Marine Mammal Observer (MMO)

What is a marine mammal observer?

Well, I am.

A marine mammal observers’ role is to monitor for marine mammals, basking shark and sea turtles. Some marine mammal observers survey for research purposes and others (…like me!) work on geophysical surveys that produce acoustic disturbance to the marine environment.  

MMO’s provide advice on the guidelines or laws of the country in which the survey is undertaken in order to reduce the propagation of noise throughout the marine environment and to reduce the risk of injury to marine mammals.

The guidelines & laws vary from country to country, so it is the MMO’s duty to be familiar with the relevant guidelines for the survey location. Additional to this there can be environmental impact assessments carried out by an environmental team before any survey begins and special consent/licence conditions that the MMO will advise on also. These EIA’s consider any specially protected species or sensitive habitats.

An experienced MMO will become very familiar with the various survey equipment which produce potentially harmful levels of noise including seismic airguns, sparkers, sub bottom profilers, side scan and multibeam. 

What kind of survey requires Marine Mammal Observers?

We mitigate for offshore geophysical surveys, impact piling and explosive works that produce acoustic disturbance to cetaceans, seals, sea turtles and sometimes other sensitive species. Most of the geophysical surveys are required for oil and gas exploration, windfarms, subsea cable laying, harbour works and locating previously laid pipeline and cables.

These surveys are required by industries such as oil and gas marine exploration, offshore renewables and harbours.Offshore windfarm for renewable energy


Why would a survey company follow the MMO’s advice?

They hopefully follow the MMO’s advice as it helps the survey to be compliant based on the laws and guidelines of that country. Reports on the compliance of the survey are submitted to regulator or government bodies and the client of the project, and these MMO mitigation reports are used to assess if permits will be granted in future to the clients and survey companies involved for these types of surveys. The client companies may or may not decide to use this survey company again in the future and governments may or may not provide permits and licenses for future surveys that the client would like to undertake. So not only is it best practice for the benefit of our sensitive marine life it is also to ensure future licenses and clients.

Other uses of the Marine Mammal Observer reports and collected data

The MMO reports can also be used to adjust future laws and mitigation guidelines, the reporting methods as well as providing environmental and ecological data to government bodies.


How do surveys disturb whales and dolphins?

The most important sense for marine mammals is hearing. This can be affected either temporarily or permanently. It also like sight for them as they use sound to distinguish the shape of objects in the marine environment. The sound they emit is in the form of clicks and it is bounced back as an echo after it hits the bottom of the seafloor, fish or other objects and features in the ocean.

Northern Pacific Right Whale Flukes off of East Russia

Temporarily this will affect them finding food, orientation and communication. They may avoid certain area’s where food is located or they would normally congregate to socialize and find a mate. 

Permanent loss of hearing or inner ear injury could lead to death from starvation if they are unable to use their hearing when hunting or for orientation. They can be found beached when disorientated and also beached in a low body fat condition if they have not been able to feed.

If you depend on your hearing to see, I imagine it must be frightening for these animals at night or at depth where it is darker. It becomes too easy to lose your pod and end up alone unable to hunt for food and survive.

Why is hearing important to marine mammals?

They need this to locate prey at depth, in the dark or bad visibility or sometimes even under sediment. If hearing is damaged it greatly reduces their chance of finding food. 

They also need it to communicate. This is really important to work together when they hunt for food as they sometimes work in pods, they have strong connections to their pods and they also need communication to find partners for mating or stay near their young and pods.Diving Sealion. Pinniped species offshore Sakhalin


What happens if they can’t communicate?

There will be reductions in population sizes if cetaceans have damaged hearing and can’t hunt or communicate effectively. This can have a major knock on effect on the marine ecosystem. 


How do implementing mitigation practices help marine mammals?

When the client and surveyors implement the guidelines or laws to protect marine mammals then this allows the survey to be completed while not filling the local environment with constant noise. Noise from surveys only occur as necessary and there are breaks which allows wildlife to return for hunting and mating purposes. The surveys are also done in a way which the noise is gradual to give warnings to wildlife as they come close to the area so that there is no shock or instant damaging effects from loud noise.

 Common dolphins surfacing with spray and dorsal fin showing

Where are marine mammals protected?

In Ireland, UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand there are very clear guidelines implemented. Other countries are catching up. Quite often client companies will still have MMO’s onboard in countries without guidelines for best practice and this is highly commended due to the fact many countries in Africa for example have amazing offshore wildlife and sensitive species such as sea turtles, humpback whales and beaked whales. This isn’t always the case, but things are on the right track with the increasing implementation of MMO’s and mitigating practices.




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