Book review: the marine mammal observer’s handbook

I agree with Dr Phil Clapham, who provided the forward for the “Marine mammal observer and passive acoustic monitoring handbook” (by V. Todd, I. Todd, J. Gardner & E. Morin): the title is a bit of a mouthful. Therefore, I will refer to the book by the abbreviated title above. That said, this is a really useful book that I’ve found myself reaching for on several occasions when needing to look something up.

Be warned, the book is very technical. It does assume the reader has a higher degree in a science, such as oceanography. It provides details about the physics and measurement of sound that, though complicated, are well explained in the handbook. The book’s primary audience is meant to be marine mammal observers (MMOs) who are employed to look out for (and warn about) whales, dolphins, pinnipeds and other marine mammals during industrial activities that might impact these animals (such as during seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration, or sonar-using naval exercises).

The level of detail goes well beyond the materials that many authorities deem adequate or sufficient to ‘train’ MMOs. In my view this book, plus extensive field training and sighting exercises, should be compulsory for anyone who wants to be a MMO. Too often companies employ people who have seldom, or even never, seen a live marine mammal, to take on this important task of mitigating against the impacts of human activity.

Although intended for MMOs, it also serves as a useful primer for graduate students studying marine mammal biology, or environmental consultants, or even naval personnel who need a crash course in underwater noise.

The first chapter of the book has a basic background about marine mammals, including a useful table on the occurrence of different marine mammal species. Had they had a copy of this book, the environmental consultants who did the environmental impact assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would know, for example, that there are no sea otters in the Gulf of Mexico, and that walruses reside in the Arctic, not off the coast of Louisiana… (see Wright et al. 2013 for details)

The end of the first chapter ends with comments on the levels of noise deemed to be safe for marine mammals (e.g. Southall et al. 2007). However, the rate of research on underwater noise is hypersonic these days; these criteria are already considered out-of-date, inappropriate and should not really be used as a guideline for what is “safe” for marine mammals (e.g. see Wright 2016).

The next chapter discusses mitigation measures used by different countries for acoustic activities likely to have an impact on whales and dolphins. This is a good overview, although I would have like to have seen more of a critique on these measures, or a discussion on best practices. Of course, I could also see certain countries not wanting to recommend a handbook like this, if it criticized the mitigation measures used by that country. Regardless, a detailed discussion on measures that have proven effective, and those that haven’t, would have been useful here.  Chapter 3 goes into details about different sources of underwater noise that might impact marine mammals, and is a fair summary of these.

Chapters 4 and 5 are practical guides for those wanting to be MMOs, with career advice and also practical advice about life on an offshore, working boat. This latter chapter is quite frankly useful for anyone wanting to work on an offshore oceanographic research vessel. Bearing in mind many marine mammal scientists are young and female, one aspect of life onboard a vessel that is not discussed is sexual harassment and other types of unprofessional behavior (e.g. hazing or bullying). What is, and what is not, appropriate behavior on board a vessel, and what to do if problems are encountered, would be a useful section.

Chapter 6 deals with the practicalities of surveying for marine mammals. This chapter is generally useful for anyone wanting to study marine mammals, as it gives good tips on surveying methods and equipment. It does touch on some of the problems related to marine mammal observing, e.g. observers claiming to be “on effort” when they were actually chatting on the bridge or even eating in the galley, introducing possible bias in observation data. Again, information on best practices would have been good here. Observers doing 8 hour shifts is mentioned in passing, but as a marine mammal biologist I am very dubious about the reliability of data coming from someone who has been staring out to sea for 8 hours straight, especially in poor weather conditions, or anyone doing observations at night (e.g. see this critique). Once again, a section on best practices (e.g. how many observers on at one time, how long they should observe before taking a break) would have been helpful. There is some discussion, however, on bad practices (e.g. observers who are supposed to be on duty but who are actually reading books), although a list of strict “dos” and “don’ts” would hammer home the message.

Chapters 7 to 9 are on passive acoustic monitoring (listening for marine mammals) and it provides a nice primer on sound physics, and the practicalities of using hydrophones. Chapter 8 has a big section on calls and noises produced by marine mammals, which would be a useful reference to marine biologists.

The final, short, chapter provides details on report writing, which is very specific to MMOs. The glossary that follows is, however, very useful to a much wider audience and provides some nice explanation for terms used by marine scientists. This should be particularly handy for students, or anyone teaching marine biology or oceanography classes, or otherwise involved in science communication.

This book is essential to those involved in marine mammal monitoring or industry or agencies, but it would also be useful for marine mammal biology students, environmental consultancy companies or the libraries of oceanographic research labs.


REFERENCE: Todd, V., Todd, I., Gardiner, J. & Morrin, E. 2015. Marine Mammal Observer & Passive Acoustic Monitoring Handbook. Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, UK. 395pp.