Date ArticleType
2/14/2018 Member News
Marine Mammal Observer's Job To Stop The World's Biggest Survey Ship

Marine mammal observer's job to stop the world's biggest survey ship

Last updated 14:20, February 14 2018

Gilly Thorpe has the power to stop 6,866 tonnes of ship in its tracks. 

The marine mammal observer aboard the world's biggest seismic survey vessel, Amazon Warrior, spends weeks at sea scanning the waters for whales and dolphins.

When she sees one she orders for the press of a button and the seismic tests are halted.

The whale or dolphin will have a look around and leave, she said, and only then can operations restart.

But Thorpe added it can take two hours to get up to full-steam again.

"And then they can u-turn and we have to stop again.

"It could be just one family being nosy. They're real curious."

Though Thorpe has seen just one whale during her time on the vessel, data collected from teams of observers aboard the ship have seen a total of 156 groups of whales and dolphins in 10 weeks to February 4 between New Caledonia and Taranaki waters.

Thorpe is one of two to three observers on board in conjunction with two passive acoustic monitors, who listen for sounds and watch sonar screens below deck.

The observers are government mandated to be on board during seismic surveys such as the Amazon Warrior, which is currently carrying out testing off the Taranaki coast. 

Not without controversy, some believe the seismic activity is detrimental to marine mammals, while others say it has little impact.

On February 1, Climate Justice Taranaki spokesperson Emily Bailey claimed the ship had been forced to stop 28 times in the 42 preceding days because of whale and dolphins. 

"That's threatened or endangered species in harm's way almost every day in OMV and Schlumberger's irresponsible pursuit of oil. On top of this, sea level temperatures were up 6 degrees in the area this summer, from fossil fuelled climate change".  

But Thorpe, who is of Taranaki iwi, Ngati Mutunga, and Ngati Toa, said sea animals are more clever than people give them credit for.

"They're not silly; they're very clever. They mostly stay away from us," she said.

Looking for whales, dolphins and seals more than 4.8km out takes a lot of practice as there are no special tricks, she said.

Time of year, sea conditions and distance from the coast are all factors in what sea creatures will be around.

"Just because it's a certain season doesn't mean that they're there.

"Sometimes you'll see a blow - Moby Dick."

And with the touch of a button, Thorpe said the seismic tests are halted.

The Department of Conservation's Doc's marine mammal sighting data shows in the 14 years to 2016, there were 145 sightings of blue whales - a total of 336 whales seen.

About the same number of humpback whales have been seen in 46 years, while about half that number of southern right whales have been spotted in 26 years.