Meet your neighbor...Whale conservation biologist Howard Rosenbaum

FAIRFIELD — In the year after he graduated Hamilton College, Howard Rosenbaum traveled the world — to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Fiji, Indonesia, Colombia, and China, studying differences between populations of humpback whales on a fellowship grant.

“The springboard was my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. It was my launch,” Rosenbaum, 49, said of the grant that catapulted his career as a whale conservation biologist and now, as Director of the Ocean Giants Program at the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Rosenbaum’s said the fellowship allowed him access to cross-cultural fertilization of ideas and exposure to different cultures at a time, in the early 1990s, when most science research opportunities for young graduates were domestic.

“It gave me a kick-start into international and global conservation,” Rosenbaum said the Watson Fellowship, which allowed him to go directly to countries at an earlier stage of development than the United States where whales faced the greatest threats.

The journey that has brought Rosenbaum, a Fairfield resident for 18 years, to the forefront of international whale and large marine mammal conservation began when he was a kid, growing up in Great Neck, New York, and spent the summers whale-watching on fishing trips out to the end of Long Island.

“You’d be on a boat right up next to some of the largest animals that ever lived. It clearly had some effect. It was awe-inspiring for me,” Rosenbaum said of his early encounters with whales. “Fast forward, traveling through the national parks as a teenager with my mom and cousin, biking through Maine and Novia Scotia, I had some really cool experiences outdoors and in nature.”

By the time he got to Hamilton, Rosenbaum knew he wanted to study marine mammals, an interest he fostered on the semester-long Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program at the Mystic Seaport and with a senior thesis on whales. After the Watson Fellowship, which Rosenbaum extended to a second year to continue working with whale researchers around the globe, he entered a doctorate program at Yale University where he studied biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution.

For his doctoral work, Rosenbaum built upon his fellowship work and used genetic techniques to study whales, particularly off the coast of Madagascar, where, in 1996, Rosenbaum led the first expedition to study whales in the area. Three-four months of the year, Rosenbaum lived in remote places around the globe following humpback whales as they migrated from the Antarctic northward.

After finishing his degree, Rosenbaum did a post-doctoral fellowship with WCS, in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History, and then was hired full-time by WCS, where he’s now worked for almost 20 years, now as head of the organization’s Ocean Giants program. Rosenbaum is also on the faculty in the Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology program at Columbia University.

“I’ve grown the Ocean Giants program into working all around the world on the most pressing threats facing marine mammal populations, whether it’s in the Gulf of Guinea, on the west side of Africa, the Western Indian Ocean, Madagascar or the Bay of Bengal. It’s not all me, it’s a team of people,” Rosenbaum said. In his capacity, Rosenbaum works with industry, state and federal governments, and international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Whaling Commission to protect whales and other marine life.

While international treaties have banned large-scale commercial whaling in most countries, whale populations are still struggling to recover the intense period of hunting and slaughter that characterized 20th-century whaling and facing new challenges as well, Rosenbaum said. Global climate change endangers whale habitats and oil, gas, and renewable energy development, along with military and shipping industry activities, cause ocean noise and hinder the ability of many marine animals, including whales, to communicate through sound to carry out essential life functions.

Although Rosenbaum’s work is global, he appreciates his local roots in Fairfield, where he’s lived with his wife, Julie Rosenbaum, who he met in graduate school at Yale while she was in medical school. The pair have two children: a daughter Abby, 16, and Jonah, 13.

These days, Rosenbaum said his work has come full-circle, back to the sound where he saw his first whales. As large marine mammals recover from years of commercial capture, species such as the fin whales — the second largest animal to ever live, the North Atlantic right whale — one of the most endangered animals alive today, and the blue whale — the largest animal to ever live, have taken habitat in the shores off Connecticut. Rosenbaum and his team are tracking these animals to provide data that can help inform policies to protect them in the future, so other young people can also experience the same awe of these great animals.; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1