Episode 44 – Belugas: Sentinels of Climate Change in the Arctic

In this episode, Aileen Lavelle and Sara Norton of the Duke University Bass Connections team “Belugas; Sentinels of Climate Change in the Arctic” share their experiences traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, to see belugas in person and learn about the impacts of climate change on these charismatic species and the ecotourism industry in a small, isolated town that depends on them. They ask what the role of conservatives is in wildlife conservation and sustainability. Wally Daudrich, Owner and Founder of Lazy Bear Lodge shares his insights on beluga tourism and how he came to run a sustainable tourism lodge in Churchill, Canada.  

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Photo of Aileen on rock shore

Aileen Lavelle (she/her) is a second-year Coastal Environmental Management Master’s Student interested in Dr. Andy Read’s lab focused on protected species research and conservation management. Her master’s thesis is creating a species distribution model for Loggerhead Sea turtles on the West Coast of North America and spatial planning for fisheries management, partnering with Dr. Jeff Seminoff and the Marine Turtle Ecology & Assessment Program at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Before starting at Duke, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2021 with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences. During her undergraduate degree, she completed three field seasons conducting sea turtle research on nesting beaches in South Florida with Mote Marine Laboratory, Loggerhead Marinelife Center, and Ecological Associates Inc. and interned as a sea turtle rehabilitator at Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s Sea Turtle Hospital. She enjoys swimming, hiking, herping, cooking, and scuba diving in her free time!

Instagram: @conservationbean

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aileen-lavelle/

Sara Norton on boat

Sara Norton is a 3rd year undergraduate and Rachel Carson Scholar at Duke University majoring in Biology and Marine Science and Conservation. Her research interests focus on climate justice and resilience and the intersection of marine species conservation and local economies and cultures. As a part of the Rachel Carson Scholar program, she studied at the Duke Marine Lab during the Fall ‘23 semester, where she investigated the state of satellite monitoring of cetaceans, analyzed genetic differences between coastal, inshore, and offshore populations of bottlenose dolphins, and started a podcast called Invert Extroverts, exploring the symbiotic relationships of marine invertebrates. Sara is also passionate about science communication and STEM education, and in her free time, she enjoys swing dancing, backpacking, and figure skating.

Spotify: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/invertextroverts

Bass Connections Team Members

Isaac Benaka with drone on ground in foreground

Isaac Benaka (Nicholas Scholar and CEM ’24) is a student researcher in the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Isaac is on several research projects that use drone data to map and assess coastal environments. Projects include a geomorphological survey of the Rachel Carson Reserve and change detection of elkhorn coral colonies in the reefs surrounding St. Croix, U.S.V.I. He is passionate about using drone imagery to help people connect with their environment and inform their sustainable management. Outside of work, Isaac enjoys DJing and playing soccer and golf.

Ana Bishop on boat holding camera

Ana Bishop is a 2nd year Master of Coastal Environmental Management candidate. Her research interests revolve around the ecology and conservation of marine mammals, specifically focusing on how marine mammal populations respond to large-scale environmental disturbance. Her Master’s Project, advised by Drs. Andy Read (Duke) and Erin Meyer-Gutbrod (University of South Carolina), examines this exact question through the lens of offshore wind. Titled “Will wind development adversely impact North Atlantic right whales through an increase in vessel traffic?”, the project aims to detect changes in vessel density induced by wind farm installation along the United States east coast and extrapolate what risks may be posed to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales as a result. After graduation, she will work as a contractor for NOAA’s Permitting Division, examining data related to the interactions of proposed offshore wind projects and marine mammal populations. Ana was awarded a B.S. in Marine Science from the University of South Carolina in 2021.

Bryan Graybill head shot with arena lights behind

Bryan Graybill graduated from the University of Chicago in 2016 with a BA in Environmental Studies and is currently a 2nd year dual Master of Environmental Management and Master of Business Administration student at Duke. Bryan’s environmental research interests include understanding the impacts of climate change on wildlife populations to inform effective adaptive conservation strategies. Through his business education, Bryan is also interested in researching and quantifying the economic value that wildlife and the natural world provide to humans through ecosystem services, sustainable harvest, eco-tourism, and other avenues. Bryan began working in conservation through internships as a wildlife conservation technician, first with an NGO conserving threatened sea turtle populations in Costa Rica, followed by a stint working with the Forest Service restoring nesting habitat for threatened dusky Canada geese populations in Alaska. He’s worked for the urban forestry NGO Our City Forest in San Jose, CA as a member of the nation’s first Climate Action Corps and as an environmental educator at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most recently, Bryan completed an internship with NASA as a team member working on a project testing a new method of using satellite imagery to detect invasive vegetation at the landscape scale. Bryan’s mission is to build connections between people and the natural world to drive change towards a more ecologically friendly and sustainable society.

Greg Merill in snow with seal

Greg Merrill is an Ecology PhD. candidate whose dissertation research is broadly focused on assessing the impacts of plastic pollution on marine mammals. Do microplastics translocate into organs around the bodies of whales after ingestion? And if so, what are the consequences? His work employs a variety of field and laboratory techniques that apply principles of ecotoxicology to elicit the impacts of microplastic exposure on marine mammals, namely utilizing biopsy explants and in vitro cell cultures. Greg is also interested in determining sensory explanations that drive plastic consumption, particularly for deep-diving echolocating toothed whales that are presumably not utilizing visual cues at dark depths to hunt. Greg has over ten years of experience with whales and seals, having worked with over 30 species spanning the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, temperate North Carolina and California coasts, and Antarctica. He was awarded his B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of California – Davis in 2014 and a M.Sc. in Biological Sciences from the University of Alaska – Anchorage in 2019.

Andy Read head shot

Andrew J Read, Stephen A. Toth Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Director, Duke University Marine Lab. Dr. Read’s research interests are in the conservation biology of long-lived marine vertebrates, particularly marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles. Much of his current research documents the effects of human activities on populations of these species and attempts to find solutions to such conflicts. This work involves field work, experimentation, and modeling. He is particularly interested in the development and application of new conservation tools. Read Lab

Dave Johnston head shot

David Johnston, Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation Ecology, Associate Dean for Teaching Innovation, Director Duke Environmental Leadership (DEL-MEM) Program. Dr. David W. Johnston holds a PhD from Duke University and received post-doctoral training at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. His professional experience ranges from leading research programs for NOAA to working as an ecologist within the NGO sector. Johnston’s research program currently focuses on advancing robotic applications, platforms, and sensors for marine science, education, and conservation missions. He has published extensively in top journals in the fields of conservation biology, oceanography, marine ecology, and marine policy on research that spans tropical, temperate, and polar biomes. Johnston is an innovative teacher with experience in both large and small classrooms and is skilled in online course development and deployment, field-based learning, and data visualization. MaRRS Lab


Wally Daudrich, Owner and Founder of Lazy Bear Lodge was a local Polar Bear tour guide who saw the potential of turning two tragic forest fires into a positive experience for visitors to this Arctic wonderland. His plan was to create an eco-friendly lodge that would reflect the history and beauty of its surroundings—a warm and cozy haven in the wilderness. Little did he know it would take ten years. With construction beginning in 1995 and completion in 2005, Wally and his family have put their heart and soul into the Lodge, and it shows! According to Wally, “It took a long time and was a tough go, but it’s all worth it when we see our guests’ happy faces as they return from a great day of exploring the wonders of the natural Arctic world around us.”

Supplement materials for this episode