Legacy of a Whale

By Lee Anna Sherman

Rain was pouring hard the day Renee Albertson first connected, face-to-face, with a marine mammal. She was a 7-year-old visiting British Columbia’s Sealand aquarium (Canada’s now-defunct answer to California’s SeaWorld) with her mom and dad. The daily show had been cancelled because of the downpour. The usual crowds were absent. As the soggy trio from Portland stood looking into a small tank, the resident killer whale surfaced. The young whale — a rescue named Miracle — was balancing a plastic ring on her nose. And she was looking straight at little Renee. Again and again, Renee tossed the ring. Again and again, Miracle brought it back, always to Renee.

“There was just a low fence around the tank, and you could literally reach over and throw the ring,” recalls Albertson, a Ph.D. student in Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. “She kept coming back to me. It was a neat connection. It really made an impact on me.”

Spinner dolphins in the Marquesas
Dolphins in the Marquesas (Photo: Renee Albertson)

That childhood encounter fed Albertson’s ever-deepening fascination with marine science and led her, eventually, to join the international research team of Oregon State cetacean scientist Scott Baker. “Increasingly, I knew I wanted to help conserve these intelligent animals,” she says. “I just didn’t know how.” But with stubborn single-mindedness punctuated by moments of pure serendipity — fortuitous convergences she characterizes simply as “perfect timing”— she found her way into an elite circle of researchers who follow cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) to the farthest reaches of the Earth.

Portland to Polynesia

Albertson always loved biology. But the notion of making a living helping whales seemed unrealistic and out-of-reach. Chemistry — now there was a practical path to a career, she decided. After earning a bachelor’s in chemistry at Portland State University, Albertson took a job in an environmental lab analyzing water and soil samples. But lab work was, for her, too solitary. So she got a master’s in education at Pacific University and taught chemistry at David Douglas High School for 10 years. She loved teaching. But in the recesses of her mind, the eyes of the captive killer whale were still on her.

On the island of Hao in French Polynesia, villagers gave Renee Albertson a look at this sperm whale bone. They agreed to let her sample the bone for genetic analysis. (Photo courtesy of Renee Albertson)
On the island of Hao in French Polynesia, villagers gave Renee Albertson a look at this jaw bone from a sperm whale. They agreed to let her sample the bone for genetic analysis. (Photo courtesy of Renee Albertson)

Then one day she heard about renowned whale researcher Michael Poole from a friend who had taken one of Poole’s whale-watching trips in French Polynesia. Poole had deeply inspired the friend, who encouraged Albertson to meet him. She was intrigued. “My friend didn’t realize that his whale-watching trip would end up being a life-changer for me,” Albertson says.

She emailed Poole, offering (begging, actually) to assist in his research during her summer break from teaching. “I never heard back,” she recalls. “I emailed and emailed and emailed.”

Finally, she sent one last message. She told him she was coming, regardless, and that if he didn’t need her, she joked, she guessed she would just have to spend the summer drinking martinis while writing lesson plans on the beach. Two days later, Poole’s name popped up in her inbox. His Ph.D. student wouldn’t be coming to collect samples that year, he explained, and it was humpback whale season. There was no money available for salary or living expenses. But if she were willing, he could offer her an unpaid internship.

When she got to the island of Moorea, Poole handed her not a life jacket but a notebook. Inside the fat binder was a photographic catalog of humpback whales’ tails. Poole tasked her with comparing the tails of recently sighted whales with those of previous years. “If you still like biology when you finish this, I’ll take you out in the boat,” Poole said. For two weeks Albertson “sat in a little beach cabana with a little magnifying glass, matching whale tails.”

She had earned her creds. Soon after, she was on the boat learning about dolphins, whales and conservation and helping Poole collect new whale-tail photos for the catalog. They also collected skin samples from breaching whales for eventual mitochondrial DNA analysis as part of her master’s research.

Posts From the Boat

The work led her to the University of Auckland, where Professor Baker had just accepted a new position as assistant director of the Marine Mammal Institute located in (how ironic is this?) Albertson’s home state of Oregon.

Renee Albertson and colleague Marc Gambier (Photo courtesy of Renee Albertson)
Renee Albertson and colleague Marc Oremus just published the first genetics paper on rough-toothed dolphins. Albertson, Oremus and whale researcher Michael Poole are known locally as the “French Polynesia team.”  Albertson says, “Believe it or not, it isn’t that warm there, as our jackets illustrate. I was freezing most of the time on the boat!” (Photo courtesy of Renee Albertson)

Since joining Baker’s Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Laboratory, she has studied humpbacks in Polynesia and Antarctica, rough-toothed dolphins from Hawaii and the South Pacific, and multiple species of dolphins and whales in the Marquesas archipelago, a “hotspot” for cetacean diversity. She is coauthor on a paper about the population structure of rough-toothed dolphins recently accepted by the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. “Even though they live in the open ocean, they live in very discrete communities,” she says of the findings. She has presented to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Scientific Review Group on the status and restructuring of marine mammal stocks. And she’s back in the classroom, this time teaching courses on the conservation and biology of marine mammals, both online for OSU and at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Visit Albertson’s blog for a day-by-day account of her most recent research expedition http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/marquesas/

Learn more about marine mammal studies through the South Pacific Wale Research Consortium.

For more information about education abroad opportunities for OSU students, contact the International Degree & Education Abroad (IDEA) office at 541-737-3006.