Whale Scientists Story: Alexandre Bernier-Graveline

Alexandre Bernier-Graveline is a 25-year-old Canadian whale scientist. He comes from the Québec province. He holds a Msc. from UQAM (the University of Quebec in Montreal). His master research focuses on ecotoxicology in beluga whales from the Saint Lawrence Estuary.

Alexandre Bernier-Graveline

Alexandre’s education

I first did a bachelor’s degree (3 years) in biological and ecological sciences at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (Québec, Canada) where I specialized in limnology and aquatic ecology. It was one of the few programs available in Quebec with both specializations and with a special focus on the aquatic environment.

Once I obtained my bachelor’s degree, I started a master program in biology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (Québec, Canada) under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Verreault. I focused my research on Saint Lawrence beluga whales. I chose my master because of the exciting and unique research project I was offered. It also perfectly matched with my career perspectives. Indeed, I would like to become a professor in marine mammal ecotoxicology/ecophysiology.

Research experience

During my undergrad, I did an internship at Environment and Climate Change Canada under the supervision of Dr. Magali Houde where I learned so much about ecotoxicology. I completed a project during the summer session on the impact of the wastewater effluent of Montreal on the northern pike population. I did mainly biomarkers analyses for this project. However, I also contributed to other scientific projects and developed new skills in bioassay and fieldwork.

Following this experience, I completed my last year of my bachelor’s degree and then started a master’s degree, during which I did a research project on the relationship between contaminants, lipid profiles, and body conditions on Saint Lawrence estuary belugas. I found this great research project by directly contacting my supervisor, on which I spent around two years.

These research experiences taught me so much. I learned about the true aspects behind the scientific methods. I also learned about managing big data bases, field trips, statistics, networking, writing papers, and so much more.

Taking a beluga whale’s biopsy is the foundation of Alexandre’s research. The biopsy contains the blubber which is where Alexandre measures contaminants. © Alexandre Bernier-Graveline

What is Alexandre up to now?

I’m presently working with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) on a photogrammetry project. So basically, we take photos and videos of belugas with a drone. Once we collected the visual content, we calculate body measurements and try to distinguish females’ reproductive status and get a body condition index, in order to evaluate their energy reserves.

As part of a small and non-profit organization, many advantages are coming from the warm ambiance between coworkers. My team feels like a second family. Everyone contributes with their full potential to the progression of every project and receive great responsibilities, generally faster than in regular organization. The only drawback comes from the difficulty to get a permanent job, as the income is not constant and fluctuates with every project. But as part of a transition between a master’s degree and a PhD it’s perfect!

Alexandre’s tips for aspiring whale scientists

One great advice is to stay passionate about your work and focus on your ambitions. This often makes the difference and gives you the energy to always continue forward even when facing difficulties. Obviously, it’s clear that passion alone won’t get you a job or a degree, you will need to prove yourself.

Alexandre Bernier Graveline at WMM - Anaïs Remili
Alexandre Bernier-Graveline speaking at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona in 2019 © Anaïs Remili

What is next for Alexandre?

As I recently graduated from a master’s degree and that I still feel the passion for science, research, marine mammals, and ecophysiology/ecotoxicology I’m considering continuing in the same field and to progress in a career with marine mammals. I wish to be one day a professor in order to teach and promote sciences, as well as to contribute to the conservation of the endangered populations of whales.

Fun stories from the sea

I would love to share the exact moment when I’ve felt my first spark of passion for whales. From this second, I knew I had to pursue a career in marine mammalogy. It was the summer semester, just after my first year as an undergrad in biology. I had a job as a guide at a local center on marine mammals in Canada. On our days off, we had the chance to join the research team on their vessel.

During one of these first days at sea, we encountered a small group of belugas and were getting ready to photo-ID each individual. As I was only a guest, I was staying at the back of the boat and observing the whales. I kept observing the group until a single beluga, came out of nowhere, just under the surface. It gently turned his face in my direction and looked into my eyes for a few seconds before leaving. That indescribable feeling of curiosity and intelligence from these two eyes hit me hard and gave me the desire to study and learn more about them.

Beluga whale - Alexandre Bernier Graveline
A beluga whale photographed by Alexandre Bernier-Graveline

You can contact Alexandre here.

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