Conversation with a Whale Expert

April 9, 2017

As a complement to our exhibition Listen to the Whales  Philip K. Hamilton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, visited the Gallery to speak about his work with the North Atlantic Right Whale; artists William Chambers and Ann Barrett joined the conversation to discuss what it means to be an artist/conservationist and a conservationist/scientist.

The conversation covered a variety topics, from possible innovations in the fishing industry that would protect whales from the devastating injuries caused by ropes, to the fact that whales sleep with only half their brain at a time. Philip spoke about the need for scientists to advocate in accessible language, to make their important work relevant and valuable to the public. Ann spoke about her artistic process, and William touched on the role that art might play in conservation efforts: “Art helps us step out of our heads and have an experience…What is it like to be a whale in the ocean? Who knows! But art might be a way to open someone’s experience to that otherness.”

Acknowledging that it’s easy to ignore or forget about the creatures in our oceans, Philip answered the hypothetical question “why should I care about whales?” by explaining that these huge animals serve as “nutrient pumps”, cycling nutrients throughout the various depths of the oceans and maintaining the larger ecosystem. After providing this answer, Philip urged his audience to “stop and think about how arrogant that question is. Think about if all the beautiful, useless things in the world were gone.”

About Philip K. Hamilton

Philip K. Hamilton received his B.A. in Environmental Studies from State
University of New York at Binghamton in 1986 and his M.S. in Biology from University of Massachusetts Boston in 2002. His primary interests include photo-identification and population assessments, behavior – particularly—physical and acoustical association patterns, disease, and genetics. He designed DIGITS, a server-based database and interface system through which all aspects of the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog are managed. His current projects include managing the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, assessing mother-calf associations, and analyzing the error rates in the genetic and photo-identification databases.