“New information breakthroughs for me are exhilarating. Working with all that whale data is like looking into the dark with a flashlight. It’s work that is able to contribute new information to the field.” — OSU Whale Researcher, Daniel Palacios
Whaling’s first commercial iteration with harpoons started in Japan around 1570. With many more nations participating in killing whales for exploitation throughout the following centuries — seeking oil, blubber, flesh and other body parts — by the turn of the 20th Century, many of the 90 species of whales were on a steep decline, endangered or near extinction.
For one Oregon State University research faculty member of the Marine Mammal Institute, the cetacean is his passion, his life. Daniel Palacios became intellectually and spiritually connected to cetaceans after seeing the iconic humpback whale banners and picket signs deployed on Earth Day, while religiously watching the series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”
Two-parts passion, one-part inspiration and three-parts intellectual drive propelled him to where he is today — researching the pathways, habitats and health of Earth’s largest animals.
The harpoon this 50-year-old scientist throws is outfitted with both a satellite tracking tag and small biopsy plug extractor, not to harvest whale meat, but rather to collect valuable data on what whales do, what they eat, where they go and, in future research projects, measure their overall physical health.
Palacios has been working with teams collecting the information on sperm, humpback, Gray, fin, blue and other whale species to determine their range and pelagic journeys throughout the Pacific coastal upwelling, all the way down to the Gulf of California.
“One of my drivers is discovery and knowledge, what you could say is strict hardcore science . . . pure analytical and statistically important science,” he tells me while we share coffee at a café in the Wilder community near Oregon Coast Community College.
Early Dreams in South America
Palacios’ love and interest in science started young — five or six years of age while growing up in landlocked Bogotá. His parents (an engineer father and lawyer mother) bought him encyclopedias and books on animals. “I was continuously reading about African animals. I was mesmerized.”
He stresses living in an urban and cosmopolitan capital city was like being worlds away from his own country’s swath of Amazon rainforest.
“The Amazon jungle would have been like Africa to me growing up in a big city. Our world was so disconnected from the natural world. We had no sense of the ocean or the Amazon.”
Some 45 years later — traversing his early curiosity attending a Catholic school in a city of 7 million, to now, with all those titles and associations from OSU (“PhD/ Endowed Associate Professor in Whale Habitats/ Whale Telemetry Group/ Marine Mammal Institute and Dept. of Fisheries & Wildlife”) — Palacios has kept his eye on the proverbial prize of being a marine scientist.
He said his parents sacrificed to put him and his three sisters into the best schools they could afford. His grandparents came from humble beginnings in rural Colombia not far from Bogotá. He reminisces about this K-12 experience where he was taught math, physics and liberation theology — a philosophy that measures helping the poor and understanding the plight of the underprivileged tied to capitalism’s great class divide as part of religious enlightenment.
This Calasanz school from the Escolapios Order bore the name of the Spanish founder, who went to Rome in the 1500s to teach the very privileged and, on his daily crossing back over the Tiber River, saw the poverty and disadvantaged circumstance of the masses.
“In Bogotá, they would send us to a sister school for the poor and we’d help teach the kids. Even though it was a religious school, going to college my first two years was a walk in the park. We were really well prepared by the priests.”
Meeting of the Whale Minds
Currently, Palacios spends most of his time analyzing all the data from satellite tags and biopsies from humpback whales. He likes the vigorous, meticulous nature of this work, even though 90 percent of his time is not working with whales directly in their habitat.
I first met Palacios at the American Cetacean Society monthly meeting in Newport. It was his 15 minutes of fame with his PowerPoint in front of a packed room at the public library. “This is actually the second time I have presented to the ACS. Something like 17 years ago, in Monterey.”
Monterey was his home for more than a decade, and his boss was NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) as he was tasked to answer why these humpbacks are in abundance in this upwelling ecosystem of Northern California, and to determine their migratory patterns and territorial range.
“My dream was to work with these people studying this classic upwelling ecosystem,” he said.
As he shows slides and wonderful images of humpbacks to us naturalists who are interested in science, yes, and informed but not steeped in hard science, he states he understands the allure of the charismatic whale.
“All these people who have a strong affinity to whales are genuinely interested in their plight which makes funding the OSU foundation and endowment easier.” It turns out one of Palacios’ mentors, OSU’s Bruce Mate, was a forerunner in getting the general public to support their work. That donor base serves as a buffer, helping Palacios and others at the Marine Mammal Institute continue their work collecting and analyzing so much data from satellite tags.
He later tells me that while he has authored 75 professional journal articles in periodicals such as Marine Mammal Science (through the Society for Marine Mammalogy), he realizes few read these rarefied publications; whereas, the real passion and interest in his field rests with whale watchers, naturalists, eco-tourists and writers.
Palacios counts his lucky stars and serendipity in his life: “I am at a place beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve received so much support, and where I’ve gotten to is due to the generosity of many people.”
From Colombia to the Oregon Coast: Part II
“If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.”
-– David Suzuki, Canadian scientist and documentary producer
The price of ecosystems and individual species is difficult to access and, for most ecologists, no amount of monetary exchange can replace, say, a military macaw parrot or whale shark. However, we ecologists do call a forest or wetlands an “ecosystem” that provides invaluable services to the entire life web, to include humans.
A healthy coastal ecosystem with vibrant forests, clear streams and non-diked wetlands provide humans billions of dollars of “free life-giving/saving services” — clean air and water, healthy soils, pure estuaries, unmolested bays, erosion prevention.
There’s even a formula of sorts to put a price to a whale.
“Anyone know how much a whale is worth?” Palacios asks the ACS crowd tongue-in-cheek. There are a few bids from the crowd of a few thousand here, eighty thousand there for the going rate of a humpback whale.
“According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) one whale’s biological value is two million dollars over its lifetime.”
Daniel rattles off the capitalist values — “Considering the whale watching and tourism industry and the fact they are the biggest animals on Earth they are amazing at combating climate change.” They consume carbon in the form of plankton and krill. Once their feces fall to the bottom of the ocean, it’s sequestered carbon that doesn’t make it into the atmosphere. When the whale dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Each is thousands and thousands of pounds, and both the whale poop and decaying bodies serve as nutrients for plankton and myriad other marine life.
During Palacios’ final year of college in Cartagena, he was hunting for a doctoral program, in the USA — such as Scripps or Woods Hole. His life at a young age is a tale of serendipity.
He ended up in Panama, waiting for the Odyssey — a 93-foot scientific sailboat loaded with research equipment ready for heavy-hitters from around the world heading to the Galapagos. He wanted to board that ship as a scientist-in-training. Big names in whale research like Roger Payne were scheduled to board the vessel.
“They laughed when I asked if I could go with them to the Galapagos. ‘You just show up and expect us to take you with us?’ That’s what they told me.”
However, after Odyssey’s trip from Key West to Panama, it was moored in a slip in order to receive parts and repairs. The young graduate was enlisted to help chip paint from the hull.
“I had never been on a sailboat before, and this was an operation on an entirely different scale. I worked on the boat with the scientists/crew for two weeks, and it was the day they were leaving when they told me I could come with them.”
Their caveat was the science team would drop Daniel off in the Galapagos and he’d have to find his own way home.
This was a diverse crew, and while they motored to the Galapagos, they conducted oceanographic research.
“They embraced me and indicated I was a good crew member. But I had a secret weapon: I spoke Spanish.”
The Odyssey was stopped and boarded by the Colombian Navy since they were sailing along known drug-smuggling routes. When the ship arrived at the islands, it turned out they had to obtain many permits to work in a highly-regulated marine reserve.
Every day the scientist/interpreter “kid from Colombia” met with the officials in the National Parks office and Ecuadoran Navy to get the paperwork in order.
After a month delay, the Odyssey was on its way studying the sperm whales in this incredible ecosystem as well as tackling other oceanic matters. Palacios now was part of the crew; many of the premier scientists who had been scheduled to be on the Odyssey had to delay their scientific journeys.
Palacios learned how to construct a harpoon-staging platform as well as integrate hydrophone technology so the team could track sperm whales by their calls.
It was a 24/7 operation. Amazing minds, amazing ecosystems and a real journeyman scientist’s apprenticeship propelled Palacios to seek more and more scientific pursuits.
It’s a Small, Small World
That Odyssey adventure also led to a job in Massachusetts with the non-profit Whale Conservation Institute. That was his first foray into the United States. He credits his mobility and lack of family responsibilities to his flexibility to move where the research was.
He did work in the mid-1990s with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. That was part of a huge NOAA project on eastern Pacific dolphin recovery.
Scripps is the Harvard of marine sciences, with Woods Hole and Texas A&M a close second and third as the best-rated schools in ocean studies. However, Palacios said he did not come from a well-off family, and Scripps expected all PhD students to have their own scholarships/grants and per diem sources in order to attend.
That Odyssey trip again paid off. Bruce Mate was the lead scientist Palacios worked with on sperm whale tagging, and he had offered the Colombian the possibility of accepting him into OSU’s marine mammal program, ranked in the top five in the US.
“The experience at OSU I believe was better for me than if I had gotten accepted to Scripps.”
Leave it to the magic of the Odyssey to continue on in another scientific expedition — five years around the world with a number of international scientists participating in some deep research. Palacios says that many of the leading marine mammal people had once been an Odyssey fellow or crew/scientist.
An Australian couple, Chris and Gen, were crew members and communications experts — writing stories and producing blogs and interview pieces. He said they have plans for writing a book on the Odyssey’s odyssey.
“I’m still meeting people in my field who had been on the Odyssey in some part of the world,” he tells me.
Diversity of Ecosystems, Diversity of Scientists
That PhD in oceanography came from OSU, but in 2003 Palacios was called back to research whales at NOAA studying their presence in the upwelling ecosystem of North California. That was a 12-year sojourn.
Again, in 2013 Bruce Mate lured Daniel Palacios, PhD, back to OSU with a research professorship. The work involves advancing research in whale tracking and data analysis.
The grant he works under is through the auspices of the US Navy, which is conducting more training and development activities in whale territory. Federal legislation puts restrictions on some of the activities in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
As is the case in a capitalistic society, there are many exceptions to “do no harm scientific principles,” when so-called national security issues are put ahead of everything else. “Biological acceptable limits” and monitoring are what guide the navy’s contract with OSU and other colleges concerning whales being affected by military activities.
Sounds, bombs, boat and ship traffic, radar and more do play roles in altering whale behavior, physiology and general habitat conditions.
Diverse ecosystems, diverse species in and diverse intrusions on their natural world are both intriguing and challenging to confront. On the personal front, Palacios and I delve into his own perplexing identities while growing up a male in machismo Colombia.
“I knew as a small child I was different,” he said, emphasizing that he was feeling like he was attracted to males around age five or so. He comes from a culture where being gay is the worst thing a man could be, bringing “huge shame and guilt to a gay.”
As is the case in many histories of homosexuals confronting that bigotry and bias against being queer, gays end up marrying as heterosexuals, even raising families with female wives. Palacios did meet a woman at OSU when he was a student, and she became his wife. Almost six years into the marriage, he came out to her in 2014.
She was (and still is) supportive, but she insisted on a divorce. The guilt of having ruined the life of someone he loved and all the other issues associated with living a closeted life required “a lot of therapy.”
Even though his parents came from a conservative and traditional background, they've been very supportive, he says.
He expressed to me on several occasions how we all are evolving creatures, and that decision to live his life as a gay man means he can be authentic.
With that, we talked about the fact there were no role models in his field for gay scientists. In the lead up to a 2015 conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, he broached the idea of having a social mixer on the agenda for LGBTQA scientists.
“I told one of the scientists who happened to be lesbian that the society doesn’t provide any notion of being accepting of homosexuals in their field.
The networking mixer was announced, and more than 100 people attended it — LGBTQA and allies.
When an aspiring marine mammal scientist doesn’t see people like him in the field, it’s hard to be fully realized, he said.
“There is a deep spiritual need to see people like myself in my profession,” Palacios said. “My sexuality has zero relevance to the science I am conducting; nevertheless, how I identify myself definitely defines who I am. Those walls we build around ourselves when we are gay — the struggle and insight, too — when they begin to fall, there is a feeling of liberation, and becoming fully realized as a person.”
We decided to do a bit of a question and answer interview to end this story of a Colombian whale expert who is now a US citizen working on protecting the enigmatic humpback (known as the songster whale) in our little corner of the world — Hatfield Marine Science Center.
PH — If you had to put down your philosophy of life in a sentence or two, what would it be?
DP — As far as I approach things, I'm drawn toward excellence and beauty in nature. I find satisfaction in giving my best and in what I learn through the process of creating and discovering, especially if it fulfills my curiosity toward the natural world.
PH — Science and the arts can't be separated. I can give you a piece, “A Faustian Bargain,” by Gregory Petsko — https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2010-11-10-138 — The quote is below, and the highlight is what I want you to riff with, sir!
“Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It's also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future.”
DP — I wholeheartedly agree that science is best when considered in the context of the humanity that produced it, and the increasing capacity and demand by the general public to absorb science is evidence of that. I also agree that those universities that embrace this notion will play an important role in the future, but at the same time I'm concerned that there's relatively few universities that are equipped for this, and also that those that are may not reach outside their walls unless they make very concerted efforts, such that these gains would mostly benefit a few people.”
PH — What do you believe the biggest challenges in whale ecology and whale survivability will be in the next two decades, and explain.
DP — With the exception of a few whale species that remain critically endangered, most whale populations have been slowly recovering since commercial hunting stopped in 1986. Today the biggest challenges to whale conservation are largely the same ones that affect marine ecosystems as a whole: chemical and noise pollution, shipping, habitat degradation and overharvesting of marine resources for human consumption. These are much more pervasive and complex problems, and addressing them requires the engagement and participation of all segments of society.
PH — How can your work, and Bruce Mate's and others' help "manage" the multiple jurisdictions with so many competing Exclusive Economic Zones and national agencies and economic drivers in the mix?
DP — Whale migrations truly exemplify the requirements of marine fauna for vast expanses of habitat, often covering an entire ocean basin. Although some countries have made good progress in protecting these species in their national waters, once they cross into another jurisdiction or into international waters those protections no longer apply. Therefore, there's a need for developing policy at the highest levels to achieve adequate conservation across jurisdictions. These policies are best developed through regional, international and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations' Convention on Migratory Species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or the International Whaling Commission, among others. There are several such initiatives currently underway — one example being the ‘Migratory Connectivity of the Ocean’ project, and we are engaged with them by providing tracking data and results for informing these processes.
PH — Give me the typical funder and donor elevator speech on the value and importance of funding marine mammal research, specifically on whales.
DP — We start from the basis that, owing to their majestic beauty, whales have always captured the human imagination like few other species. But for us scientists whales have a number of unique biological adaptations and behaviors that we're just starting to understand. Through the use of cutting-edge technology, we're making fascinating scientific discoveries about them, which benefit all of humanity. And this information often also contributes to efforts to improve their protection as well. For example, using satellite tracking we can follow them on their long migrations and determine where they go, how they get there, and what risks they may encounter along the way. Management agencies require this information in order to assess the status of the species and to enact spatially explicit conservation measures.
PH — What advice would you give a young aspiring marine scientist, say from Colombia or another Latin American country with even fewer options in their respective countries to pursue the work you are now doing? What do you recommend their pathway, both intellectually and practically, be?
DP — Believe in your dreams, keep an open mind, and have a steely determination and things will start turning around — not always exactly in the way you envisioned, but opportunities will present themselves. These days access to knowledge is no longer a limitation thanks to the internet, but dedicated academic study and networking are still critical requirements to succeed and become an established scientist. Joining and being active in a professional society is helpful, especially for making connections with colleagues as well as for benefiting from mentoring and other programs intended for young scientists as well as those from developing nations.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”