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How the MMRP came to be

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

Written by Paul Nachtigall

I am the founding director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology’s Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP). In the following blog, I provide an overview of the history and how the MMRP started.

The MMRP all began because the U.S. Congress wanted to save money and I, while being offered a move with all expenses paid, could not bring myself to leave Hawaii and join my colleagues in San Diego, California. It was perhaps the biggest decision of my life (and the most difficult). I left a very successful secure Federal job as the Director of the Research Branch of the Biosciences Division to move into a more insecure/soft-money position at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

There was a particularly exciting small Navy Laboratory (Figure 1) of about 300 people located on the nearby Marine Base in Kaneohe Bay that started during the Vietnam war in 1968. It was comprised of two parts – an engineering section primarily for designing and building underwater devices and a biosciences section for developing an understanding of, and using, the knowledge gained about marine mammals. There were nearly a hundred whales and dolphins housed at the facility and it was the World’s foremost Laboratory for understanding the learning, acoustics and echolocation of whales and dolphins.

Figure 1. The SPAWAR SYSTEMS CENTER (formerly NOSC) Hawaii Laboratory before closing in 1993

Congress was on a mission to close redundant facilities and this laboratory was deemed redundant by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 1991 and forced to close by the 1st of October 1993. The Scientists and Engineers at the Navy Lab were all requested to move to the ‘home’ lab in San Diego. At the time, I was the Head of the Research Branch of the Biosciences Division at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay. I decided that rather than move, I would take some young dolphins from our breeding program, our false killer whale and Risso’s dolphin and set up a new Laboratory nearby on Coconut Island at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii. I knew that Whitlow Au also did not want to move to San Diego, so I asked Whit if he would like to join me. I also asked Jeff Pawloski, our best trainer and very hard worker, if he would stay and take charge of our animal care and training.

We had seven animals: five bottlenose dolphins, one false killer whale and one Risso’s dolphin (Figure 2). Two of the bottlenose dolphins, Boris and BJ, were very young and had come from our breeding program that I had been in charge of at the Navy Lab.

Figure 2. Hana – The old Risso’s dolphin

The first time I visited Coconut Island to meet with the HIMB Faculty and the Director Dr Phil Helfrich, I parked my boat on the dock, and stepped through the rotten wood in the center. It was not the best start. But, working with Tom Clark, Marlin Atkinson, Paul Jokiel and others, we were invited to set up a lab on Coconut Island. It was fortunate that during the years prior to the Navy lab closure, I had spent a lot of time in Washington working with people in the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Office of Naval Technology. As the Navy lab closed, I contacted Admiral Paul Gaffney and Dr. Fred Saalfeld, Director of ONR. I also worked closely with Dr. Steve Zornetzer of ONR and Dr. AJ Faulstich of the Office of Naval Technology. All of them were interested in helping me set up a new facility to continue dolphin research at the University of Hawaii at the HIMB on Coconut Island.

We were very fortunate to have so many helpful people in Washington willing to assist us in the difficult time of lab closure. Hop Porter, of NOSC, and my immediate supervisor, Les Bivens were also supportive. Given that I was assigned to the University on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act Agreement, I was allowed to keep boats, animals, and all my branch research equipment along. Anything left on the base as the lab closed would have to be gotten rid of or shipped to San Diego, so there was actually a savings in simply moving things across the bay. Most of the Lab’s effort however, was focused on the move to San Diego. Our move to HIMB was not a high priority for the Lab itself. I was expected, reasonably, to make that happen independently. Fortunately I did have help. Linda Choy (Figure 3) had been a employee in the finance office on Coconut Island and I asked if she would join us. She joined us for six months before the move and stayed with us for 20 years. She was a remarkable and efficient administrative assistant.

Figure 3. Linda Choy

The most important facilities were the office building where we all were housed and the pens (Figures 4 and 5) for the animals. Both of those were established and funded through the “Admirals Reserve Fund” grant from Dr. Faulstich.

Figure 4. MMRP buildings

Whit and I were first kept as Navy employees and assigned to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. George Losey was our “Front man” and signed official documents for us because we were not State employees for the first four years.

Figure 5. Animal pens

After four years, Barry Raleigh the Dean of the School of Ocean Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii, offered both Whit and I Full Researcher positions at HIMB. They were ‘soft money’ positions which meant that we had jobs as long as we had grants and brought in funding to pay ourselves. We did that for the next 20 years, long enough to retire as Emeritus Professors from the University of Hawaii at Manoa after Lars Bejder was hired in a fully tenured, fully University funded, position as the new Director of the Marine Mammal Research Program.

The 20 years were very productive. We graduated over 30 graduate students with Ph.D. and Masters degrees with the majority of them being Ph.Ds in the Zoology, Marine Biology, Oceanography and Psychology Departments. A quick scan of our publication record (Professors and students) shows the publication of over 500 peer-reviewed publications and 9 written or edited books. Whitlow received both silver and gold medals from the Acoustical Society of America. Both Whit and I were made Fellows of the Acoustical Society. I was president of the Society for Marine Mammalogy and Whit president of the Acoustical Society of America. Whit’s student Kelly Benoit-Bird won a McArthur Genius Award based primarily on work she completed during her doctoral studies and we continued to be the world’s pioneering laboratory on dolphin echolocation and hearing. Our laboratory produced scientific data that not only helped better understand cetacean echolocation but also contributed tremendously to the science needed to better protect wild populations of marine mammals from man-made underwater noise.

Figure 6. Drs Whitlow Au and Paul Nachtigall with Boris

While the decision to leave Federal Service was difficult, it was the right decision. The University of Hawaii at Manoa offered great opportunities and a motivational environment for the pursuit of science. We always strove for the best possible care for our animals and that took funds. I made the commitment that we could only keep the animals as long as we could fund the best possible care. We averaged over a million dollars per year in extramural funding such as grants, and when funding levels fell, I was forced to find the animals the best possible new home.

The new emphasis of the laboratory has shifted from acoustics (both in the field and in the laboratory) to field ecology with the hiring of Lars Bejder. The new direction promises a bright future for the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.


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