Canisius Research on Marineland Mammals


(This 738th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 22, 2005.)


Like many youngsters today, when I was in school I was excited about animals and, through them, interested in the natural world. I grew up loving books written by Ernest Thompson Seton, Jack London, Raymond Ditmars and others about wildlife.


But then came high school and college biology. Much of what I studied seemed at the time unnecessary -- memorized phyla and stress on organisms too small to see even under a microscope. I would surely have gained more from those courses if I had been able to place them in context with practical experience. How I wish my university had made available a program like the animal behavior and zoo biology programs at Canisius College today. I'd have jumped at it.


Twice this academic year I joined Dr. Michael Noonan, senior professor of biology and psychology and some of his undergraduate students as they carried out behavioral research at Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls.


Each day through the academic year groups of these young men and women join Noonan to cross the Peace Bridge at 6 a.m. The team drives to Marineland where they study the aquatic animals. Along the way, the group takes obvious pleasure in watching the sunrise.


I had not visited Marineland and I was strongly impressed by my experiences there. On my second trip our first stop was the underground window of the beluga whale pool. Those who have not visited this facility can little imagine my feeling of awe standing inches from these beautiful animals. The TV ads cannot convey the feeling of intimacy that being there provides. Not only that but we were alone with the handsome white giants.


While I stood mouth agape, however, the students immediately went to work. They had tasks to perform. For example, Emily Caruana recorded play activity of the individual whales. She has observed that adult female whales engage in play more often than adult males and that, as you would expect, youngsters of both sexes play most of all.


We next moved to the killer whale pool. I had seen orcas before, a half-mile away in Puget Sound; now I could watch them from within a few feet. Once again, the effect was spectacular.


Here Malini Suchak recorded on a small computer the intricacies of whale interactions.  Her research focused on the development of Athena, a baby orca at Marineland, as she kept company with her mother, Kiska. Malini carefully noted the distance between the two whales, their relative speed, and whenever they touched.  While we were watching, Athena, still only partially weaned, began bumping her mother insisting on receiving milk, and I was able to witness a beautiful scene when Kiska briefly nursed her baby.


These orcas have been continuously monitored by sound recorders and cameras since Athena was born last August. Later back at the college, Malini showed me some of these recordings and their associated sound spectrographs. While still only a Canisius sophomore, she recently traveled with Dr Noonan to British Columbia to report their research findings to the Acoustical Society of America.


Next, we went on to the dolphin pool.  There Lauren Schneider and Dr. Noonan were assisted by three wonderful Marineland trainers (Nic Hayne, Trena Christie and Mike Bovine) in an experiment testing the animals' vision.  At the time of my first visit, they were researching their visual acuity -- how far the dolphins could pick up signals.  On my second visit, they had progressed to investigating peripheral vision.  In time, this research program will help us better appreciate the sensory world of these marvelous creatures.


"Marineland CEO, John Holer, has been a very generous host," Noonan told me. "He not only gives us access to his facility, but he also lends us the support of his outstanding staff members."


It was a wonderful opportunity for me to spend time with these bright youngsters, their advisor and their beautiful marine mammal subjects. We are very fortunate to have Marineland so near, and these students are particularly lucky to attend a school that takes advantage of that remarkable resource. I salute everyone associated with this program.-- Gerry Rising