Robert Suydam

Senior Wildlife Biologist
North Slope Borough


General Career Information…

What is your educational background?
I have a B.A. in Environmental Biology from California State University Fresno, an M.S. in Biology from the University Alaska Fairbanks, and a Ph.D. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington.

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
I enjoyed outdoor activities as a child. As an undergraduate, I realized that studying science might give me an opportunity to work outside. I considered biology and geology but decided that studying animals might be more interesting than rocks because animals tend to move more quickly than rocks.

What are some of the different career opportunities are associated with the work you do?
Studying beluga whales or other marine mammals can involve careers such as wildlife biology, veterinary medicine, college professor, wildlife management, or research.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Study hard in school, especially math. Keep observing and asking questions about the world around you.

On Belugas…

How and where do you conduct your work on belugas?
I work primarily in northern Alaska but have also collaborated with other researchers in other parts of the Arctic. In Alaska I regularly work closely with Inuit. They hunt belugas and depend on them and other marine mammals for food and for their culture. Because belugas are important to Inuit, they know a lot about belugas. I’ve learned a great deal from listening and working with the native people of northern Alaska.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on belugas?
As I mentioned above, I often learn from Inuit hunters’  traditional knowledge about belugas. Hunters frequently know more than scientists about many Arctic species. Using technology also contributes to our understanding of the biology of belugas. We attach satellite transmitters to the backs of belugas. Satellites high above Earth “talk” to the transmitters and are able to track the movements of the whales and the depths of their dives. Of course we use various computer programs to analyze the data.

What research projects related to belugas have you worked on in the past?
I’ve been involved in many studies on belugas, including satellite tracking. Because belugas are hunted by Inuit, we have an opportunity to collect tissue samples for a variety of studies such as genetics, levels of contaminants, aging (counting growth layers in teeth), growth, reproduction, diet and food habits, exposure to disease, body condition, and general health.

What research projects related to belugas are you currently involved in?
Most of the studies I mentioned above are ongoing, although I am not conducting all of the studies by myself. I am collaborating with many researchers to learn more about belugas.

What have you learned so far from your research?
One of the most interesting things that I have learned about belugas is that some animals travel very far to the north. Using satellite transmitters, we tracked some adult male belugas to 80 degrees North latitude, which is just 600 mi (970 km) from the northern tip of Earth -- the North Pole. The water there is very deep -- greater than 10,000 ft (3,000 m) -- at those locations and is almost completely covered with ice. These results have caused us to ask many other questions. For example, we don’t know why belugas travel so far to the north. They may be feeding at those locations, possibly on Arctic cod, but we don’t know. Very little is known about that part of the Arctic.

Why is it important to study belugas?
Belugas are important to study for several reasons. First, because belugas are an important subsistence resource for many Inuit communities, we need to make sure that hunts are sustainable. We need to make sure the population size of belugas is large enough so the hunts can continue for generations to come. Secondly, belugas live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, areas that are being dramatically influenced by climate change. Warming temperatures are causing sea ice to get thinner. And the amount of ice that lasts through the summer is decreasing. Decreasing sea ice is also leading to increasing human activities in the Arctic such as commercial shipping and oil and gas exploration and development. Therefore, belugas are experiencing large changes in their environment. We want to understand how these changes will impact belugas so we can plan for future changes and reduce impacts as much as possible.

What threats are currently facing belugas?
• Changing sea ice conditions: sea ice is getting thinner and the extent of ice in the summer is decreasing
• Changing sea ice conditions are likely leading to other changes in the environment that we are just starting to investigate
• Increasing oil and gas exploration and development
• Potential commercial shipping through the Arctic
• Possible increases in commercial fishing in the Arctic
• In some locations there may be overhunting

How is climate change affecting belugas and their habitats?
At this point we are still trying to understand how belugas use the environments in which they live. We are making progress through satellite tracking and developing computer models that help us understand the importance of different areas in the ocean to belugas. We are still trying to understand what belugas eat. Because we still lack some basic information about the biology of belugas, it is very difficult to predict how climate change will affect belugas. It is possible that climate change will negatively affect some belugas, but it is also possible that some changes may be good for belugas.

How do native communities interact with and depend on belugas?
In many communities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, hunting belugas is very important. Belugas provide a valuable source of food for communities, and Inuit cultures are also closely tied to marine mammals. Ceremonies and dances often relate to marine mammals or the hunting of them. This relationship between Inuit and marine mammals means that people pay close attention to marine mammals and are very respectful toward them.

What kind of collaborations with native communities have you participated in?
Studies in northern Alaska involving satellite tracking and the collection of tissue samples have only been possible because of the support and participation of beluga hunters. People from Point Lay, Alaska, have been especially supportive of beluga studies.

Why is it important to do research in the Arctic in general and about belugas specifically?
Currently climate change is affecting the Arctic more dramatically than other parts of the planet. Belugas are experiencing those changes. What happens in the Arctic and what happens to the animals of the Arctic will likely affect people living farther south. All parts of the planet are closely connected. In order to prepare and plan for future changes throughout the world, we need to understand how changes will impact plants and animals. People need a healthy environment so we can maintain our health and happiness.

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your research?
Working closely with the community of Point Lay and handling live belugas have been very exciting and rewarding.

What follow-up research related to belugas would you like to do in the future?
I would like to continue to satellite track belugas to see how climate change might impact their movements. I would also like to support research on the health of belugas. Observing changes in the health of belugas may be our best approach to monitoring how climate change might impact belugas.

What actions can kids take to help protect belugas and their habitats?
Climate change is not just an Arctic problem. Climate change will likely increase sea level and alter the ability of people to grow food. Greenhouse gases are one of the most serious causes of a warming environment. We can all do better at conservation. We can walk or ride our bikes instead of driving. We can turn off lights in rooms that are not being used. We can recycle. If each of us does our part to conserve, the end result will be big positive changes.

On the Arctic…

In what ways do you feel that humans affect the Arctic environment (positively and/or negatively)? 
Climate change is dramatically affecting the Arctic. Because climate change is closely linked to greenhouse gases, we all are part of the problem. We all produce greenhouse gases. As the ice retreats from the Arctic Ocean, more human activity will likely occur in the Arctic including oil and gas exploration and development and commercial shipping. These activities will affect the Arctic even more.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about living or working in the Arctic?
Many times people not familiar with the Arctic ask if we live in igloos. The answer to that question is yes and no. People think that igloos are houses built out of snow. In Inupiat Eskimo, the word igloo actually means "home" and not necessarily "snow house." We don’t live in snow houses, but we do live in warm homes. Sometimes people think that penguins live in the Arctic. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere and most live in the Antarctic.

What do you like the best about doing work in the Arctic? 
Every day is an adventure when living in the Arctic. Studying belugas is very rewarding, but I also get to learn about Inuit culture, walruses, polar bears, bowhead whales, oceanography, and many other things. Sometimes I get to see polar bears when I drive to work. Seeing northern lights regularly is also exciting.

What do you like the least about doing work in the Arctic?
I grew up in California where it is often warm and sunny. My parents and other family members live a long way from northern Alaska. I don’t get to see them as often as I would like. Also, I never really liked the cold when I lived in California but have learned to live in a place where winter temperatures can be -40 degrees F (-40 degrees C) or colder.

What changes—if any—have you noticed in the Arctic during the time you have been working there?
I’ve been in the Arctic for more than 20 years now. Over that time, the changes have been dramatic, especially in sea ice. During my first years in the Arctic, the ocean would freeze over in the fall in September or October. Now the ice doesn’t form until December or  sometimes even into January. In the spring, the ice is thinner and seems to break up earlier than when I first arrived.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic?
One of the most important lessons for all of us to learn is that all areas of our planet are connected. What happens in the Arctic will influence what happens in your own home town. We also need to remember that what we do at home could influence what happens in distant parts of the world, including the Arctic.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in protecting the Arctic?
We need to keep our planet healthy. Keeping the area that you live in healthy will help keep the entire planet healthy, including the Arctic.

On Being a Kid…
What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
As a kid I liked reading books about the outdoors. Books by James Kjelgaard, such as Big Red, and those by Jean Craighead George, such as My Side of the Mountain, were books that inspired me to explore the outdoors and learn more about the world around me.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
Science was one of my favorite subjects when I was in middle school.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. As I got older, I realized that I wanted to do a job that I liked, one that allowed me to spend time outside, and one that tried to make the world a better place. Being a scientist studying belugas has allowed me to do these things.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Studying hard in school and being curious about the world around you are important, regardless of what you want to do. Doing well in school will make it easier for you to pursue whatever job you might become interested in doing.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
My parents always encouraged me to pursue what interested me. I also admire teachers. They give of themselves to help kids learn but don’t get paid a lot and often don’t receive much credit. The future of our society depends on our young people.

What do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy being outside to watch birds, ski, fish, hunt, or just explore. I like traveling to foreign countries and I like to read.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
I encourage you to find what you like to do. Pursue that as a career, if possible, or a hobby if not. If you like what you are doing, you are more likely to do your job well and with passion. The future of our planet depends upon each of us making a contribution.

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic