I recently returned from speaking at Sitka WhaleFest in Alaska, a unique science festival that celebrates the local knowledge and marine science of the Northern oceans and has been running for 19 years. Having never been to Alaska, I had an inkling that this was going to be a great work trip but boy, were my expectations surpassed!
The event started on Friday 6th November 2015 with an early science-communication workshop for the nine invited speakers. This was a great idea to get us all chatting, as well as to subtly refresh what to do, and what not to do. Every afternoon from Friday to Sunday, three speakers gave 40-minute talks about their research. My talk on whale falls was the first of the deep-sea session on Saturday afternoon and was followed by great talks from Dr. Helen Razwadowski and Dr. Steve Haddock. The room was packed and afterwards Madison (WhaleFest Director) was happy to inform me that my talk had broken WhaleFest records with 288 persons in attendance! Every evening after the talks were finished, each speaker from that day had a Q&A session with three classes from the local schools and university. These were fun interactions and the students were really knowledgeable and asked great questions.
It wasn’t all work though; there were social events too! There was a mingling event each night and a banquet on the Saturday night, which featured great food, beauty queen sashes for speakers, and a moving keynote talk by Richard Glen, an Inupiaq geologist from Barrow, Alaska. There were also wildlife cruises out into the Sitka Sound on both Saturday and Sunday morning. Even though I am spoiled and have seen my fair share of humpback whales, it never gets old, especially in the stunning Alaskan environment. We were lucky to see about 40 whales between the two days, as well as bald eagles, Steller sea lions and my first and only sea otter! I also got to try Bowhead whale sashimi and muktuk (subsistence harvested by Inupiaq eskimos).
It was so refreshing to see how dedicated the WhaleFest team was as well as the intense interest of the public. Many thanks to the organizers, the attendees and the other speakers for making this an incredible science-communication experience.
You can find out more about this event here: http://sitkawhalefest.org/