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A group of sperm whales swimming together. Photo by Amanda Cotton.

Carleton University professor’s research helps land Best Documentary Series win at Emmys

By Artyom Zalutskiy on October 18, 2021

Marine biologist Shane Gero has been garnering much acclaim for his research on sperm whales. Currently Carleton University’s scientist-in-residence, Gero has partnered with numerous universities across the globe on a variety of projects.

He has had his research featured on BBC’s Blue Planet II, appeared on the TEDx stage, and most recently he helped create Secrets of the Whales, a National Geographic documentary that won the Outstanding Documentary award at the Emmys this year.

 

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Gero has dreamed about marine biology since childhood. When starting his schooling, he chose to study at Dalhousie University under renowned marine biologist, Hal Whitehead. It was Whitehead’s own focus on sperm whales, as well as science’s lack of knowledge about sperm whales compared to other species of whales, that drew Gero to study them in particular.

Whitehead’s research focused on sperm whales in the open ocean. Sperm whales, however, travel immense distances making tracking and accurate data collection incredibly difficult. While working on his master’s research, he came upon groups of sperm whales near the Caribbean island nation of Dominica that stayed in more or less the same area.

This type of access allowed Gero to gain more knowledge on sperm whales than ever before. He was able to track smaller groups of whales for longer periods of time which led to intimate insight not only in regards to their daily way of life but also provided details on their cultural structures. He was able to not only gain an understanding of what the whales did, but also why they did them.

This research led to the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, which has since become his main research project, put him on the path towards his international acclaim and has allowed him to communicate his research with the masses like few other scientists.

Photo by Jennifer Modigliane.

Gero’s research led him to Carleton for a number of reasons. It provided him with the perfect opportunity to settle down with his family while also leading his project remotely, and it also provided him with access to government agencies and NGOs.

He outlines that he and his students “use [their] knowledge towards conservation actions including national ocean policies and marine spatial plans, multinational regional passive acoustic monitoring plans, and through providing evidence-based recommendations from a data depauperate part of our ocean,” according to his university profile.

Gero says that he faces many daily challenges with his conservation work, namely because all aspects of it ask for human concession. However, he is committed to searching for a system that makes up for that—the key to which lies in communication.

 

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Gero says he believes that “scientists need to know that it’s OK to be advocates of their science.” He has encouraged his students to take an active role in their research and to be instruments of change rather than simply transcribers of data and knowledge.

It is due to this belief that Gero felt no fears or uncertainties about transferring his academic research into the National Geographic documentary. “I’ve always had the mindset that if science isn’t communicated, then what is it for?” says Gero.

Throughout his career, Gero has played a central role in sharing his research and advocating for change. Going forward at Carleton, he hopes to encourage and to teach his students to take an active role rather than simply passing their research on to others, as well as to communicate actively not only with fellow scientists and academics, but also with the public.