor who was a Marine Biology graduate student researching orcas (one of my favorite dolphin species) off the Galápagos Islands. Suffice it to say that my three-hour biology lab quickly became the highlight of my week 4. I mentioned to her that I would like to learn more about and potentially work with cetaceans, she referred me to her instructor, one of the greatest researchers in cetacean behavior, Dr. Bernd Würsig 5. We exchanged several emails, in which he gave me a lot of excellent reading material (all of which I read) 6 7 and invited me to spend the winter minimester at Texas A&M University at Galveston taking his course in cetacean behavior and ecology.

I enthusiastically accepted that invitation and am currently having a Balaenoptera musculus of a time (the time of my life!) studying everything known about cetaceans from Dr. Würsig himself: he is an excellent and very funny professor—definitely one of the best I have ever had. I look forward to getting up at 6:30 AM every morning to see if the resident bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are in the bay before I head to class. I’m meeting many new people in the Marine Biology / cetacean studies field and learning how I might be able to offer my background in technology and programming. Now my dream occupation of using technology to research dolphin communication seems closer than I would have ever imagined!

  1. The name “cetaceans” is derived from the suborder Cetacea, which is the taxonomic grouping that contains whales, dolphins, and porpoises. I say “suborder” because Cetacea was recently moved under the order Cetartiodactyla, so now the former suborders Mysticeti and Odontoceti are now infraorders. ↩︎

  2. Most people were later surprised to learn that there were no humpback whales used to make the movie; all scenes containing humpback whales were either prerecorded footage or mechanized special effects. ↩︎

  3. I used HTML as my scripting environment since Node.js was not around at the time, and even if it were, the concept of using a terminal seemed daunting to me then. Now I can’t even use a computer unless it has a terminal program. ↩︎

  4. Most other students seem to dread three-hour labs, but I always found them to be fun and interesting. ↩︎

  5. Dr. Würsig has his own Wikipedia page, so he must be very significant! :-) ↩︎

  6. Those who know me very well also know that I’m not what you might call an “avid reader”. I’ll read textbooks and encyclopedias cover to cover, but I seldom finish any fictional literature. ↩︎

  7. I’m really enjoying this footnote plugin, aren’t I? ;-) ↩︎