“I just got back from the Galapagos for work. I just got back from three months in Hawaii for work. I just got back from Peru then the Lilliputian islands (the where?) for work.” A vacation tanned Tom tells me this when I run into him at the local surf break, D Street, in Encinitas. Ok. Where can I get that job? Tom Norris is a marine biologist who travels all over the globe and listens to whales and other marine mammals for a living. He owns Bio-Waves, one of the only companies in the world that does this type of work, recording and analyzing the sounds of marine mammals to address complex issues in the marine environment.
Tom’s main office is a ship and the other office is a block from the surf in Encinitas. Sometimes he takes out small planes or helicopters to record sounds from the air. It sounds like a dream job but he puts it in perspective. “Everyone says ‘oh so glamourous…you’re a marine biologist.’ But imagine working at your desk and someone knocks everything off your table every five minutes and you get squirted with sea water. You’re working in this environment where stuff is wet all the time or falling over and you’re expected to get your work done. It’s not an excuse that the ship was rolling all over the place. On top of that you’re in really tight quarters (for sometimes 3-4 weeks) and the boats are not designed for comfort. It is not very glamorous. You see very cool things, but you pay a price.” In fact, his team is currently off the coast of Oregon in 20 ft swells in the middle of winter in a very cold, harsh environment.”
Here are some other insights from a convo with Tom about this not always glamorous dream job:
Erin: Bio-waves currently does a lot of work for the Navy. What is the Navy interested in knowing? Do any environmental agencies fund your work?
Tom: We don’t get any money from environmental agencies to do this work because they don’t have the money. The only ones that can fund these things are usually government agencies. For example, the Navy funds a lot of work now. The Navy is one of the worst noise polluters. We study noise pollution. They fund work for various reasons, sometimes required by law. These big organizations want to make sure they don’t violate any laws that are protecting marine mammals, otherwise they will end up in a lawsuit and lose lots of money. It is in their best interest to do things the best and most efficient way. A lot of times the agencies funding the environmental work are the ones causing the problems, but it is in their best interest to figure those things out. The bigger corporations are pretty savvy at looking at the bigger impact. It is a public issue and also they don’t want to destroy the environment they are trying to use.
Erin: What other information are you learning listening to the sounds of the mammals?
Tom: We need to know how many mammals there are to start with in order to know how many to protect. So it is very basic information. We go out on ships and tow the hydrophones to see how many mammals there are. We are actually doing that in Brazil right now, setting up a survey from Rio De Janeiro down to Santa Catarina, because they have no idea. They have never surveyed their coastline and don’t know how many mammals are out there. If you get enough data, you can start telling environmental effects, like where they are traveling or if their numbers are changing. Right now we have the blob happening, the warm water effect and I’m sure that is having some impact on the distribution of animals. We can’t say for sure. We have to collect more data. If we are able to collect data every year, then we are better able to say.
Erin: After the Navy gets the data you collect, have you seen them change their shipping course ever or have you told them to change course?
Tom: As scientists, we typically only try to analyze and interpret data. We don’t get involved in policy. However, we have seen some changes in vocal behaviors that we think are related to sonar. These have been pretty subtle changes for the most part.
More importantly, we are providing basic information like how many mammals there are so the Navy can make appropriate management and policy decision based on scientifically based information, not just hearsay or anecdotal accounts.
Erin: If you did get money from environmental agencies, what type of local work could you see happening?
Tom: I’d say we would focus on species that are critically endangered or those specific areas that are relatively underfunded and require action or more information. Locally, in the northern gulf of California/Sea of Cortez is the Vaquita, a rare species of porpoise, which is about to go extinct if drastic measures aren’t taken. We could do some research with our acoustic recorders to both monitor for this rare species and make sure that poaching of the Totoaba, a rare fish that local fisherman use gill nets to catch, result in accidentally catching Vaquita.
Erin: Is this a good job for a surfer?
Tom: I wanted a job where I could surf so I picked a species located in a lot of good areas for surfing. I first started studying Humpback whales which go to Hawaii and Mexico. My first two years I did field work and I started in Cabo. I then went to mainland Mexico and then to Kauai. That part worked out well, but when the weather was good I was on the boat and not surfing. Usually at the end of projects, when I get all my work done, I surf.
Erin: Have you had any scary moments out at sea?
Tom: In this field, I know four people that have been attacked by sharks–two by great whites, one by a tiger shark and the other I don’t know. I have a shark story too. I was snorkeling in an area called French Frigate Shoals (Northwest Hawaiian Island chain). It is a protected area, so there is a lot of wildlife. The sharks like eating the albatross chicks and we were there right after that season. We went snorkeling in really shallow water. I went with my girlfriend who studied sharks so she knew her sharks really well. We were in 15 ft. of water and we had shark prods which are sticks basically, like a toothpick to a shark. It was for the reef sharks which aren’t very dangerous. They only get about 5 ft. so you poke them with a stick. Then I was swimming around and my girlfriend was looking at some other fish and I swam away to look at something and I see a large shadow in the background. I kept looking at it and it came closer and closer, and at some point I realized it was a big shark. I started back pedaling really fast and I grabbed my girlfriend and spun her around. Her eyes just went huge. Through her snorkel she yelled “tiger tiger”. The tiger shark kept coming towards us, doing that classic figure 8, but didn’t seem super aggressive. Finally, it came about 10 ft. away and then just turned and swam away. The scariest part was that we had to swim back across this channel and had no idea where the shark was. We jumped out on the reef and just stood there for a long while. Then four of us swam back in formation, really tight together.
Erin: What has been your most interesting moment?
Tom: The most interesting experience is seeing the mammals up-close – underwater especially. When you are in the water with them, which I wouldn’t advise and I did when I was very young, they are very aware of their surroundings. I’ve been in the water with pilot whales, which are like big dolphins that eat squid, but they are predators. All of these animals are predators and people forget that. They might be friendly to people but some of them eat fish, some eat shark. It is like going into the Serengeti with cheetahs, lions, and leopards. I was in the water with a pod of pilot whales and the male came up to me– a big bull male, like 15-20 ft. It shifted its head towards me and was hanging vertically in the water. It started scanning back and forth and zapping me with sound. I guess then he decided I wasn’t a threat because I didn’t move. I was pretty intimidated. He finally just swam away. It made me realize I am in their territory and that they are very aware of their environment.
Erin: I’ve read a lot of studies on how smart dolphins and whales are. Have you experienced this in your studies?
Tom: Working with killer whales you can tell they are very smart. We study killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. They’re like pack wolves. They travel together in family units and they are constantly communicating to each other. We don’t know what they are saying, per se, but we know they are always in communication. We can identify the pods, which are related matrilineally. The mothers and all the descendants of the mothers live in the same pod. The males will leave the pod to mate with females from different pods. Those pods are very stable over several generations. Since scientists have been studying them, the same mothers and grandmothers are the central units of those pods and each pod has its own dialect. We can tell the pods apart by the different dialects. We can tell which pods they belong to, but we don’t know what they are saying to each other. Some killer whales eat salmon (and only a certain species of salmon that is the richest and fattest) like the ones in Oregon and Washington, by Seattle near the San Juan Islands. Some killer whales are called transient that eat marine mammals. Another group called offshore killer whales found in the deep ocean eat shark. I’ve had instances where killer whales kill a shark and then they drop it off in front of our boat. I’m not sure what message they are sending, but they are very smart and intelligent creatures.