David Wiley, PhD '01

Environmental Studies PhD Program
"Conservation requires a change in behaviors."

Making Way for Whales

David Wiley, PhD ’01
Photo by Paul Blackmore/Cape Cod Times

In November 2009, David Wiley, the first graduate of Antioch University New England’s environmental studies doctoral program, received the U.S. Commerce Department’s Gold Medal – its highest award for distinguished service. David serves as research coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Scituate, Massachusetts.

His award-winning research examined whale behavior, especially that of humpback whales, fin whales and right whales, as well as ocean currents, characteristics of the ocean floor, and the traffic patterns of ships going into and out of Boston Harbor. During his study he identified a smaller shipping lane, safer for whales, and brought agreement from shippers to use the new lane.

First Ocean Encounter Leaves Bad Taste

David has been studying whales for nearly thirty years, but his first encounter with the sea left a bad taste in his mouth. Having grown up outside landlocked Albany, New York, he saw the ocean for the first time as a college student. “Didn’t like it at all,” he said. “A friend and I went to the beach near Ogunquit, Maine, ran onto the beach at low tide and it smelled bad. We jumped into the freezing cold water, and I got a very salty mouthful. We stayed less than a half-hour and headed up to the White Mountains.” He felt no urge to return.

After earning an undergraduate degree in natural resource management from UMass Amherst, David took a teaching job in Massachusetts, but the lifelong outdoorsman grew restless in the classroom. “I spent too much time looking out the window,” he confessed. An outdoor education center, where he worked during summers, offered him the opportunity to serve as naturalist on a whale-watching boat and “having never seen a whale, I immediately say ‘yes.'”

“In the 1980s nobody knew much about whales, so if you were willing to take notes and photos, recording everything you were seeing and doing, you could actually make contributions to whale science,” David said. “I had a chance to do that a hundred days a year – for ten years.”

Lured Back to the Ocean by the Challenge of Working with Whales

He loved the work, his fellow researchers, and the rewards of collecting and analyzing data. “Whales are hard to study and I’m attracted to things that are hard to do,” he says. By following the whales and tracking their behaviors, David became familiar with them as individuals and found himself in the midst of some of the best whale researchers in the world. He became a senior scientist at the International Wildlife Coalition in 1989, charged with conducting marine mammal research that would identify the need for conservation.

The Coalition’s work influenced The Marine Mammals Protection Act. David and a widespread volunteer force, now known as The Cape Cod Stranding Network, set out to learn whether stranded mammals could be rescued and survive their return to sea. The volunteers had to move quickly, like volunteer fire departments, to tag the animals and release them into the ocean. After their findings were published in Aquatic Mammals, David says, “We were faced with changing a mindset and we did a pretty good job of convincing people throughout the world that stranded cetaceans did not have to die.”

Unlikely to linger on success; David is more focused on problems and he identified one in his own background. “I had fancied myself a conservation biologist for years, yet, when I took stock, I realized that while I’d done good research and published in good journals, none of it actually resulted in conservation – and that’s a problem.”

Change in Shipping Lanes Results in Real Conservation

The Commerce Department award stems from David’s work in convincing shippers that make roughly 3100 trips a year through the sanctuary to use shipping lanes that will reduce the risk of ships striking whales by approximately 81 percent. That change reflects an attitude toward conservation he has held since looking into PhD programs in the 1990s. Instead of affecting legal changes, he believed then and still believes “conservation requires a change in behaviors” – a principle that brought him to Antioch University New England.

“I knew that behavioral change involved social conflict. And Antioch’s PhD program allowed me to fuse biology and sociology, the interdisciplinary approach I was looking for. At the same time, the program changed how I was seeing things. I thought I knew what I was going to do, but the learning and excellence of instruction taught me to approach the nexus of biology and sociology in a totally different way,” David said.

By dovetailing his studies and fulltime job, David finished his doctorate sooner than others in his cohort. “I love the dissertation title,” he said. “It was exactly what I wanted to examine: ‘How to do conservation research under the conditions of scientific uncertainty and social conflict.'”

The conflict continues, as the does the research. In cooperation with other research institutions and the Data Visualization Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, David and UNH’s Colin Ware are creating visual models that laymen, and especially fishermen, can understand. “Colin has come up with custom ways to turn data into whales,” David says. “And I can go to a meeting and show fishermen how whales skim the bottom for fish coming out of the sand. They can see how easily the whales become entangled in their gear.”

David and his wife, Liz, have been raising three children while Liz finished her master’s degree in Antioch’s Organization & Management program in July ’09. In addition to her regular job at Bristol Community College, she trains undergraduates to give lectures in Massachusetts communities about the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary-work David sees as crucial. “Too few people know about what we do. We can’t do it and let people know about it at the same time. Liz’s help is invaluable.”

Learn more about David Wiley’s research and the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary.