By Guest Blogger Cara Lachmuth

From November 27 to December 2, the town of Tampa, Florida became host to a throng of marine mammal biologists attending the 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. Many of us welcomed the break from the cold weather up North and exchanged our toques and coats for sandals and shorts. I was very grateful to receive funding from the B.C. Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program run by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, which allowed me to attend and present my graduate research. This conference provided scientists from far and wide a venue to showcase their research and really enabled networking and collaborations among attendees.

Workshops were held the weekend prior to the start of the conference, and I attended Viewing and Interacting with Marine Mammals in the Wild, hosted by the US National Marine Fisheries Service. This workshop was very interesting and presentations covered topics such as the effects of cruise ships in Alaska on harbor seals, marine mammal viewing guidelines and regulations from around the world, and new approaches to investigate sub-lethal impacts from anthropogenic sources. I presented my research on the potential health effects on southern resident killer whales from exposure to exhaust emissions from whale-watching vessels. My research was published earlier this year in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

The talks and posters presented during the conference were incredible and I was especially fascinated by research on the cumulative threats that marine mammals face, as it is often not one factor but several that lead to population declines and health problems. I was also intrigued by all the technology-savvy gadgets in use today, such as tags attached to whales that gather information on all kinds of things like salinity, pH, and the speed, direction, depth, and global position of the animal. Some of these tags can even indicate when the animal is feeding! This technology is currently being used to investigate the behavioral changes of whales and even walrus’ from underwater noise caused by sources such as seismic surveys and shipping traffic.

At times, the conference was a little dismal given the local oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the amount of information presented on human-induced threats to marine mammals. But one morning during a coffee break, I noticed two bottlenose dolphins, a mother and calf, chasing fish about six feet away from me. It appeared as if the mother was using the wall below the building as a barrier for the fish and letting her calf catch them. Seeing dolphins so close to shore in an urban environment was such a “good news story”, and really made up for some of the discouraging news that was shared at the event.

The next Biennial Conference in 2013 will be held in Dunedin, New Zealand, and I’m sure the information presented there will be equally as important and cutting edge.