A group of Native American students from Alaska visited Mystic Aquarium this week as part an academic exchange program studying beluga whales.
The five high schoolers are from Point Lay, an Inupiat Native American village of about 250 people on Alaska's northern coast. They're on the second leg of a two-part academic exchange program.
Last summer, scientists headed out to the village, tagging whales, taking blood samples, and studying how climate change is impacting the animals. Tracy Romano, a marine biologist at the aquarium, said, "The students in Point Lay actually help us collect that information." She said that a few months later, some of those students travel across the continent to spend a week helping out at her lab. "The whole goal is really to get the kids excited about science," she said, "to make them want to go on to school, hopefully college."
Mystic Aquarium currently has three beluga whales. Romano said having the animals in a controlled environment offers the students a good baseline assessment of how whales off the coast of Point Lay are doing.
"We know what the water temperature is in our habitat," Romano said. "We know what the water chemistries are. We know what the whales have been eating, and we know their medical histories. That affords us an opportunity to really know what we're measuring, and what we're starting out with, and then we compare some of these values with unknowns, with the wild animals."
Members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe are also involved in the project. A few students made the trip out to Point Lay last summer. Romano said she's working on raising the money so those local students can make the trip to Point Lay again this year.