Ask anyone what scares them most about the ocean and you’ll probably get the same response: sharks. Growing up terrified of sharks, Nick Whitney (‘00), became a shark nut in middle school. By the time he reached high school he was breeding endangered cichlids in his bedroom.
Interested in marine science Whitney sought out Jeff Carrier, an Albion Biology professor who studied the mating behavior of nurse sharks in the Florida Keys.
“I was just blown away by his research and by how approachable he was,” said Whitney. “He took the time to meet and talk to me, and I was just a high school kid. I was pretty much sold on Albion from that first meeting with Jeff.”
During his time as an undergraduate, Whitney spent three summers with Carrier capturing, tagging and tracking nurse sharks in their mating grounds. Noting why it’s his favorite research he said, “You are in this remote part of the Keys, and you are paddling a kayak around all day to and from your research site. You are snorkeling on a coral reef looking for sharks, and observing really cool natural behaviors, like mating behaviors, that you can’t normally observe in sharks”.
The skills he developed through undergraduate research afforded him the opportunity to continue onto graduate school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Working with Timothy Tricas, his research on shark behavior continued. Though he loved the Hawaiian culture, he is very glad he chose Albion as an undergraduate.
“When people ask me, ‘What should I do to be a marine biologist?’ or ‘I want to be a shark scientist,’ I almost always recommend that they try and do their undergrad at a small school, preferably a small liberal arts school like Albion,” said Whitney. Aside from small class sizes with PhD professors, he believes “Students are much more likely to have access to really good direct research experiences where you are working with a faculty member.”
Whitney is currently the senior scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at New England Aquarium and his job now is the same as it has been the past few years. He is responsible for conducting research that can be useful for helping protect our oceans and our natural resources. Recently, Whitney has been tagging sharks, sea turtles, and Burmese pythons with accelerometers, the same technology in Fitbits.
“Just like your Fitbit records how many steps you take during the day, with our tags we can record how many tail-beats a shark is making. We can also record every change in body pitch and posture,” shared Whitney. The use of accelerometers on Burmese pythons, is helping eradicate this invasive species from the Everglades. Whitney explained “With snakes we can record again, not where they go but how much time they spend active per day versus resting.”
Reminiscing on his life’s greatest joys, Whitney enthusiastically shared a story about meeting his wife, Holli Mezeske (‘99), and their wedding in the Goodrich Chapel.
“The semester that we started dating, I was working very hard in my classes,” said Whitney. “My first semester of Organic I had gotten like a 2.3 or something, and I swore to myself that it wouldn’t happen again. So the second semester of organic I worked really hard and had a 3.7 going into the final and then started dating my future wife and just completely did not care at all about classes anymore after that and did not study for my finals whatsoever. Totally bombed the finals and ended up with yet another 2.3 in organic chemistry despite working so hard all semester.”
His advice for not being attacked by a shark? “Swim in an area where there are a lot of people in the water, because for one thing a large group of people is probably going to scare sharks away. So if you’re at a beach where there’s a hundred other people in the water and there does happen to be a shark that bites someone, there’s only a one percent chance that you’ll be the one who gets bitten. Safety in numbers, play the odds.”
Photo courtesy of Nick Whitney