Panellists from the Lífríki foundation conclude their presentation at the 2015 Arctic Circle conference. Hands start to shoot up, even before the rest of the audience finishes its polite clapping. Despite the numerous upcoming questions, no panellist looks fazed. Not only do they expect a discussion, they seem to welcome one.
Lífríki’s research is a question-magnet, as it centers on the very politicized humpback whale. Using new, longer-lasting, and more sensitive tagging devices developed by Icelandic company Star-Oddi, the foundation will gather a wide variety of invaluable data from the humpback whale. With this data, they plan to distribute information about humpback whales and oceanic conditions for both scientific and educational purposes.
Most of the audience’s questions revolve around how Lífríki’s research will interact with the pro- or anti-whaling agendas. Again and again, panellists state their intention to present their data in an honest, holistic, and unbiased form. Still, the questions continue. Even I asked them, months later, when I spoke with Lífríki’s educational and research coordinator, Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir.
Perhaps their expectation of and willingness to answer questions stems from a core part of the foundation’s structure, which relies heavily on discussion and communication between seemingly divergent parties. Lífríki is composed of a wide variety of experts, and depends upon a wide variety of technologies. At the Arctic Circle conference, for example, their panel consisted of a biologist, a game designer, a marketing specialist, and an engineer, to name a few.
The diversity of their team is essential in carrying out their goal, which involves not only tagging whales, but also gathering, organising, and relaying data. “This core team has brought us quite far. We have specialists in every corner, and once we start producing, we’ll need even more scientists, teachers, and designers,” Edda tells me.
As evidenced by their assorted team members, the Lífríki foundation draws on several levels and types of innovation. The basis of the project, however, is the aforementioned new and improved tagging device design produced by an Icelandic technology company, Star-Oddi.
This new tag not only stays on the whale for a longer time, it can gather a wider variety of information. The longevity of the tag gives it a greater research potential, as the foundation can gather more geographically and temporally consistent data regarding the whale’s movement and oceanic conditions.
In addition to its longer lifespan, the tag is also less invasive. Past tags have always been more harpoon-like, as they’re inserted directly into the whale’s body. This tag, however, is more belt-like, and fits around the whale’s back tail. It even has a silicone surface and adaptable joints, so as not to bother the humpbacks as they swim.
The destination of data
Despite working with numerous types of expertise, Edda notes that all members are in constant contact, and often go back and forth with ideas. With this multi-talented team, the Lífríki foundation will relay data from the tag in several ways: in the form of raw data, reports in scientific journals, and educational material for children.
Rather than promoting marketing strategy or political agenda, the foundation aims to make people engage with the ocean in productive, creative, and interesting ways. Ultimately, Edda notes, “we want to put science in human language and make it interesting, fun, and engaging.”
Follow that whale
Part of this engagement involves incorporating young voices into conversations about the ocean. As opposed to many research foundations that specifically cater to scientists and politicians, Lífríki encourages interactions between children and data. To that end, they are currently designing and developing an online encyclopaedia, various app-based educational games for children and educational materials for the classroom.
The games, made with the help of Cape Copenhagen, will incorporate the whale tracking data, along with oceanic environmental data (such as temperature and salinity), allowing children to “follow a whale” in real-time and engage in various fun problem-solving tasks while learning valuable knowledge about the ocean.
Children won’t only learn about humpback whales through Lífríki’s games, however—the information offered also will also provide insight into other marine organisms, such as plankton. Focusing on an organism located high in the food chain, like the humpback whale, means that other, smaller organisms and ever-changing oceanic conditions play a part in the application as well.
Children are the future
The ocean, in short, will be presented as a complex ecosystem, of which all organisms are an important part. Getting children involved is related to the current climate crisis, which has an especially grave impact on marine organisms.
“Children will be the ones to make decisions in the future. We want to give them the opportunity to be incredibly well-informed,” Edda tells me, noting increasing ocean acidification, higher accumulation of garbage in the ocean, and rising levels of plastic in seabirds’ digestive systems as some of the featured subjects. “We also place great emphasis on providing the kids with tools they can use to take meaningful action,” Edda continues, “through small, doable steps that they can easily resort to if they wish to have a positive impact. For instance, they’ll learn how even a small plastic drinking straw can cause major harm to individual marine animals, and how we can prevent that from happening. Basically, we want to clearly demonstrate how every small action counts.”
The political fray
Of course, translating data—especially when it’s about an organism as politically touchy as the whale—comes with certain risks and implications, and even more so when it’s so strongly linked to climate change.
When asked about the potential humanisation of whales in the children’s “follow your whale” game, Edda admits, “Sometimes what we will show will be emotional and evoke some emotional feelings among people.” However, she is quick to assert that the foundation will not force ideas and will simply present information that reflects the true daily happenings of the ocean.
Lífríki’s determination to relay honest data has been positively received, Edda says, with the problem’s urgency becoming increasingly apparent to the public. Of course, there are always detractors—the foundation has heard hesitations, and even accusations, from pro- and anti-whaling groups alike. Edda tells me that all data should be honest, though “when people are trying to speak for conservation or its opposite, they can often be bit biased, and their research might only be based on the narrow part of the whole story.”
The dangers of scientific research, it seems, lie not only in incorporating personal bias, but also in relaying narrow or limited data. By generating a comprehensive and comprehendible game system, the foundation aims to limit bias, and effectively illustrate the actual conditions of the world’s oceans.
Reasons for research
Despite the challenges in studying such a politically charged organism, Edda is confident that the humpback is the best oceanic ambassador to start with. Not only does the humpback whale travel far and wide, but it also offers valuable information about the oceans, which Edda calls “the heart of the planet.”
While Lífríki will have more political accusations and obstacles to work around in the future, the foundation seems confident that they can shed more light on and draw more interest in the wide swathes of unexplored ocean.
Given the varied technology and diverse platforms they´re working with, what can one do but swim along—even if just for the ride?
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