Conservation scientist Erin Ashe, PhD, says we all have a “cetacean story”: the moment in our lives when we realize that whales and dolphins—the spellbinding mammals she studies—exist. Ashe was four years old when hers happened. A family of orcas swam below her aunt’s cliffside home on San Juan Island in the state of Washington, announcing their presence with the unmistakable whoosh of air being exhaled through blowholes. Ashe was awestruck, and insatiably curious about the 12,000-pound creatures—a feeling that would direct the course of her studies and, eventually, her life’s work.
Her husband, Rob Williams, PhD, also a conservation scientist, has a similar story. Williams was in the third grade, on Canada’s Vancouver Island when his teacher played the first recording ever made of humpback whale song—from a vinyl record contained in a National Geographic magazine. The soulful sounds captured Williams’s imagination, and whales quickly replaced dinosaurs as his obsession.
Ashe and Williams met as young academics at an orca (also known as a killer whale) conference in 2002. In 2008, they launched Oceans Initiative, a non-profit that aspires to protect the marine life of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, through science. “The southern resident orca population that I’d grown up with had just gone through a big population decline,” Ashe recalls. “Canada and the U.S. had listed them as endangered. I just felt like it would be such a shame to live in a world without them.”
Their idea was to use scientific research to produce the data needed to spur conservation action, or, as Williams puts it, “deliver the science that makes it easy for policymakers to protect wildlife and their habitats.” Seattle-based Oceans Initiative has since led or collaborated on more than 90 scientific publications, including peer-reviewed journal articles and technical reports. The organization has studied marine biodiversity in Bali, blue whales in Chilean Patagonia, fin whales in Iceland, Arctic cod and walrus in Canada’s far north, and, of course, the southern resident orca population on the Pacific coastline.
Oceans Initiative is perhaps best known for its work advocating for acoustic sanctuaries, places free from the underwater noise pollution caused by human activity—mainly tankers and cargo vessels—now known to interfere with whales’ ability to communicate about the presence of food, danger, and suitable mates. In a groundbreaking study published in 2013 in the journal Animal Conservation, Ashe and Williams determined that in the waters between Vancouver and Seattle, on the busiest shipping days, the noise pollution was too loud for the southern resident orca population (which now stands at just 73 whales) to communicate a whopping 97 percent of the time. Canada was the first country to include the acoustic environment explicitly as a feature of critical habitats for endangered whales.
Ashe and Williams employ seven other scientists through Oceans Initiative and prioritize hiring women, who have historically been underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. They have a daughter of their own, who is about the same age Williams was when he had his “cetacean story” moment. Ultimately, they hope their work will ensure that our cetacean stories never end.