Ari Friedlaender: The Intrepid Whale Researcher

One important issue facing the sciences these days is how to bridge the gap between research and the community. Despite commitments by the new administration to cut basic sciences funding and redirect resources from the National Science Foundation and other research organizations, some researchers have doubled their efforts to bring their science directly to the public.

Ari Friedlaender, an OSU Associate Professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, is one of those researchers and has been on the grind for over 15 years collecting data and spreading the word. Friedlaender studies whales and climate in the Antarctic. His research is crucial in understanding not only the Antarctic environment and the animals that have evolved there, but the impacts of human activity and climate change as well.

Dissemination of knowledge is a central pillar to Friedlaender’s philosophy. Through collaboration with researchers, media outlets, and tour companies, Friedlaender actively works to make his research understandable, accessible, and relatable to the masses. Aside from his involvement with National Geographic, one of his interests is photography, out of which he has created a book of what, to his eye, are the natural and awe-inspiring goings-on in the Antarctic.

Friedlaender cannot remember a time when the outdoors did not fascinate him. His mother tells a story about how, at age two, he scaled the backyard fence and wandered to the end of a jetty. While the Friedlaenders were calling the Coast Guard to find their missing son, he sat near the water looking for snails under rocks.

“You grow up in Connecticut and the history and culture of Mystic Seaport being a whaling port is very much part of our tradition there,” explained Friedlaender. “I grew up always knowing that whales were a big part of human history.”

Friedlaender remembers going on a whale watching field trip in sixth grade and being very moved. His academic interest in them would solidify at the Duke Marine Lab as an undergraduate, where he enrolled in every class they offered.

“I was blown away by the instructors and learning about the physiology of these animals; their anatomy and their evolution – how what were land animals had evolved to live in the ocean and do things that most mammals do, but do it in an environment that was absolutely 180 degrees from being on land,” he said.

One day Friedlaender found himself in the middle of a dolphin necropsy when his golden opportunity came. A colleague showed up in need of a volunteer to travel to Antarctica and watch whales.

“As soon as I got to the Antarctic, I knew it was a place that was very different from any place I had ever imagined or ever been, and very quickly I realized it was a place that I felt comfortable and was really inspired by,” said Friedlaender.

Soon he would sign on with the Australian Antarctic Division, traveling back and forth between Tasmania and the U.S., all while conducting Antarctic research.

In 2001 the National Science Foundation was sponsoring an Antarctic research program when Friedlaender got word that there was no component for monitoring top predators, like whales.

“So I had a couple of conversations with the people that were in change of that program and I guess made a good enough case that we should be studying how the seasonal ocean and environment changes impact the upper tropic level predators,” said Friedlaender.

Friedlaender kept up the momentum, stating that since then, “Things kind of snowballed to the point that we’ve got a long-term ecological research program in the Antarctic that focuses on whales.” He says that much of the whale research success has been due to good colleagues, being collaborative and doing multidisciplinary studies, and also creating new technologies and efficient ways of collecting data.

Big Pictures
Friedlaender left for the Antarctic several days after our interview; his departure synchronized with the return of two colleagues who had been in the field for over a month. Friedlaender estimates that he has spent half the year in the field during the last 15 years. The goal this time around will be to monitor how the whales feed, how they are growing, and if there are any pregnant females.

In the Antarctic, Friedlaender studies humpback and minke whales. Humpbacks can measure well over 50 feet while minke whales reach little more than 30. Though both are baleen whales, feeding on krill and small fish, the humpback makes a 16,000-mile journey down into the tropics to give birth.

“I focus at this point more on the behavior of marine mammals and more of the foraging behavior, but none of what these animals do is in a vacuum or independent,” said Friedlaender. “In order to understand their reproductive strategy, you need to understand how they feed and get enough energy to reproduce and vice versa.”

Friedlaender accomplishes this by gently approaching the whales while breaching the water’s surface, and slapping a suction-cupped camera and tracking device on their backs. Before long the device pops off, floats up, and is collected.

“They give us very high resolution information on what the animals are doing underwater,” Friedlaender said. “At the same time we will be collecting biopsy samples – little skin and blubber samples – so we can say how many of those animals are pregnant and what population they come from.”

These studies allow researchers to establish a baseline of how whales behave under normal conditions. With a solid understanding of this baseline behavior, researchers can more accurately identify responses to changing conditions.

“In the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the things that has changed is when sea ice occurs, how much of it occurs, and how long it persists,” said Friedlaender.

Forming sea ice pushes humpback whales out of the Antarctic, leading to their migration to the tropics – fasting the entire 16,000 miles. On the other hand, minke whales need sea ice to thrive. They are finding that minke whales, as necessity dictates, are moving around Antarctica seeking places where the ice is changing less rapidly while humpbacks are able to linger for longer periods.

What the impact of these changing behaviors will be we do not completely know, but Friedlaender attests that we are seeing similar changes in the Arctic both in sea ice and the response of animal populations. In the grand scheme of things, this could mean that humpback whales are not reproducing as effectively due to delayed or skipped migration while other species may fade into obscurity as their environment degrades.

“We are playing catch-up, trying to understand these things as they are happening,” said Friedlaender. “So we push ourselves to create opportunities to spend as much time in these environments as we can because these changes are pretty one-directional.”

Motivating Non-Scientists
With the Trump Administration openly hostile towards science, specifically issues of climate and environment, do Friedlaender and his associates have anything to worry about?

“That is a huge concern, absolutely,” said Friedlaender. “We are very concerned as scientists that if we don’t have the support to study those changes, that we will lose the opportunity to try and mitigate what we can do as people to be custodians of the planet.”

“It’s clear that the agendas are very different and if they have a say about what gets supported, that it is certainly less than likely that it would be basic science and understanding about human impacts on the environment.”

This is one reason why Friedlaender will be traveling to the Antarctic on a commercial tour vessel. Two weeks with a captive audience that is enthusiastic to watch, listen, and learn as science unfolds before them has been one of Friedlaender’s most powerful tools – he believes that it makes science more tangible and allows people to put a face to the research.

“When I think about the people that can make a difference and that can be excited and motivated to make a change with the things we are doing, it’s oftentimes people that are not scientists,” he said. “There are a lot more non-scientists than there are nerds like me that are going out and doing this kind of work.”

Another way that Friedlaender has sought to reach the public is through his photography. His book Unframable is a collection of 94 mind-seducing pictures of what has been described as the heuristic value of the Antarctic. He admits that photography began for him as a method of tracking the unique markings on individual whales rather than artistic expression.

“I would never call myself a photographer or an artist, I look for things that are just compelling in my eyes and fit my aesthetic,” he said. “With animals it’s having them act in natural ways and behaving in natural ways that are relaxed, but are indicative of what they do and how they behave naturally.”

Beyond his own photography, Friedlaender has been involved with National Geographic for a number of years, including collaboration with Greg Marshall on the CritterCam project. CritterCams, like Friedlaender’s suction cup cameras, are fixed to an animal to track and record its unadulterated behavior in the absence of humans.

“Last year our collaboration with National Geographic grew,” he said. “They featured our whale research on Continent 7, which was a six-part documentary series about science in the Antarctic.” Check out clips on YouTube to see Friedlaender work in his natural environment and try not to get jealous.

Ultimately Friedlaender and his many colleagues are focused on making this knowledge and their research accessible to the public – to inspire the next generation and pass the torch to the next wave of scientists and researchers.

“We write books, and take photographs, and do things like work with National Geographic just to try and show people… what it means to do science, and what it could mean for them if they are interested,” said Friedlaender.

Friedlaender told me that in order to make an impact on people, you must make the experience memorable. He goes to extraordinary lengths to accomplish this, all to ensure folks like you, me, and the next surge of young ’uns have the tools and knowledge to make good decisions and appreciate intrinsic value.

Once Friedlaender returns from his three-week trip in Antarctica, he will recoup for two weeks before heading out to tag whales in Monterey Bay. “From there we have a project with a student in Alaska who is looking at how humpback whales take advantage of salmon hatcheries and are learning to feed on salmon that are being grown for release into the wild,” he said. “Then by June we start working on a project in California – a longer-term project to look at the effects of Navy sonar on marine mammals.”

Friedlaender does not miss a beat – if he could be in the Antarctic 12 months of the year, he would. During our conversation, I lost count of how many times he said opportunity. His work is about seizing opportunities – opportunities to get to Antarctica, funding opportunities, the opportunity to collaborate with researchers, and the opportunity to communicate with the media.

His message is simple: we all have the opportunity to preserve and enjoy one of the most vast and unique, but also threatened ecosystems on the planet. Friedlaender put it like this: once they’re gone, they’re gone.

By Anthony Vitale