Forty-four years ago, in 1976, three friends decided to start a research business focusing on marine biology and geology, out of an attic in the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce. Two of the founders, Dr. Graham Giese and Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, still contribute daily to the research, education and outreach of what is now called the Center for Coastal Studies. Sadly, our third founder is no longer with us, but the memory and passion of Dr. Barbara Shuler Mayo lives on in our mission statement. The center “is dedicated to understanding, preserving, and protecting marine ecosystems and the coastal environment through applied research, education, and public policy initiatives.”
We are interested in doing science that matters and generating insights that can directly impact our world today.
I’ve come a long way from my hometown of Bartlesville in the northeast corner of Oklahoma to Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, where I earned a doctorate in chemical oceanography, to the landing at the tip of Cape Cod, unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the world. I worked at the University of Massachusetts Boston in the Department of Environmental, Coastal, and Ocean Sciences (now known as the School for the Environment and a partner in the Center for Coastal Studies), and ran a marine land for the university on Nantucket for 12 years. Throughout my career, I have been a fan of the center and a colleague and collaborator of the scientists. On Nantucket, I collected water samples for Dr. Amy Costa and counted gray seals on Muskeget alongside Lisa Sette. I have hosted Dr Mark Borelli and Graham Giese at public events to describe how the island has been affected by sea level rise and coastal management practices. When the opportunity arose to take over from my friend Rich Delaney, I jumped at the chance.
I knew the Coastal Studies Center was not only highly regarded for his research in the North Atlantic, but also a world leader in whale ecology and disentanglement technologies. Together with the International Whaling Commission, the center is instrumental in the global whale entanglement response network, and we provide training and tools to entanglement teams around the world. Additionally, our Humpback Whale Program led by Dr. Jooke Robbins is internationally recognized with research projects in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and South Pacific oceans. Jooke Robbins is also a long-time member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team and the Whaling Commission Science Committee, and is leading the construction of our new genetics lab. To illustrate our distant connections, this genetics laboratory will also be used by the centre’s assistant scientist, Dr Per Palsbøll, from the Marine Evolution and Conservation group at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Per Palsbøll is leading an international study to assess how whales have adapted to changes in sea temperature in the past.
Here, closer to home, the center benefits from its location at the tip of Cape Cod, near the productive waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and directly in the path of a major migration route for right whales. and other marine mammals. At first, our scientists were recruited to monitor the impact of the outfall pipe designed to divert Boston’s sewage further offshore and to document the shifting sands of our dynamic coastline. This monitoring was in addition to conducting long-term studies of humpback whale populations and developing marine mammal disentanglement technology.
We have evolved into a power of science and education.
Our 47 scientists, interns, staff and educators fill our 12,000 square foot, state-certified Hiebert Marine Laboratory at 5 Holway Ave. near the Pilgrim Monument. From December to May, our aerial survey team is in the air counting and identifying North Atlantic right whales while our marine ecology research vessel collects zooplankton samples to document the essential food sources of these magnificent creatures. As summer approaches, we are stepping up our work on water quality, seals, sharks and benthics and the disentanglement team is preparing to rescue entangled marine mammals and sea turtles.
For several weeks we have been using our seabed maps in Cape Cod Bay to locate derelict fishing gear, which is being removed with the help of local fishing and shellfish partners. As you may have seen, we go out almost weekly to pick up marine debris with the help of our huge “beach brigade” of volunteers. In fact, without volunteers, we wouldn’t accomplish as much. We use dozens of volunteers for water quality sampling at our 150 stations, as benthic “pickers” separating invertebrates from the sand, as guides and kiosk educators, and with the seal program at our observation station in North Truro.
For the center, sharing our research with the public so that we can all be better informed while providing data to policy makers at local, national, national and international level are key drivers of our work.
This summer, we are coming out of COVID to feature even more programs and invite visitors and visitors year-round to our Lab Spinnaker Humpback Skeleton Exhibit at our booth on MacMillan Pier, our SeaSpace Marine Discovery Center on Whalers Wharf and our “popup” information tents on Truro and Provincetown beaches. SeaSpace, in particular, is meant to be a family center with hands-on exhibits, displays, and center merchandise.
This summer we will also be holding screenings of HitPlay Productions’ provocative and captivating film “The last of the right whalesat the Cape Cinema in Dennis on June 29 and in conjunction with the Provincetown Film Society on July 12 at the Waters Edge Cinema.
Please watch for our Whale Week, now in its eleventh year – a week-long summer celebration that raises awareness of life and threats to our oceans and coasts through engaging educational activities.
You can find out more about the center’s programs on our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/CoastalStudiesPtown and follow us on Facebook at @centerforcoastalstudies; Instagram at CoastalStudiesptown and Twitter at @CCSPtown.
Sarah Oktay is the executive director of the Center for Coastal Studies, located in Provincetown.