Whale of A Time: Katherine Douglas jumps onboard to protect our marine life

By Geoffrey Boyd

Seeing a juvenile humpback whale breach off the coast of Oregon, or multiple blue whales offshore in Nova Scotia would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. However, for Katherine Douglas breaching whales are just another part of her job. Watching whales, dolphins and sea turtles, shooting stars and sunsets—hardly a typical desk job. 

 When Douglas graduated from the Gustavson School of Business in 2007 she never imagined her degree would take her to the open ocean as a marine mammal observer and passive acoustic monitor.

 After graduation she accepted a position as a marketing and events manager for a technology association in Seattle, Washington. “It was a wonderful position and I gained a lot of knowledge, however, I decided to take a little time off to travel before I jumped into the next thing.”

 In 2010 a good friend introduced Douglas to the idea of becoming a marine mammal observer, a position she previously never knew existed.

In 2012 she jumped at the opportunity with RPS Group—an international consultancy firm providing advice on oil and gas exploration and environmental management—and hasn’t looked back since. “I have always been passionate about our oceans and animals in general, so I thought it would be a great experience short term while I decided what was next,” she says. But short term has since shifted to long term as Douglas has no plans to leave.

Working with people from all over the world, Douglas typically conducts her work on oil and gas exploration vessels for four- to six-week contracts. Her job has taken her through the Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic Northeast and the Gulf of Mexico.

While on board she is responsible for visual and acoustical monitoring of marine mammals and sea turtles. During daylight hours this entails scanning the water for telltale signs of marine mammal life, such as ruffles on the water or the blow of a whale when surfacing for air.

She also conducts acoustic monitoring during low-visibility hours using a hydrophone cable towed behind the vessel. Pamguard software allows Douglas to identify and analyze low-frequency animal vocalizations as well as both high- and low-frequency echolocation clicks. Using this information, she can then estimate the position and range of particular whale or dolphin species and inform the crew of the correct procedures.

Douglas’s work is fueled by her love of the oceans and animals. For her, social responsibility plays a large part as well. “There is an unbelievable amount of noise being emitted into our oceans today,” she says. “Commercial and cruise ship traffic, military sonar, and oil and gas exploration account for a large amount of this.”

 In the case of oil and gas exploration, large “air gun arrays” shoot pressurized air towards the ocean floor to map geological structures, emitting extreme bursts of sound. These bursts are often of the same frequency range as the natural communication frequencies of marine animals. This can seriously disrupt the animals’ communication, causing disorientation or worse.  

Part of Douglas’s job is to ensure there is minimal disturbance for marine mammals in the vicinity. This is all the more important as many of the animals are endangered species. When a mammal is detected, either by the naked eye or through detection software, photos and detailed field notes are taken to document any behaviour changes and to ensure proper identification. “Mitigation is required if certain animals are within a defined zone around the vessel,” says Douglas. It is in these situations that she communicates with the vessel crew to ensure proper protocols are followed.

 At first glance it would seem Douglas’s choice of degree program doesn’t match her work as a marine mammal observer, but she disagrees. “My degree has been invaluable in both opening doors and giving me the confidence to pursue different paths of interest,” she says. The skills she learned in the Business program allow her to successfully complete her work.

When she adds in her leadership, reporting, advising, training and communication aboard the vessels, the Business program at the Gustavson School of Business was a perfect fit for her work.

 This story, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in Business Class Magazine, a publication of the Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria.