Marine Biologist Gina Lonati ’12 Uses the Sea and Sky to Study and Protect Right WhalesBy Lily Echeverria ’26
Professors, students, and staff filled the room over capacity to hear Lonati’s perspectives on uher research.
Lonati utilizes drone technology to observe right whale body conditions, which are used to build out three-dimensional models of them to better track their survival. “We have some images of the whales on their sides, so if we can combine that with the top images, we have this scalable model to estimate body volume and then hopefully body mass,” she said.
She also discussed the thermal elements of the imaging work, explaining how the equipment can measure temperatures inside the whales' blowholes.
“Infrared thermography is this neat tool, where it doesn’t require manipulating a target. It just receives heat that’s naturally emitted from objects,” she said. “What we’re finding is that we can get the temperatures from the blowholes plus or minus three degrees Celsius. We’re not quite at the precision level to say if a whale has a fever or is hypothermic, but the goal is that we might be able to do that someday.”
The the high-resolution footage and thermal images are helping Lonati and other scientists learn more about the health of whales. The data can illuminate how whales' physical conditions are being affected by human impacts or food availability, and how their health in turn is impacting their survival and reproductive rates.
For instance, a whale injured from a fishing line entanglement or a ship collision—the main causes of mortality for right whales—could have a different core temperature because it is struggling to eat and can't build up enough blubber to insulate itself. Thinner females may not be strong enough to successfully give birth.
From the perspective of the sea, Lonati explained how her team also has oceanographic sensors to measure vertical distributions of plankton to predict where the few remaining whales will be by observing where their prey is. “We’re starting to see some of the pieces tell a story,” she said.
For Lonati, attending Bowdoin as a young adult solidified her already strong passion for marine biology. "I feel like it all started at Bowdoin,” she said. “The connections I made at Bowdoin, the experiences, and the education have certainly launched me on this path."
She always loved the ocean and was certain she wanted to pursue a career around it. “I always knew the ocean, and specifically marine mammals, called me. Whales and dolphins were always my favorite animals,” Lonati said. “If I knew what I am doing now [when I was younger] I think my kid-self would have just gotten starry-eyed.”
Lonati has explored a lot in her field, from interning at aquariums during her time at Bowdoin to performing necropsies on manatees in Florida. Her path led her to enroll in a doctorate program at the University of New Brunswick. She’s not sure what’s next.
“It’s weird to keep coming to these crossroads where you completely uproot your life for the whales,” she said.
Lonati is not the only Bowdoin graduate who has devoted her life to the endangered creatures. Kelsey Howe ’10, an associate research scientist at the New England Aquarium and Lonati’s friend and former volleyball teammate, is part of a group that manages the North Atlantic right whale catalogue, categorizing and sorting all known data on the species into digestible photos and information. Similar to Lonati, Howe knew from a young age she wanted to be a marine biologist.
“It’s always been the ocean for me,” she said. “But I went to Bowdoin because I really wanted a small liberal arts education. And I knew my love of whales would be supplemented elsewhere.”
Lonati and Howe not only played volleyball together during their time at Bowdoin, they also took the same marine biology class with Amy Johnson, Bowdoin's James R. & Helen Lee Billingsley Professor of Marine Biology. It was through these shared experiences that they became longtime friends. In 2021, they even worked on a boat together for the summer.
“It’s been a delight, because not only have we been friends for a long time, but there's teamwork,” Howe said. “There are a lot of similarities between being on a team and being on a boat. You have to solve problems and work together, and in some cases live together. So I feel like we picked up right where we left off.”
The North Atlantic right whale community is small, collaborative, and mighty. They know one another well, and they know the whales they study well. The scientists working to protect them identify particular whales by name or number, and can recall each of the whales’ individual data. “They all have stories, and they all have relatives that we know,” Howe said. “It becomes very personal.”
Lonati noted that the field needs many interdisciplinary minds at work, and said there are many ways to get involved at different levels.
“We can always use more bright minds and passionate people studying the right whales,” she said. “Educating oneself on where your seafood is coming from, or [thinking about] if you really need that Amazon package the next day, or shopping local—these are the things that help in a lot of aspects.” Fishing and container ships pose the biggest threats to right whales, along with the changing climate.
Lonati was grateful to the Bowdoin community for the warm welcome back to campus, and even got the chance to meet with a student she interviewed for the admissions office. “It was really rewarding. It was so nice to still be valued and included in the community,” she said. “I was chuffed at how many students showed up.”
Howe spoke very fondly of her fellow classmate with words of respect and admiration, furthering the demonstration of the fields’ commitment to collaboration and Bowdoin’s unique alumni ties.
“Gina is amazing. She’s going to be my boss one day,” Howe said. “She’s going to be all of our bosses one day.”