Tag Archives: Marine Mammal Scientist

A Look into the World of a Marine Mammal Scientist; in the Land of Rigs, Ships, and Conservation

Helicopter Landing; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008
Before I begin to tell you about the projects that I have worked offshore in this next chapter; we must first go back to the beginning. As you have seen from my past project in Boston, Massachusetts – “Thanks for the Memories; My Recollections of the Boston, Massachusetts Project,” the role of a Marine Mammal Scientist is quite diverse. 
Oil Rig; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008
When I started working in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), I had begun to implement specific guidelines, as well as fulfill various roles. Though there were no documented North Atlantic right whales in the GOM, there were several distinct specimens that were new to me and very popular within these waters. For instance, before this project I had learned that one of the most important and endangered species that were found within the GOM were Sperm whales.  I did not know much about Sperm whales at the time, but I was soon able to find out a great deal about them working in their natural environment. I was not working with Commercial Scuba Divers on a pipeline project this time; however, I was working with the Oil & Gas Industry on what is worldly recognized as a seismic survey. I had no idea what seismic surveys were, but I was about to find out firsthand what this entitled. What are seismic surveys you may ask? I discovered that seismic surveys were carried out principally for the purposes exploration and the management of hydrocarbon reserves. To further understand the Oil & Gas Industry and their responsibilities offshore, we must first understand the environmental consultants behind them – this will allow us to gain a deeper understanding in their roles to the environment.

Main Role of a Marine Mammal Scientist:
Whether we are working in the GOM or worldwide there is one mission that we stay focused on – we are professional environmental consultants and as scientists our duty is to carefully examine the waters looking for whales, other marine mammals, and sea turtles using the naked eye and hand-held binoculars provided by the seismic vessel operator and/or our own. The Marine Mammal Scientists will stand watch in a suitable location that will not interfere with navigation or operation of the vessel – this affords the observers an optimal view of the sea surface. The biologists will provide 360 degree coverage surrounding the seismic vessel. This 360 degree presents the opportunity to adjust their positions appropriately to ensure adequate coverage of the entire area. These observations must be consistent, diligent, and free of distractions for the duration of the “watch.”
Helicopter and Oil Rig at Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008
In recent years there has been increased concern for the effect of man-made noise pollution in the ocean, particularly upon cetaceans – which are known to be sensitive to sound. As a result, environmental regulations have been introduced in an attempt to minimize negative impacts on marine wildlife. These guidelines have focused on the Oil & Gas Industry’s seismic exploration for offshore oil – they center on the practice of delaying or shutting down the use of airguns if a whale or dolphin is sighted nearby. A Marine Mammal Scientist will implement these regulations in the field.
When onboard the seismic vessel, the Marine Mammal Scientist job is two-fold:
    * To spot sensitive wildlife species
    * To ensure adherence to the guidelines
Spotting, and identifying, animals involves long hours of visual surveys. Detecting cetaceans with hydrophones is known as Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM), and this is an increasingly common technique used in addition to visual surveys. Ensuring adherence to guidelines requires a thorough knowledge of the regulations, understanding of the operations, and the ability to communicate effectively with the crew.  In some circumstances guidelines may be open to interpretation or the environmental conditions unique and the Marine Mammal Scientist will be called upon to give advice on a sensible mitigation protocol.
As well as the seismic exploration industry, Marine Mammal Scientists may also be required during; oil rig decommissioning, where disused oil platform pilings on the seabed are removed by large amounts of explosives, marine construction projects and; military trials of powerful new active sonar systems. 
Golden Oil Rig; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008
Noise from human activity in the ocean environment is likely to increase – and become a bigger environmental issue. Discussion of how to minimize the negative effects of noise upon whales, dolphins, and other marine-life will no doubt continue between industry, government agencies, military, environmental organizations and academics. It will be the Marine Mammal Scientist who puts this into practice in the field.

Seismic Survey Boat; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

Shut-down Protocol for the Quest of Sperm Whales:

In the GOM according to the NTL guidelines, at any time a whale is observed within an estimated 500 meters (1,640 feet) of the sound source array (“exclusion zone”), whether due to the whale’s movement, the vessel’s movement, or because the whale surfaced inside the exclusion zone, the observer will call for the immediate shut-down of the seismic operation, including airgun firing (the vessel may continue on its course but all airgun discharges must cease).
The vessel operator must comply immediately with such a call by an on-watch visual observer. Any disagreement or discussion should occur only after shut- down. When no marine mammals or sea turtles are sighted for at least a 30-minute period, ramp- up of the source array may begin. Ramp-up cannot begin unless conditions allow the sea surface to be visually inspected for marine mammals and sea turtles for 30 minutes prior to commencement of ramp-up (unless the method described in the section entitled “Experimental Passive Acoustic Monitoring” is used). Thus, ramp-up cannot begin after dark or in conditions that prohibit visual inspection (fog, rain, etc.) of the exclusion zone. 
Oil Rig after Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008
Any shut-down due to a whale(s) sighting within the exclusion zone must be followed by a 30-minute all-clear period and then a standard, full ramp-up. Any shut-down for other reasons, including, but not limited to, mechanical or electronic failure, resulting in the cessation of the sound source for a period greater than 20 minutes, must also be followed by full ramp-up procedures. In recognition of occasional, short periods of the cessation of airgun firing for a variety of reasons, periods of airgun silence not exceeding 20 minutes in duration will not require ramp-up for the resumption of seismic operations if: (1) visual surveys are continued diligently throughout the silent period (requiring daylight and reasonable sighting conditions), and (2) no whales, other marine mammals, or sea turtles are observed in the exclusion zone. If whales, other marine mammals, or sea turtles are observed in the exclusion zone during the short silent period, resumption of seismic survey operations must be preceded by ramp-up.

Visual Monitoring Enforcing Guidelines:

Visual monitoring will begin no less than 30 minutes prior to the beginning of ramp-up and continue until seismic operations cease or sighting conditions do not allow observation of the sea surface (e.g., fog, rain, darkness). If a marine mammal or sea turtle is observed, the observer should note and monitor the position (including lat./long. of vessel and relative bearing and estimated distance to the animal) until the animal dives or moves out of visual range of the observer. Make sure you continue to observe for additional animals that may surface in the area, as often there are numerous animals that may surface at varying time intervals
In other words, my position in the GOM was the governing body responsible for implementing mitigation measures to protect marine mammals and turtles during seismic survey operations within the Gulf of Mexico. The NTL guidelines were enforced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Services). The role of the Marine Mammal Scientist is to be present on the ships during offshore operations and to act immediately to protect marine mammals should they enter an exclusion zone (usually 500 meters) prior to operations. Marine Mammal Scientists will advise personnel onboard to delay operations until the animals are at a safe distance and also to record behavior and sightings at other times.
Crane at Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

The Effect of Passive Acoustic Monitoring:
The Marine Mammal Scientist must first be able to detect marine mammals – this is done by visual and passive acoustic monitoring. Visual monitoring is conducted by using the highest platform with the best all-round vision and using simply a pair of binoculars the Marine Mammal Scientist scans the surrounding areas for animals. Visual monitoring is done in all observation work.
In addition passive acoustic monitoring may also be carried out. Marine mammals spend most of their time underwater and for those species that are very vocal and are deep divers such as sperm whales – acoustic monitoring can be conducted as well as visual monitoring to increase the likelihood of detection. Acoustic monitoring also allows for the Marine Mammal Scientist to detect animals at night. Passive Acoustic Monitoring is conducted by deploying hydrophone cables and monitoring in-coming signals on computers with specially designed acoustic software.
Creativity; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008
Passive acoustic monitoring is encouraged for both borehole & surface seismic operations.  “Monitoring for sperm whales with a passive acoustic array by an observer proficient in its use will allow ramp-up and the subsequent start of a seismic survey during times of reduced visibility (darkness, fog, rain, etc.) when such ramp-up otherwise would not be permitted using only visual observers.  If you use passive acoustic monitoring, include an assessment of the usefulness, effectiveness, and problems encountered with the use of that method of marine mammal detection in the reports described in this NTL.  A description of the passive acoustic system, the software used, and the monitoring plan should also be reported to MMS at the beginning of its use.”
Not all projects worldwide use PAM; however, with increasingly Oil & Gas companies searching for the valuable resource of oil, PAM will be utilized more frequently.  As the search continues for “liquid gold,” additional habitats and marine mammals are being affected.

Seismic Airguns Impact on Marine Wildlife:
Projects requiring Marine Mammal Scientists and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operators have arisen due to concerns regarding the levels of man-made noise in the ocean and how this may affect marine life, in particular, marine mammals and turtles.
The use of an airgun or airgun arrays while conducting seismic operations may have an impact on marine wildlife, including marine mammals and sea turtles. Some marine mammals, such as the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), and all sea turtles that inhabit the GOM are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
In order to protect marine mammals and sea turtles during seismic operations, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requires seismic operators to use ramp-up and visual observation procedures when conducting seismic surveys. Procedures for ramp-up, protected species observer training, visual monitoring and reporting are described in detail in this NTL. These mitigation measures apply to geophysical activities conducted under lease terms, for all seismic survey operations conducted in waters deeper than 200 meters (656 feet) throughout the GOM and, in the GOM waters east of 88.0° W. longitude, for all seismic survey operations conducted regardless of water depth. Performance of these mitigation measures is also a condition of the approval of applications for geophysical permits. You must demonstrate your compliance with these mitigation measures by submitting to MMS certain reports detailed in this NTL.

Stern at Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

How to Become a Marine Mammal Scientist:
Individuals likely to work on projects as Marine Mammal Scientists are those which have additional biological or environmental qualifications and/or have experience of working at sea. To work in this particular field and in some areas of the UK where marine mammals are more abundant, you will be required to have experience of working with marine mammals whether this is formally as a researcher or through voluntary work.
Marine Mammal Scientist does usually have a strong background in Marine Biology and Conservation. Increasingly, the Oil & Gas Industry is employing a ‘best practice’ attitude to environmental commitment and voluntarily taking on Marine Mammal Scientists as independent observers in areas where no government regulations exist.

A World of Aquatic Living Species; Unleash Your Imagination

Hammerhead Shark Curiosity Sparked; New Orleans, Louisiana: Aquarium of the Americas 10.2008
My aunt Shir has positively impacted my life in so many ways. When I look back at my childhood, she was the one who guided me into the underwater world anyway she could. Most of the time she took me to aquariums; here I would ask the workers a series of questions. The most important questions that I asked were: “Where did they attend college, what was their major, and what is one thing that they adored about their job?” Most of the aquarists emphasized that they went to college near the aquarium since they had to be close to their job. All majors were in the Environmental field in some aspect and most of what they enjoyed was the hands on experience and close interactions that they had spent with the animals.
Ever since I could remember my first moment in a marine aquarium I adored sharks of all species. I recall those beady eyes staring straight into my tiny blue eyes when I was standing on the other side of the glass aquarium. The intensity that I felt was a rush that I had never felt. This was not an uncomfortable feeling by any means. The shark’s initial gaze was best described as a moment in time when everything just stopped. Here this magnificent fearsome creature swims closer to the glass and looks at me as if he was asking, “Who is this reflection in the glass on the other side?” I felt no fear, but a sudden curiosity rose upon me and I wondered why a fish of this size and domination was held in a place such as this? What gives humans the right to hold such a monstrous and flesh eating beast in such small quarters? Could mankind not learn and educate themselves in the open waters, which would eliminate the hassle and cruelty of bringing this animal and other animals alike to this particular location? Studies could easily have been done by simple observations of the animal’s behavior and dietary supplements in their “own” natural habitat. 
Tiger Shark Reflection; Boston, Massachusetts: New England Aquarium 12.2007
Have we become a society where we can take living organisms out of their own environment and place them in a secluded area for shear “enjoyment?” I can honestly say that working in the “actual” field of the specimen/ specimens has had a huge scientific, as well as personal impact on my views of aquariums. I must admit that I was intrigued to be able to visit one common location where all the marine life was uncovered to the general public. You watched “Free Willy” haven’t you? I remember as a young girl I would watch that movie over and over again until finally one day my VHS tape stopped working! Like the young boy, I knew in my heart that this creature was meant to live in his own environment. Much of what I learned from that story, I had shaped in my own life.  I created a mission to research our marine life in their own surroundings. 

While I was asking aquarists for feedback on my questions, I discovered that some aquariums do utilize oceanographic research institutions or aquariums conduct their own research programs, and sometimes specialize in species and ecosystems that can be found in local waters based on where the aquarium is located. Therefore, there are some aquariums with a strong purpose! I wanted to describe to you my first initial reaction when I viewed sharks for the first time. After all, this was one of those memorable moments that seem to replay in my mind.

Stingray Smile for Camera; New Orleans, Louisiana: Aquarium of the Americas 10.2008
During my senior year in high school I realized that I did not want to work in an aquarium due to the countless documentaries that I watched on the Discovery Channel. During my undergraduate studies at the Pennsylvania State University, it was determined that most of my non-paid internships were at the local aquarium. I have a lot of respect for aquarists, but this was not my calling. I knew I was destined to work in the field, which would allow me to collect more scientific evidence and offer the “opportunity of a lifetime” to watch the gracious wonders of the world play and roam the vast oceans. 
Lionfish with Sunken Treasure; New Orleans, Louisiana: Aquarium of the Americas 10.2008
Currently, I still do pay a visit to aquariums from time to time; however, I do not tend to visit the cetaceans on display. I prefer to visit the open exhibits to learn more about sharks and other fish, which in consequence helps me to educate our youth by supplying them with “Fun Facts” as they continue to be amazed about what they see. In addition, I can master my photography skills within my preferred exhibits. 
Presently, I still research sharks and enjoy reading articles and watching documentaries hosted by National Geographic and Discovery. I highly recommend collecting a few National Geographic magazines and/or watching their programs; this has not only helped me understand different worlds, but also recognize the subjects and angles that one should photograph. Marine Biology does combine well with Photography. If it was not for my waterproof Olympus camera and my Canon EOS digital Rebel T2i these moments would turn into a faded memory instead of capturing a magnificent shot that is rare to see. I will discuss Photography, which also ties in with Graphic Design in future posts; I have absorbed lots of information on both of these topics.

Offshore Lifestyle Unraveled; a Greater Appreciation for Marine Life

My First Picture as a Marine Mammal Scientist with Whit (One of My Best Friends & a Great Biologist); Atlantic Ocean: Texas Horizon 09.2007

Some of you may ask what an offshore lifestyle is and why would an individual want to be living on a boat for months at a time? I can honestly say that this is one of my best decisions that I have made in my life. The other greatest decision was to get married; more on this in future posts.

I work for the Oil & Gas Industry on seismic ships as a Marine Mammal Scientist. My main responsibilities are to encourage particular guidelines to the seismic industry that should be followed when working in the marine environment. I also document and research the cetaceans (whales & dolphins) that we come across during the survey on the ocean. With this position comes the ability to leave your problems and worries ashore and embark on a journey filled with spontaneity, mystery, and tranquility found within the depths of the ocean.  

I also work for NOAA as a Fishery Biologist II on commercial fishing boats when I have extra time onshore. My duties involve the identification of specimens (anywhere from fish to sharks), unhook sharks and release them back in the water (after I finish the collection of data), measure all bycatch and target species (assembled further research for NOAA), and unhook marine sea turtles once caught in the fishermen nets. 

I have ambitions to pursue a career as an Environmental Officer on cruise line ships. This position would allow me to enforce specific guidelines to help sustain both the land and marine environment. I would also have the opportunity to travel worldwide to various vacation destinations and teach kids onboard the importance of marine conservation.

I am taken to a world where marine life swims freely, sunrises & sunsets light up the sky and land is out of sight and out of mind.  Imagine waking up every day to the view of the ocean, the countless clouds, and the brightness of the sun kissing your lips. This really is the type of lifestyle that I have grown to love. I really cannot wait to tell and show you more of this unique, but fabulous lifestyle.

A Voyage of Self-Discovery; Persistence of a Dream

Coral Reef Research Project in San Salvador, Bahamas with beginner snorkeler; 05.2005

To better understand the offshore lifestyle, we must first go back to the beginning where my love for the marine environment began. Ever since I was a little girl growing up in a small town; I have adored nature and all that inhabits it. My first glimpse of the powerful beauty that was surrounded by shell-filled sand was shortly after I learned how to walk. You know that one experience that you have as a child and you can replay that memory almost as if it was yesterday? I had that experience when I first stepped onto the beach. The smell of salt overwhelmed my nose, the violent force of water crashed into the rocks that made my ears ring for a moment, and the ocean breeze rolling through my hair all welcomed me with excitement. The softness that tickled my toes and the peace I felt when gazing at the blue water is a flashback that pops into my head every time I come to the beach.

Having this drive to learn more about the marine environment demonstrated to my friends and teachers that I was destined to work in the ocean. When I was in elementary school my friends always told me that they wanted to be a policeman, fire fighter, nurse, doctor, etc; however, none of them ever expressed that they wanted to become a Marine Biologist. I have always been goal-driven and knew in my soul that I would someday follow my footprints in the sand to the ocean. I knew what I wanted out of life, more so than your typical 30 year old that crept around my town. I never really bragged about myself, but I knew in my heart that I was destined for greatness. I concealed the potential to make something out of myself. Little did I know that in a few years I would have the ability to see the ocean’s vastness and discover a whole world of color and imagination. I was led into a journey far greater and deeper than I could have ever imagined.

This brings me into my current lifestyle. I graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor’s in Science; more specially my major was Wildlife & Fishery Science: specializing in Fishery Science with two minors in Biology and Marine Science. The day of graduation I left Pennsylvania behind and ventured to Florida to fulfill my life-long dream of working in the field as a Marine Biologist.

My footsteps led into what is my greatest discovery, which was to have the compassion, determination, and motivation to reach my goals and have the ability to make new ones. I want to fully exceed my own expectations. I want to show the world that one person can make a difference.

A few of my new goals, but are not limited to:

  • Continue to educate the general pubic (target children) about the importance of our environment and raise awareness of marine conservation issues
  • Research the coral reefs in San Salvador, Bahamas (I conducted research here in 2005; picture above)
  • Share both the wonders of the underwater world and the beauty of the ocean environment through travel writing
  • Discuss with Marine Operations and Safety & Environment Shoreside Management the current maritime environmental issues and topics (This could lead me into an Environmental Officer position)

 One of my favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes:

“We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart, of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities.”