Interview with Marine Biologist Christine Konrad

Sunrise over Dominica

“In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

These whales of legend and story mainly stay off shore, in pelagic waters. They are deep sea dwellers as their prey of choice is often squid. A few years ago, in February 2018, a sperm whale spent some time in the Johnston Strait, in the waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland. This was a rare event. The last time a sperm whale was recorded in this area was in 1984 (here is a link to an article from CBC about this event). This being said, I have only met a few people that have seen sperm whales in person.

Christine Konrad

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to my cousin, Christine Konrad. Christine is a marine biologist and is one of those few people I know that have seen these legendary whales. Not only has she seen them, but she has spent time researching their family trees, their habits and the “who’s who” of the sperm whale world. Christine is from Vancouver, British Columbia, and studied at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She has since moved back to our beautiful BC coast and is studying some black and white cetaceans a little more familiar to most of us.

I am sure you are much more eager to hear Christine tell you about what she does than me. So, without any further delay, I hope you will enjoy reading this Q&A section that Christine and I put together especially for you.

Q&A with Marine Biologist: Christine Konrad

Natasha: Thank you so much for agreeing to let me bombard you with questions about your life as a whale researcher! I am looking forward to hearing more about your experiences, about what it is like to be a marine biologist and about the day-to-day tasks that are part of participating in the contemporary scientific field of cetology (the study of whales, dolphins and porpoises). To start off, would you mind telling us a little about your background?

Christine: We were lucky to grow up with grandparents who had a cottage by the sea, on the Sunshine Coast. I have no doubt that the many childhood days I spent exploring tidal pools and playing in the waves were a big part of what made me fall in love with the ocean. Yet, in the early years of my BSc degree at Simon Fraser University, I questioned my path, as I enjoyed my electives in fine arts, acting, literature and astronomy more than the chemistry and physics courses that my biology degree required. What sealed the deal for me was a field course, on the diversity of seaweeds, at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre; I spent three weeks of my summer doing my very own mini research project on kelp, surrounded by fellow keen budding biologists and supportive mentors. That experience convinced me that marine research was where I wanted to be. It was during my MSc at Dalhousie University in Halifax that I first studied cetaceans. Through a combination of encouragement from family, giving my all in my BSc, and really lucky timing, I ended up in Dr. Hal Whitehead’s research group, studying the family lives of sperm whales. It was a dream come true.

Natasha: Okay, so I have to ask. Have you read Moby Dick?

Christine:  Funny you should ask… When I was accepted into the MSc program at Dalhousie and on my way to start studying sperm whales, my sister gave me a copy of Moby Dick. I brought it with me on my first excursion to study the whales, and I did start reading it on that trip. I felt that copy of Moby Dick was pretty special – it’s not every copy that gets to actually sail in the presence of sperm whales! But alas, in a sleep deprived state on the way home (after an unplanned overnight delay in Winnipeg…), I forgot the book in the airplane seat pocket. So, I never did finish reading it. I have seen a few Moby quotes at the start of thesis papers on sperm whales though, so clearly some other researchers have indeed read it!

Balaena off Newfoundland

Natasha: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Dominica Sperm Whale Project?

Christine: Gladly! The Dominica Sperm Whale Project is a unique long-term study of families of sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean, run by Dr. Shane Gero. Thanks to Shane’s dedicated study of these whales over the years, they are now the best-known families of sperm whales anywhere. My primary role was to analyze genetic information (extracted from bits of skin collected from the whales), to answer questions about the family lives of these whales, like “do sisters babysit for each other more often than friends do?” I had the great pleasure of spending two field seasons (each about two months long) in the waters of Dominica, getting to know these whales (and collecting more skin for my work). The first season, we lived aboard Hal’s 40-foot research sailboat, Balaena. The next year we lived in a little house up the hill in the jungle, and we went out on daytrips in a chartered vessel crewed by Dominican skippers. In both cases, there would be about five or six of us onboard. With tight quarters and long days spent together, my fellow crew would quickly become my family for the season.

View from the kitchen widow

Natasha: How was living on a sailboat?

Christine: I’ll admit it does take me a few days to find my sea legs, but usually any seasickness I feel can be overcome with some Gravol and a day or two of feeling queasy. Still, I am always glad when someone else volunteers for dinner duty for the first couple of nights, because spending two hours below deck, cooking over a hot and swaying stove certainly doesn’t help.

One of my favourite things about life aboard Balaena, other than spending my days with the whales, was spending my nights under the stars. I don’t exactly love being woken up at 2am for my turn at night watch… but there’s something really wonderful about being the only soul awake for miles, sailing along in search of whales, with the Milky Way for company.

Natasha: That sounds amazing! Did you need to learn any special skills while on the job?

Christine: You know what skill I never would have expected to need as a marine biologist? Winking. Now, I was one of those kids who always hated being picked as “it” when playing “wink murder”, since I never did master the knack of a good clean wink, without having to scrunch up my whole face. It turns out that aiming a crossbow (which we use to collect small skin samples from sperm whales, for genetic analyses) is much easier with one eye closed. In my case, I used an eyepatch and felt like a real pirate in the Caribbean. On a more serious note, yes, there are many new skills that I gained over the course of my studies, from spotting a distant whale blow on a windy day and photographing fast moving whales through a telescopic camera lens, to the equally important though seemingly less exciting skills of writing code in statistical software to run analyses and pipetting bits of microscopic DNA in the lab.

Dominica Sperm Whale Project, sample processing. Photo credit Jennifer Modigiani

Natasha: Can you share a little more about life as a researcher?

Christine: I’ve already talked a bit about what field work is like, and you may have gathered that it is one of the things that I really love about what I do. But life as a researcher in marine biology typically involves more time in an office or a lab than at sea. So, I guess it’s lucky for me that I also enjoy spending my time unravelling the story told by the data I collect. When I get to the exciting part in my analyses where I am finally starting to piece together answers to our questions, you just might find me up late on my computer saying, “I’ll just make one more map, then I’ll go to sleep.” Of course, not everything about the job is fun – I can’t say I like balancing budgets or filling in paperwork – but a fresh sea breeze has a great knack for clearing the mind of any administrative woes.

Natasha: What did you do after your Masters?

Christine: After my Masters, I started working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, first in Nova Scotia, and then, about a year later, here in Vancouver.

In Nova Scotia, one aspect of my work was going out on aerial surveys, in small airplanes, flying low over the water, looking for whales, particularly the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. It was a very different experience from the boat-based work I had done before but rewarding in its own way. I also spent many of my days at a computer, working on mapping the habitat of east coast whale and dolphin species, as well as mapping vessel traffic, which is a significant source of risk and disturbance to whales.

The focus of the team I am a part of now is on southern resident killer whales (as well as their neighbours to the north – the northern resident killer whales). The research we are doing is motivated by the very tangible goal of providing the best possible science advice to help this population recover.

Dominica Sperm Whale Project, Christine at the navigation table. Photo credit Jennifer Modigiani

Natasha: In your experience, have you noticed a difference in the behavior between sperm whales and orca?

Christine: Sperm whales and killer whales actually have a lot in common, especially when it comes to their social lives. Both species live in tight-knit family groups and pass on cultural knowledge, such as dialects that are distinct enough that, in some well-studied populations, researchers can distinguish between groups based on sound alone. Despite this similarity, I still had a steep learning curve ahead of me when I transitioned from studying the behaviour of one to the other. It took practice and guidance from more experience killer whale researchers to learn to see the sometimes subtle physical cues in the whales’ behaviour that indicate whether they are resting or hunting or just playing around, or some combination of the above! On the bright side, killer whales do spend a lot more time at the surface than sperm whales (who typically dive for the better part of an hour when hunting squid in the depths), so that does give us a bit more opportunity to observe them!

Natasha: The Southern Resident Killer Whales have been on the news a lot over the past few years. Can you share with us about some of the struggles within the populations? Is there anything that I/we can do to help?

Christine: It’s certainly not an easy time to be a southern resident killer whale right now. Some struggles they face include: finding enough to eat, contaminants in their food and environment, and being disturbed by boats and the underwater noise that boats make. Killer whales use sound (echolocation, which is like a natural version of the sonar system of a submarine) to hunt for food. So, underwater noise can make it even harder to find fish that are already scarce.

These threats don’t just affect this population of whales, or this species, but they are important issues for many species. Among the sperm whale families that I studied in the Caribbean, there is a mother whale, named Pinchy. She is one of the more easily recognized individuals in the population. The reason? She was hit by a ship several years ago, and though she survived, she still bears a noticeable scar. The threats posed by ships, by overfishing, and by contaminants are global.

But many small steps can still play a part in solving big issues. One action that comes to my mind that anyone can take is to be a conscious consumer. If you eat seafood, make sure it is sustainably harvested (there are online resources, such as this sustainable seafood guide that can help you be well informed). If you want to go whale watching, do your research and only go with a company that has a good reputation for following the distance regulations that are in place to keep the whales safe and undisturbed, rather than a company that makes promises of getting you up close and personal. If making a purchase, consider if you really need that item, if it needs to be new, where it was sourced from. The vast majority of goods on our planet are moved around on ships; the more we reuse items, the more we purchase locally made goods, the less we contribute to the pressure that ships transporting goods place on the ocean’s creatures. To multiply your impact even more, if there’s an issue you care about, make sure that the decisionmakers who represent you know that it’s important. Perhaps that means signing a petition or writing a letter to your local member of parliament.

Sunset in the North Atlantic

Natasha: Obviously cetaceans and our coastal ecosystems are important to you, but what types of things do you enjoy doing when you aren’t in the lab or on the field?

Christine: As a high school student, if I had to give an answer of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to live by the ocean, research the animals that live in it, and make nature-inspired paintings in my spare time. That balance of science and art was, and still is, my ideal. So, while, as my career progresses, I’ve found myself focused more on science, without as much free time spared for art, I do try to find artistic outlets when I can. For example, during my time living in Halifax, I found a wonderful and creative community at Halifax Circus, where I could find artistic expression through circus performance.

I think art provides a great opportunity to communicate; whether it shares a feeling, an idea, or a beautiful moment in time, art can help us see things in new ways. Also, for many of us, we may first be captivated by science when it is presented to us through art. This includes myself; one of the ways I fell in love with nature as a child was through watching nature documentary films (on VHS tapes on rainy days at our grandparents’ cottage) and flipping through the beautiful illustrations in field guides to the local wildlife.

Natasha: Thank you so much for taking time to share with us and for sharing about your passion for whales and your career as a marine biologist. I am excited to see where your path continues to take you!

A Fearful Thing, 15.5″x28″, oil on wood panel, Natasha van Netten

I consider myself lucky to have family that share a mutual interest in nature, the ocean and the amazing creatures that live there. I am constantly learning from Christine. Maybe you learned something new from reading the above, I know that I did! If you would like to learn more about Christine’s sperm whale research, I highly recommend reading this paper she published: Kinship influences sperm whale social organization within, but generally not among, social units. I hope you enjoyed reading our Q&A, Christine and I had fun putting it together for you.

The image on the right from my Fieldwork oil painting series. This painting was inspired by photographs of sperm whales’ backs taken by Christine off the coast of Dominica.

All images were provided with permission from Christine Konrad. Photo credit Christine Konrad unless otherwise stated.

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