Thousands of cetaceans—whales, dolphins, porpoises—strand themselves on beaches every year worldwide, and more than half die. In spite of decades of research, scientists aren’t quite sure why, or what to do about it. But one concerned high schooler has found a solution that's making waves.
Enter Veronica Lewis, 15, a Georgetown High School sophomore in Haverhill, Massachusetts, who’s been obsessed with whales ever since she read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in fifth grade (yes, fifth grade). It “really affected me,” she says. A week at the University of Connecticut’s oceanography school at age 12 reinforced her interest and her dismay at how many cetaceans die in what are called “strandings” every year. (In a single mass stranding in New Zealand in 2017, 350 pilot whales died.) Veronica, former captain of her middle school robotics team and an accomplished blues musician (she sings, plays piano and writes her own songs), was at her local aquarium when an idea struck her: “What if I used sound to help them?”
“I knew the whales respond to echolocation and sound,” she says. “And music is a big part of my life. I thought, They have songs; I have songs.”
Extensive research—including interviews with experts in Hawaii and Scotland—followed as Veronica developed a prototype for a device she christened the NOMAD, Navigational Ocean Mammal Assistance Drone. It’s a drone on pontoons, with a submergible speaker that plays pre-recorded whale and dolphin songs to lure marine mammals away from shallow water and back out to sea. It can also serve as a barrier to prevent cetaceans from entering shallow water in the first place. The final version will be 10 to 20 feet long.
The NOMAD earned several awards at the Northern New England Regional Invention Convention in March and has captured the interest of the New England Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket (Massachusetts) and the Discovery Channel.
When she’s not inventing, Veronica plays a mean boogie-woogie piano (veronicalewis.com) and volunteers with the community service project she founded (valorparatodos.com), where kids exchange language skills to help each other learn (native Spanish speakers teach Spanish to native English speakers and vice versa).
“When I was 14 I was eating Oreos and watching The Brady Bunch on a black-and-white TV,” says Veronica’s mom, Nancy Leotta Lewis, with a laugh. “I don’t know where this child came from.”