Paul Forestell: Whale watching has human angle

June 1st, 2009  |  by  |  Published in People

Paul Forestell

Paul Forestell, PhD in comparative psychology ’88 Mānoa

Career: Provost, Long Island University’s C. W. Post Campus and vice president and research director, Pacific Whale Foundation
Hometown: St. John, New Brunswick, Canada
Family: Married with four children

As a professor, provost and research psychologist, Paul Forestell finds similarities between his college students and the animals they study. Both are unpredictable, he says. And both challenge him to look at the world in different ways.

Forestell has become a renowned marine mammal scientist by combining his love for whales, dolphins and seals with his expertise in psychology. He continues his research on learning, memory, social behavior and migratory patterns of marine mammals with the Maui-based Pacific Whale Foundation.

For the last 12 years, Forestell has organized a field program for students to study dolphins off the coast of Costa Rica, an experience that is transforming for the students and provides long-term data for dolphin studies.

His most recent of eight books, Humpbacks of Hawaiʻi: The Long Journey Back, is an inside look at 30 years of marine mammal research in the wild. Forestell and his co-author, Pacific Whale Foundation founder Gregory Kaufman, share the places they’ve traveled, what they’ve learned from colleagues and their delight and fascination with these intriguing animals.

Whales and dolphins developed over millions of years in a context completely different from terrestrial mammals, yet they share some of the same social needs as humans, he observes. Studying similarities and differences in marine mammals’ cognitive strategies helps sort out and explain human behavior.

“When you get the opportunity to be with them in their element it gives you a whole different perspective on relative importance of humans in the biological machine that is the planet,” he explains. “They really cause you to have second thoughts about the presumed primacy that we as humans often hold. A whale or dolphin will make you doubt that in a heartbeat.”

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