My brief experience as a marine mammal observer

One of the teams aboard does seismic survey, which involves shooting an airgun into the water. Not only does it make the whole ship vibrate like mad (and prevent me from sleeping), it is also assumed that it disturbs the marine wildlife. Hence Canadian law stipulates that if any marine mammal is observed within 1km of the airgun, the operation needs to stop or the ship needs to move away from the animal. This is one of the reasons why Kate, professional marine mammal observer, is on board with us: to observe the water and tell the seismic team whether they can perform. But seismic operations can last for more than 24h, and Kate needs to sleep, so as anyway I spend hours on the bridge next to her looking at the water, she’s trained me so that I can be her replacement if needs be. This is what my task would consist of.

Near 360° view from the bridge, facing the aft (left) and front (right)

Near 360° view from the bridge, facing the aft (left) and front (right)

The marine mammal observer spends the day standing on the bridge, staring at the water with bare eyes or binoculars. If an animal is seen, you assess which specie it is based on its behaviour or looks, and then enter its position in a mapping software. You can try having a better look using the huge powerful binoculars that you can see on the tripod in the pictures above, and even take a picture of it if you’re close enough. But so far the ones I have seen, I could only guess what they were: tiny and quickly reacting = ringed seal; large and not caring about us = bearded seal. No whales or narwhales so far…

The brown spot moved a bit as I observed it, but hardly. It probably was a bearded seal

The brown spot moved a bit as I observed it, but hardly. It probably was a bearded seal

On a clear and beautiful day like today, when the sea is so flat it appears as a mirror, the task is (relatively) easy. You switch to automatic mode and let your reptilian brain detect any movement in the water. There is no wind, so anything that moves in the water ahead of the ship must be a living thing. But the weather is not always that good. It becomes trickier to detect animals based on movement in the water when it is windy and wavy. Also on a foggy day, I thought I had captured a nice picture of a very passive seal. When I zoomed on the computer, it turned out to be a rock:

That is not a seal

That is not a seal

And using the animal’s behaviour to assess its specie can fail if the animal is behaving weirdly. Yesterday night, judging on the size of the wake and how much of the animal we could see out of the water, we got excited thinking that there was a seal swimming with a fish in its mouth. In fact, it was a bird, although that must have been one that had some issues with its swimming technique:

That is not a seal either

That is not a seal either

In the end, we hardly spent any time in Canadian waters, so Kate did not need my help. That gives me more time to improve my seal-detection skills, and hopefully next time my pictures will be much better!

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