Sitka WhaleFest, 2013.

I’ve never before been to Sitka’s WhaleFest, even though it has been run by old friends.  I have missed 16 of them.  I’ve always been out on assignment in early November and never thought to rearrange my schedule to be here.  While I have interest in science (The Science and Technology section of the Economist is where I turn second, after the obit) I have little science education past high school.  I met my science and math requirements in college by taking courses in logic.  The idea of sitting in a symposium listening to people who probably assume I have more scientific knowledge than I have was intimidating.  I was wrong.

I signed up for the whole symposium but because of illness missed several sessions and events; attending enough to be sorry I missed anything.  The presenters talked about the Arctic and Global Warming.  They were engaging and know how to present information so someone like me could grasp their concepts.  They grabbed me from the start, with Don Seniti (the Shanty Man on the Robert W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport Museum in New London, CT) and Dr. Craig George, who is Lead Biologist for the North Slope Borough studying bowhead whales.  They spoke, showed historic photos and sang about Yankee whalers and Inupiat whalers, how they shared traditions and culture and learned from each other.  I was hooked.  In a later presentation one scientist mentioned that science curricula are beginning to include effective communication of scientific concepts to the public, especially kids.

Throughout the symposium scientists told us which species were likely to be winners (some seals) and which ones losers (polar bears) as a result of global warming.  They graciously answered my questions in the intervals between presentations.  I was particularly interested in the relationship between Polar Bears and our own island’s Brown Bears, which two of the scientists were more than happy to discuss with me.  (In some ways our island’s Brown Bears have closer DNA relationships to Polar Bears than Grizzly Bears, and I wondered if this historic cross breeding was a nature’s way of preserving genetic material when a species was in trouble and if it was likely to happen again between polar bears and grizzlies.  They answered me and I didn’t feel like an idiot.)

The symposium was the centerpiece of a festival that included outreach to the schools, a course for credit for the University of Alaska, an art exhibit, a “market and café” that sold crafts and art related to the sea and good food to eat.  The cafe was a great place to talk with the presenters informally.  And there was time to do this.  WhaleFest included a film festival, music performances, a reception, two wildlife cruises and one of the most imaginative conference banquets I’ve ever attended.

The banquet, labeled “feeding grounds,” had a mix of round sit at tables, long stand up tables, and chairs folks could arrange on their own.  There was a bar and a buffet.  This all encouraged people to mingle. The speeches were really three storytelling sessions.  The MC started asking any of us who had been to the Arctic, other than on package tours, to raise our hands.  At least two people at every table raised a hand.  The leader told us to tell our stories to each other between sets of speakers.  The speakers used hand held mics and wandered between tables.  The first set of stories “How I first came to the arctic” had tales of wonder & naiveté, both engaging and funny.   The second story set was “Something I did in the arctic,” they were funny stories; one researcher said being transferred from the Arctic to the Antarctic was relaxing, no polar bears, penguins are safer.  The third story set was “The biggest lesson I learned.”  Between the formal presentations I heard stories from others about watching a whale harvest on the North Slope and working in a domestic violence shelter in Barrow.  I had my own stories about consulting at Arctic radio stations and once setting off the Emergency Broadcast System because a Polar Bear roamed into the school yard.  First alert: “keep your kids home.”  Second alert about 10 minutes later: “all clear, kids can come to school.” Third announcement: “A public polar bear feed will be held tonight…”

I ended the week with a better understanding of the Arctic, whales’ roles in the Arctic and a heightened notion of how much the world was really changing because of global warming.  I’ve seen the changes in my home.   Glaciers retreat, weather changes, new birds appear in our skies and new fish in our seas.  The picture painted at this symposium was complex.  There will be winners and losers among species. And winners and losers economically; for instance mineral exploration and the opening of Northwest and Northeast passages will create winners.   There will likely be more losers.  Kevin has said we are not the canary in the mineshaft.  We are the miners.  The final presentation gave us some persuasive tools to use with people who deny that climate change is happening and deny that a significant portion of it is human made.

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