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X-STEM – Extreme STEM Symposium

Dr. NanHauser

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Following Her Passion: A Scientist's Quest to Study and Save the Humpback Whale

The humpback whale – 25 to 40 tons of pure majesty in motion.

That's how most of us would describe these compelling, formidable animals if we were lucky enough to observe them as they languidly follow their migration routes.

Noted conservationist Nan Daeschler Hauser is indeed one of the lucky ones. Working from her primitive research base in the remote South Pacific island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, she studies the humpback and other whale species, including their populations and the migratory habits they follow for food, mating and calving.

From her base in Rarotonga, Nan serves as president and director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, a nonprofit organization she founded, to aid in the worldwide conservation of cetaceans (the family of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises). The organization's headquarters in the U.S. is located in Brunswick, Maine.
She is also Principal Investigator of the Cook Islands Whale Research Project and Director of the Cook Islands Whale Research & Education Centre.

"Humpbacks are the most studied of the large whales, yet much of their basic biology remains unknown," says Nan. In addition, she says, "there are very few estimates of humpback population parameters, and none whatsoever for the central South Pacific until recent studies."

To gather more vital information on these creatures, Nan has been "satellite tagging" humpback whales in the Cook Islands since 2006. These interesting results have led to bigger questions about how whales migrate by swimming constant course tracks using celestial navigation. Satellite tagging involves tagging whales with a sensitive mini device which allows scientists to track these animals in order to gather data on their movements, habitat use and population structure.

The central tropical South Pacific where Nan works from is frequented by humpbacks in the austral winter (to breed and to calve) "which gives us a great opportunity to study the status of humpback whales in this region and gain information which is vital for developing conservation measures for this endangered species," she says.

Contributing to the "endangered" status of humpbacks is the fact that they have been hunted extensively in the South Pacific by commercial and pirate whalers -- even as recently as 25 years ago, the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation (CCRC) reports. "Indeed, disregarding an international moratorium on high seas whaling, several nations are clamoring to resume the hunt in these waters," Nan adds.

To its credit, the Cook Islands have led the way in whale conservation by claiming a 2 million square kilometer whale sanctuary in the islands' exclusive economic zone – an achievement in which Nan played a key role. Other countries have followed suit thanks to the dedication and leadership of additional conservationists.

Dedicated to her cause, Nan also serves on the executive committee and as a scientific researcher for the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium. In 2000, she built a whale education center in Rarotonga. It has now become the Cook Islands Whale & Wildlife Centre, including a broader range of native wildlife. Her philosophy is "why learn it if you don't share it".
Her other field research includes operating a study site in the Bahamas where she investigates beaked whales, dolphins, and other cetaceans including Mesoplodon densirostris, a rare beaked whale, of which she and her team captured the first quality underwater footage in the world.
Currently a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Cross University, Australia where she is an adjunct professor, Nan is also a registered nurse and teaches and practices medicine on Rarontonga and the outer islands.

Among her other notable achievements and honors, Nan (in Footprints on the Water, "Nan Hauser Story") was featured recently as part of the Smithsonian Channel's celebration of "Women In Science" broadcast series. She is also an Ambassador for Sustainable Seas Trust in South Africa.

Says Nan: "Being a scientist and conservationist is more than my work, it's my passion."

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