Published: August 02, 2018
When a whale breaches, it can be awe-inspiring. The giant, bus-size creature peeks out of the sea, white foam and salt water spilling around it like lava, before the sea pulls it back in, crashing like thunder.
The first time Haley Lasco ’19 saw a humpback whale breach it didn’t happen just once but upwards of 20 times.
“She also slapped the water with her flippers and tail, which is a sight to see and a sound to hear,” said Lasco of Grayslake, IL, of the female whale the research team had identified and named Scylla. “I also find it incredibly adorable and special when we get to see a mom and calf together, and if the water is calm enough you can see the calf swimming under its mom in order to nurse.”
She has spent her summer in Plymouth, MA, interning for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a nonprofit organization that works for the protection of whales and dolphins. Out of the six days a week she is working, three are spent on whale watching boats.
“We are there to collect data on the whales. This data includes the time of day, latitude and longitude that we observed a whale or a group of whales. We also keep track of the pinnipeds we see and the trash we come upon, which we often try to retrieve,” Lasco said. “We are also on the boats to do a little bit of educational outreach with the passengers. This involves showing them a sample of baleen (this is a filtering apparatus that certain whales have instead of teeth), telling them a bit about the everyday life of a whale, and what they can do to help the whales, like recycling or cutting back on single use plastics.”
Single use plastics include everyday items like water bottles, coffee stirrers and most food packaging. This summer, UT’s Dining Services announced it was discontinuing the use of plastic straws (though still available for those in the disability community), joining a movement of other restaurants across the nation, like Starbucks, that announced this commitment to reducing non-biodegradable plastic waste in the environment.
Lasco is president of the UT Scuba and Snorkel Club, which has worked to reduce waste in Tampa Bay with cleanups of Gasparilla beads in Seddon Channel following the annual boat invasion and parade.
The data Lasco and the team collects while out on the whale watching boats is processed into WDC’s database and used to track the number of whales injured by human causes, like net entanglements and boat strikes, as well as the number of healthy whales. In addition to this data collection, Lasco participates in community outreach events educating the public on safe boating practices in regard to whales.
“This internship has helped me immensely with my public speaking skills and has improved my personal communication,” Lasco said. “It has also introduced me to what a future in marine mammal science might look like for myself. I work pretty long days and pretty full weeks here at WDC, but this is a real-world job so you have to work hard to get the data you need and the return the organization needs.”
When she graduates, Lasco, who is a marine science–biology major, would like a job working on either rescue and rehab or necropsy with large marine animals and then eventually go to graduate school.
“My time at UT has been one heck of a growing and learning experience. Leaving home and going to school over 1,000 miles away was a very difficult decision, but I am extremely glad I did it and am grateful,” she said. “It took me a while to love UT, but after finding some of my best friends through the Scuba and Snorkel Club, which I am now very happily the president of, and making some really great connections with the wonderful professors in the science department, I couldn’t ask for a better school and city to call home.”