Yvonne Miles: The Whale Whisperer

Lets be honest, we all wish we could speak to whales like Dory in Finding Nemo, but what if instead of speaking to them we listened to them? We had the pleasure of chatting with Yvonne Miles, a Marine Mammal Observer and Passive Acoustic Monitoring expert from Hervey Bay in Australia.

Hi Yvonne, tell us a little about yourself!

Most people have to pay to go whale watching, but I get to do it as part of my career as a marine biologist. I am a Hervey Bay-based marine biologist who travels the globe observing and monitoring marine mammals and training others to do the same. I am the managing director of an international company called Scanning Ocean Sectors (SoS), leading a team of specialist trainers, facilitators and consultants based around the world. This training is recognised by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, who are advisers to the UK Government. I am also involved in the turtle stranding database for the UK government and I share my knowledge at the local library with marine wildlife talks, at the local schools and for private small groups who are interested. I am now embarking on a detailed acoustic project on the Fraser Coast as part of a long list of work that I participate in.

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

I started working on a project following a solitary dolphin called George around the Dorset coast in the UK as he preferred to interact with humans on the water or in the water rather than his own species. His interest in humans was obsessive and I wanted to learn more about why a dolphin would behave in this way. This was the start of my life long work with marine mammals and the marine environment in general. My love of SCUBA diving and the differences of sound in the marine environment sparked a passion to find out more about an environment we have within our reach but know little about.

Describe the path you took to where you are now.

After finishing my degree, I worked on a project called Ocean Eye where we assessed the training of marine mammal observers and their abilities after they had taken the training course we had created. This training course proved invaluable to the industry and set a standard for MMO’s (Marine Mammal Observers) that had not been set before. We introduced the compulsory practical element as an essential part of the training, which consolidated the total training programme. Our company training course is used worldwide, as I travel the globe to deliver the course to companies requiring marine mammal observer and passive acoustic monitoring operators. Our company has worked hard for a number of years to set up the first online training programme for MMO’s and PAMO’s (Passive Acoustic Monitoring) around the regions of the world and are always looking at innovative ways to expand our training.

What does a day in your life look like?

During whale season I work with the local whale watching fleet operators in Hervey Bay Australia. We have our own company research projects which I run during this time and a number of operators assist with this data collection. I continue to run courses around the world for MMO’s and PAMO’s, so I am constantly organising courses and providing assistance to students taking the online courses we provide. During this time, we also have a huge database of our professionally trained MMO and PAMO students who are constantly being sought after for work around the globe depending on their qualifications. I work out in the field and in our office, and if asked, yes, I would rather be in the water, on the water or under the water than sitting in the office in front of a computer!

How do you hope your voice and work will influence others?

I want to be as open and forthright as I can, if anyone wants to help me with my work and data collection that’s fantastic! I want to pass on to others as much as I have learned about the work I have done and am doing. Great ideas come from open minds and shared concepts, I learn everyday about something I did not know about the day before, and the day I stop learning and know it all is the day I die. The work that I do in training is always evolving with new equipment and new software being developed constantly, I actively search out new technology to improve our methods of training and hopefully the proactive stance I take shows in the quality of the people we as a company send out into the field. The work I have been involved in over the years has already influenced other companies in the way they train their students. I have always been willing to share our values and training methods, as well as reviewing and testing out new equipment to assist in the field. I just hope one day from now my work will talk for itself.

Tell us about your work in the acoustic monitoring programme in Hervey Bay

The acoustic monitoring project I have been looking to start for the last six years is finally coming to fruition, like most people starting research it is all down to the funding and equipment you can get to use and very dependant on the species you are researching. I now have the final part of the static equipment to set up a constant acoustic monitoring program in the Bay. This will allow me to research a number of variables in the Bay while I wait for the vocalisations of a species that have not been recorded in the wild before. The program is in the process of approval by the council and the local Marine Parks, it’s very exciting to finally get started, so watch this space!

LET’S TALK GIRLS IN SCIENCE. WHAT’S YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF BEING A FEMALE IN MARINE SCIENCE? AND WHAT DO YOU THINK THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR WOMEN IN YOUR FIELD?

The marine industry is not so male dominated now as it used to be when I first started in the field. Over the years I have seen a huge increase in girls being trained as MMO’s and heading out to sea as well as being involved in a number of high profile projects. The girls were always classified as bunny huggers, or whale huggers, they were viewed as getting involved in the fluffy science. In some cases that was true as it was hard for a woman to get her teeth into a good project, but now it is so very different and there are a number of women in the marine science field who are renowned for their work. I started with a good group of people, mainly men, who shared their knowledge and contacts in the field, with mutual respect we still work together well. At the age of 58 which I am proud to say, I feel the future needs the good scientists to start to share their in-depth knowledge, techniques and resources. Pass our knowledge on to the next generation of marine scientist is so very important, we do not want our knowledge and passion for what we do to die out with us, let it be our legacy.

What do you think is the biggest threat to the ocean at the moment and why?  

The world is focused on plastics in the ocean at the moment, but it is more than that. The Ocean has been and is still being used as a tipping ground for everything unwanted without a thought for the marine environment. With melting glaciers, algae blooms, toxic waste, fishing gear, nuclear weapons, and much, much more all ending up in our oceans, does it have a chance? My fears are huge for our marine life, but I have to focus on what I can do, little steps, and if we all take little steps to ensure our oceans survive then it will happen. I hope I see the change in my life time, but who knows what the future will bring? I can only smile as I walk the beach every day with my dog and know that if we all make some small changes in our bad habits, we could see the ocean becoming less of a dumping ground and more of a playground.

What have been some of your biggest achievements and whose work has influenced or inspired you?

I have had many achievements during my time as a marine biologist, but the most unexpected was when I got into the water with humpback whales and observed the behaviours under the water. For every behaviour that is anthropomorphised and categorised from the surface when seen in full view and in series under the water is so very different. I am hoping my biggest achievements are yet to come, once the hydrophone is in the water and we start a long-term monitoring project in the bay. There are many who have influenced me in my work, and it is those who do not look for accolades, those who are willing to share data and efforts, those who do not speak bad of another’s efforts, those who have ideas to share and improve what you do without making you feel inferior. Those people with passion, and a head full of knowledge who are enthusiastic about what they do they are my influencers. One specific person is Caroline Weir, we met years ago, and she was so passionate and driven about her work with the marine environment. She was willing to help with the research and gave so much information as well as reviewing our work. She still to this day works harder than anyone I know in the field.

What is one thing you wish someone had told you/taught you a long time ago?

You are as good as the person sitting next you, never doubt your ability no matter who questions your work and your ethics. Know your subject inside out and back to front! Passion and drive will move mountains and get results.

What is one piece of advice you would give women who want to go into the marine biology field of work?

Learn everything you can, read every book that excites you, talk to as many people in your field and outside of your field as you can. Share what you have without fear someone will steal your idea, passion brings rewards, shows in your work, in your face and in the word’s you speak.