Heather Hill, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, first experienced working with marine mammals during her graduate work at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her professor and mentor, a language expert, was part of a comparative psychology dolphin study. This early work with marine mammal cognition and behavioral development fostered a passion for research that has influenced her career trajectory.
Eventually, Hill returned to her hometown, San Antonio, and through happenstance was reunited with marine mammal research through her mentoring of a student at the University of Texas San Antonio who was working on a cross-species comparison of the behavior beluga whales, killer whales, and dolphins at SeaWorld San Antonio.
Once Hill joined the St. Mary’s faculty, this connection opened the door for the development of her own unique partnership with SeaWorld. In 2007, she started a program for undergraduate St. Mary’s students to observe mother-calf relationships of beluga whales and dolphins. Since then, five beluga whales have been born; Hill and her students intend to follow the calves for as long as possible. These young whales are monitored closely for important milestones in their lives, such as leaving their mothers, interacting with other whales, and their behavior while playing. Hill noted that these milestones can be similar to those of human children, especially how the whale mothers care for their babies and the degree of freedom they are allowed.
Student participation in this program is vital. Hill relies on undergraduates to collect two types of data: video and real-time, which is recorded electronically. When students begin, they start with video transcription. Videos of each mother-calf pair are taped twice weekly; the students then take the footage and document what they see, often noting things that may have been missed through real-time observation.
“The particular background or major of each student doesn’t matter, as long as they are open-minded, committed, reliable, and genuinely interested in the research,” Hill said.
Students are asked to work for at least three semesters – the first is spent doing video transcription without actually visiting SeaWorld. After the first semester of coding, the students have gained enough experience to be able to go to SeaWorld for real-time observations for the next two semesters.
St. Mary’s and SeaWorld have worked very well together. Hill and her students have even been invited to expand the program to study a two-year-old killer whale calf and also to begin new cognition studies with dolphins.
Hill’s passion for this project and the opportunities it brings her students is clear. Through this program, many doors are being opened up; students gain vital research experience and have even represented St. Mary’s through speaking at conferences and sharing the results of their work with others.
By Rachel Grahmann, St. Mary’s Honors Program and English Communication Arts student