Looking large: Dr Vanessa Pirotta explains her love of whales

Looking large

It’s hard to explain the effect that whales have on me. It’s equivalent to the happiest moment of your life when you hear that roar of a whale breathing up close. Or when a whale looks you in the eye. Or, in one case for me, when a young calf comes up and touches you. It’s just an incredible feeling. You look at your photos at the end of the day and realise that life can’t get better than that.

I have to admit it’s probably become an addiction for me. You have that sighting or that encounter and you literally just want to learn more. Seeing these animals in their environment renders you very vulnerable, and keeps you humble, but makes you realise how little we actually know about these animals.

As a young girl I never imagined myself being a scientist. My main aim in life was to become a dolphin trainer, which might sound unusual for someone growing up on a farm outside of Canberra. But I had seen the movie Free Willy, and I was besotted, and I connected with that movie. It showed killer whales in their natural environment, and a boy, and a dolphin trainer, and I knew then that this was exactly what I wanted to do.

Dr priotta and drone profile photo copy
Dr Vanessa Pirotta is a wildlife scientist specialising in marine mammals. Her research uses innovative technologies for wildlife conservation.

And I did. I became a dolphin trainer, eventually. I went to university first, and then overseas for a gap year, and then I was fortunate to get a volunteering role at a marine facility where I learned to work with dolphins and Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals, and rehabilitate sea turtles and penguins, and work closely with vets, even on necropsies, to understand why animals had passed, understanding illness. This was an amazing hands-on experience, very cool, and a great foundation for my later work.

I’m very much aware of the opposition to these facilities now, but when I was a little girl there was never anything controversial about zoos or marine facilities, and I’ve always just wanted to be close to animals and wildlife. I hope people understand that the majority of these animals today are unable to be returned or play important conservation roles in ensuring the recovery or existence of some species. And the way in which animals are acquired today is very different to how they were captured many years ago. What we’re seeing now is a remnant population of animals in captivity that would be simply unethical to just release back into the wild – the majority have actually been born in captivity.

So that was a great opportunity, but I wanted more. I took an animal husbandry course at TAFE focused on captive animals. Not only did I get to see firsthand what it’s like to work with animals in a captive environment, but I also saw the effect that our education programs had on people about managing wildlife and the role we can play in conservation.

“I learned to work with dolphins, Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals, and rehabilitate sea turtles and penguins.”

Family reasons brought me suddenly back to Canberra and made me ask myself, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? That’s when I took a position working as an environmental assessment officer for the federal government – specifically, assessing environmental actions in the marine environment while learning to recite much of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EBPC Act 1999).

This was a chance to protect marine animals at the top end, so to speak. Six months later, I was involved in a collaborative research project between Macquarie University, the Department of Primary Industries, Taronga Zoo and NSW National Parks and Wildlife looking at the use of acoustic alarms as a way of potentially preventing whale entanglement in fishing gear.

Read more: Why don’t whales drown when they eat?

This intersection of wildlife conservation and technology is the next big thing in my field: how can we harness the power of technology and apply it to different environments?

Drvpirotta sea snakes by dean cropp
Pirotta scuba diving with sea snakes. Credit: Dean Cropp

Well, we’re already using drones to access humpback whales in new ways that is less invasive for them. We use drones to measure body size, collect lung bacteria, even collect their snot without them even knowing about it. We listen to their sounds and songs through hydrophones. We collect their poo without them knowing – we even sometimes collect skin samples. And then there’s other work that is minimally invasive, such as putting tags on them to discover where they’re going underwater, in an effort to learn more about the secret lives of these animals.

Why should we even care about whales? Is it just because I’m incredibly biased and love them? It’s much more than that. Whales are the ecosystem engineers of the ocean. They feed from one area to another, and fertilise the lower levels of the ocean. They’re incredibly important for the health of the ocean, and therefore our own health.

“Whales are the ecosystem engineers of the ocean.”

Unfortunately, we humans have created dire problems for animals around the world. We kill them, we destroy their habitats, we remove them from certain spaces, we introduce exotic species to disrupt natural environmental processes. Yet on the flip side of that, we now have some populations which are doing quite well now that we’ve stopped killing them, such as the Australian humpback whales, where their recovery is encouraging.

But it’s ironic that we’ve now got a recovering humpback whale population, but another problem: how are we now going to minimise their interactions with human activities? And what about the other vulnerable species that are less prevalent, like the Southern right whale? Why not focus our conservation efforts on them? There are conflicting views of where we should best place our conservation dollar. Sometimes the general public can be taken aback, trying to understand the reasons why we allocate funding to certain species. But this is the work that we do systematically as scientists.

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