Mysteries of the Changing Seas, Sitka Whale Fest 2019

When Michael Castellini, Dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Grad School, was a young scientist, his department chairs told him to stick with the research and never talk to reporters.  ‘That is why we have public relations people, they’ll explain it.”

That’s changing.  Scientists are learning to become communicators, because, it turns out, that many of them can explain things better than the PR flacks because they understand it.  Scientists are learning to become not just teachers but communicators and even, to some degree entertainers.  At least that’s the case with Sitka Whale Fest presenters.

Their science has to be sound, but, in a forum like Sitka’s whale fest, it has to reach a general public who are not scientists but are citizens, voters, and sometimes opinion leaders.  Science needs to communicate using speech, art and music because often the arts help communicate some ideas better than an academic paper.

Back more than 50 years ago I took an interdisciplinary interim at St. Olaf college that was jointly taught by music, literature and art departments on different ways people know and communicate stuff.  The one-month intensive seminar was organized by the academic dean, who had just taken over that position after heading the Chemistry Department and Science Division.  Dr. Al Finholt was ahead of his time.   There was still a lot of debate between advocates of the natural sciences, social science, fine arts and literature over whether to integrate learning or hold the disciplines separate.  But our seminars were about synthesis, communication and reception.  It served me well.

The Sitka Whale Fest vets all of its symposium presenters to assure they can communicate this year’s topic, The Mysteries of Our Changing Seas.”  We discussed coral bleaching.  We discussed (a lot) “the blob,” a patch of warm water that persisted in the Gulf of Alaska for a few years and has had impact on marine life.  We learned about ocean acidification and what that could mean.  We heard alarming statistics on how humpback whales, which had grown in numbers since the 80s, have had decline in numbers in our waters.  Where did they go?  We learned how warming water speeds up the metabolism of cold-blooded fish causing them to eat a lot more to keep up metabolism and how that could possibly break the food chain.  We learned about some possible winners in the changing seas, bowhead and beluga whales.  And we had a delightful presentation on Narwhals. 

This year Suzi and I enrolled in a University of Alaska Seminar which allowed us to sit in a circle with other students and the presenters asking further questions, probing their findings.  Being in a room with intelligent and curious young people, mostly young women, was exciting. 

High School students participate, attending the talks and having their own seminars.  At the end of Whale Fest, they show off in the “Ocean Bowl” a “College Bowl” type of contest that tests their knowledge of things maritime. 

At the end of the Seminar Mike Castellini made reference to each presentation, tying them together, synthesizing the weekend in a masterful way.

Sitka Whale fest is not just science, it is visual art, film, music helping us understand what we were experiencing on many different levels.  Dr. Finholt would have approved.

The festival started and ended with Mystic Connecticut seaport shantyman Don Sineti sharing sea songs.  In the middle of the festival the Maritime Grind variety show included a parody of Bohemian Rhapsody that was an Orca’s lament song by Jackie Hildering, the festival’s keynote speaker.  She posted the words so we all could sing along with her and a guy dressed in an Orca costume.

There was also a market and cafe where artists could display and sell arts and crafts and advocacy groups could talk about their maritime issues.

And of course, there are the whales, sea lions and sea otters who make appearances on our two wild life cruises.  The researchers on board providing running commentaries on what we are seeing.  One researcher pointed out prop marks, caused by an encounter with a boat, on one of “her” whales as the humpback made his dive.

Folks come from all over the country.  At our table at the banquet we had guests from Ohio, Indiana, New York, Minnesota, Juneau and Sitka.  They pay a lot to come here.  I get to live her.  I can’t begin to express the profound gratitude that I feel to be able to call this place home.

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