Ask the Gray Whale Expert
Alisa Schulman-Janiger
Open March 22 - April 5, 2013

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Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Meet the Gray Whale Expert: Alisa Schulman-Janiger
Director: ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project; Founder: California Killer Whale Project.

1) Was there any childhood memory that was important in guiding you into your occupation?; how did you become interested in this field?

SO many memories, all the way back to kindergarten! My Dad often took my sisters and I fishing from Belmont Pier in the Los Angeles Harbor. One day my three year old sister caught a perch that began to gave birth as she pulled it up and continued to have more babies in our bucket; when I told this story in kindergarten, my teacher Mrs. Stamp told me that I was mistaken because fish could NOT give live birth like people! However, I knew what I saw; this taught me to ask questions, question “authorities”, and to stand by my own observations: good hallmarks of a budding scientist. I remember going to the beach and catching "guppies" and try to take them home and "raise them". One day Mrs. Stamp brought a preserved octopus to class; I asked her endless questions (which she could not answer), which made me want to learn everything about octopus. That week we went to the Cabrillo Museum in San Pedro, CA for a field trip. I filled a little jar with sand and water, shook it, and watched "guppies" - actually grunion - pop out of their eggs! Right before I hatched the grunion, the Cabrillo Museum teacher, Director and Lifeguard John Olguin, told all of the kids to "put your arms up, wiggle, and dance like a grunion!" He danced around, showing us what to do: I thought that the man was acting crazy, but loved his obvious enthusiasm and game-playing; I never knew that teachers could have so much fun! That was probably the moment that I decided to be a teacher when I grew up: I wanted to teach about the ocean. I have many early (and later) memories of going to Marineland of the Pacific and watching dolphins and killer whales for hours, asking staff a lot of questions, wanting to learn everything that I could about them; I also watched every episode of "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" on TV, and read every book that I could find on whales and dolphins. My single clearest life-defining moment: I remember standing in the library in 6th grade with a book on dolphin intelligence in one hand, and one of Jane Goodall's books on chimpanzees in the other - it was as if a lightening bolt had hit me and I KNEW that I was choosing my life's path at that moment. All of these experiences strongly influenced me toward careers as a marine biologist, whale researcher, and teacher. 

2) Was there any person, role model or leading authority that greatly influenced you?

I wear many hats, and have had several notable role models that have guided me on my life's branching paths. My Dad was a great role model; he loved the ocean, loved to body surf, and patiently entertained my never-ending questions on marine creatures. We took a scuba diving class together when I was 15 years old, and became certified scuba divers. He bought me a camera and photography books, and encouraged my interest in photography. A brilliant and endlessly fascinating teacher, Robert Miles, was my greatest role model as to how a teacher can get across information unconventionally, by entertaining students with stories; I took every possible class that he taught (9th grade English and Anthropology, city college Psychology). Dr. Jane Goodall was a HUGE role model for me as a female scientist studying behavior of long-lived charismatic chimpanzees as individuals. I read her books, watched her National Geographic televisions programs, and went to hear her talk about her life's work: I emulated her personalization method later with humpback whales and then with killer whales. Dr. Sylvia Earle was a great role model for a woman interested in marine biology; she pioneered living under the sea. NOAA's head gray whale, beluga, and bowhead whale specialist Dr. Dave Rugh helped me tremendously in setting up the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. Finally, killer whale pioneer Dr. Mike Bigg (who discovered that each killer whale has a uniquely shaped dorsal fin) Dennis Kelly (who collected California killer whale photos and sightings) gave me their photos and advice, which helped me set up the California Killer Whale Project.

3) What is your background?

I am a whale researcher, a marine biologist, and an educator. I taught marine biology in LAUSD at San Pedro High School's Marine Science Magnet for 21 years. During the previous 10 years I was the head marine biologist and on-board instructor on boats that were floating classrooms for students from kindergarten through 12th grade and photographed whales and dolphins; I also worked as marine biologist for a variety of organizations including the Department of Fish and Game. I have a Bachelor's of Science degree from California State University, Long Beach in Zoology (emphasizing marine biology). I was an on-board naturalist in Alaska, Baja California, and California, naturalist and staff scientist while researching humpback whales in Massachusetts, and field researcher on harbor porpoise, humpback whales, and killer whales with the National Marine Mammal Lab in Alaska. I teach volunteers about cetaceans to help them become knowledgeable naturalists in the Cabrillo Whalewatch Program. Since 1983, I have served on the Board of Directors for the American Cetacean Society, Los Angeles Chapter (ACS/LA). Since 1984, I have been the director and coordinator of ACS/LA's shore-based Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, based at Point Vicente and staffed by trained volunteers. I has been photo-identifying California killer whales and studying their distribution, natural history, and behavior for nearly 30 years.

4) What is a favorite work story or experience?

One whalewatching trip that will forever stand out in my memory among thousands was a 2005 trip off of Santa Barbara on the Condor Express; I was the onboard naturalist, and our special guest was Dr. Jane Goodall, chimpanzee expert, conservationist, and activist. As I said earlier, Jane was a huge inspiration to me, and helped spark my passion for studying humpback and killer whales as individuals, just as she did with chimpanzees. On an earlier whalewatching trip in southern California Jane had seen common dolphin; she said that all she hoped to see was one whale. That trip turned out to be the BEST WHALEWATCH TRIP EVER, including a record number of marine mammal species; we headed out toward San Miguel Island, on flat calm seas rare for that area. Adding to the magical quality of this day was that so many of our sightings appeared to directly approach Jane on the starboard bow and linger there, as she watched transfixed while holding her ever-present stuffed chimp. We saw California sea lions, harbor seals, a northern elephant seal, 2 bottlenose dolphins, 200 Pacific white-sided dolphin mixed in with 50 northern right whale dolphin, 8 Dall's porpoises, 17 blue whales (one of which may have been a very rare hybrid blue whale-fin whale), 2 humpback whales, and 40 Risso's dolphin (including 5 newborn calves with fetal folds that left their moms and raced over to where Jane was standing and lingered there). Also, whale scientist John Calambokidis with Cascadia Research Collective was photographing whales in this area from his inflatable; he boarded the Condor Express and discussed his research to a rapt audience, leaping off to try to get identification photos of that elusive possible hybrid whale! INCREDIBLE!

5) What advice can you provide to a student who might be interested in working in your occupation some day?

Read all of the books, watch all of the television programs, attend all of the lectures given by experts in the field, and take all the science and math classes you can - especially marine biology and oceanography, genetics, ecology, environmental science, chemistry computer science, and statistics. Because you will need to be able to write about your work (as well as talk about it), a good background in writing is very helpful. I HIGHLY recommend that you volunteer in any related position: a marine museum, aquarium, or marine mammal care center: facilities often hire those who become familiar to them and demonstrate their passion through being a volunteer/docent/intern (which happened with me). Go on whalewatching trips, become a whalewatching guide, shadow a marine biologist in the field. Most importantly, ask lots of questions! 

6) Any family members, including pets?

My husband, Dave Janiger: I met him while working on a blue whale in the Los Angeles Harbor that had been killed by a ship strike off of Mexico! I have a mom and dad, three sisters, six nieces, and one nephew. We have a pet bird: a female cockatiel named J.J.


7) What are your favorite book(s), foods, or hobbies?

Books: WHALE BOOKS, particularly those on killer whales. FOOD: Seafood, chicken curry, fruit, and dark chocolate. HOBBIES: I go out on boats whenever possible, and am ALWAYS taking photos!


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