Marine Mammal Observer versus Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operator

Marine mammal observer and Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operator are two important roles in the field of marine conservation and offshore energy industries. Both roles involve monitoring and protecting marine mammals.

Table of Contents


Raquel Soley. She is a marine mammal observer from Spain, working from the sea shore
Working from the seashore.
Photo shared by Raquel Soley, a marine mammal observer from Spain.

What are marine mammal observers?

A marine mammal observer (MMO) is a trained professional who plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and conservation of marine mammals during human activities in their habitats. They are typically employed by companies or organizations involved in offshore industries such as oil and gas exploration, seismic surveys, wind energy development, and construction of offshore infrastructure.

The primary responsibility of MMOs is to monitor and detect the presence of marine mammals, sea turtles, and other protected species near these activities. They use specialized equipment, such as binoculars and telescopes, to observe the behaviour of these animals and record data on their movements, group sizes, and activity levels.

In the event of a sighting, MMOs work with other team members to implement mitigation measures that minimize potential animal harm. This may involve adjusting the activity’s timing, location, or intensity or temporarily halting operations until the animals have moved out of the area.

MMOs are trained in marine biology, ecology, and behaviour, as well as in the regulations and guidelines that govern marine mammal protection. They must have excellent observation and communication skills, be able to work in challenging weather and sea conditions and have the ability to make quick and accurate decisions in a dynamic and often unpredictable environment.

The picture of a whale


What are the functions of a marine mammal observer?

The function of a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) is to monitor and record the presence and behaviour of marine mammals and other protected species in the vicinity of offshore activities that can harm animals due to their high levels of noise, such as seismic surveys, offshore wind farms, and oil and gas exploration. MMOs are crucial in ensuring that these activities minimize the impact on marine mammal populations.

Specifically, the functions of a MMO may include the following:

Conducting pre-activity surveys to establish a baseline for marine mammal presence and behaviour in the area.

Monitoring the area during offshore activities, using binoculars and other visual aids to observe marine mammals and record their behaviour, location, and other data.

Alerting the activity operator if marine mammals are observed within a designated safety zone so that appropriate mitigation measures can be implemented.

Recording all observations and data collected during the monitoring program and submitting reports to the activity operator and regulatory agencies.

Providing guidance and support to the activity operator on best practices for minimizing the impact of the activity on marine mammals.

By performing these functions, MMOs help to ensure that offshore activities are conducted in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner and help to protect the marine mammal populations that are often vulnerable to the effects of these activities.

Photo showing the bow of a ship and the Antarctic in the background.
The Antarctic
Photo shared by Raquel Soley, a marine mammal observer from Spain.


What do marine mammal observers consider to be the most rewarding part of their job?

Many find the opportunity to work in the field and observe marine mammals in their natural habitat to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of their job.

MMOs often get to work in beautiful and remote locations and have the opportunity to see a wide variety of marine mammals, from whales and dolphins to seals and sea lions. Observing these animals up close and recording their behaviour and interactions is exciting and rewarding.

Additionally, MMOs often work as part of a team and collaborate with other professionals, such as biologists and environmental consultants, to protect marine mammal populations. This provides a sense of camaraderie and fulfillment, knowing that their work contributes to conservation efforts’ greater good.

Strong ocean waves


What are the biggest challenges of being a marine mammal observer?

Being a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) can be challenging, as it requires working in various weather and sea conditions, often in remote locations. Some of the biggest challenges that MMOs face include the following:

Adverse weather conditions: MMOs may need to work in challenging weather conditions, including rough seas, high winds, and heavy rain, making their work difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Long hours: MMOs may work long hours, often for extended periods of time, with little time off. This can be physically and mentally demanding, leading to fatigue and stress

Repetitive tasks: The job of a MMO can involve a lot of repetitive tasks, such as watching for marine mammals for long periods. This can be monotonous and require high concentration and attention to detail.

Limited visibility: Depending on the weather and sea conditions, visibility can be limited, making it more challenging to observe marine mammals and accurately record their behaviour.

Safety concerns: MMOs need to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings at all times, as they may be working near offshore activities or other vessels, which can be hazardous.

Marine mammal observer's binoculars
Working from the seashore.
Photo shared by Raquel Soley, a marine mammal observer from Spain.


What equipment do you marine mammal observers use to do their job, and what is it for?

Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) use various equipment to monitor and record the presence and behaviour of marine mammals and other protected species in the vicinity of offshore activities. Some of the equipment used by MMOs includes:

Binoculars: MMOs use high-quality binoculars to observe marine mammals and other wildlife from a safe distance. This allows them to record accurate data on the animals’ behaviour, location, and other characteristics. Learn more about how to use reticle binoculars.

Cameras and video equipment: MMOs may use cameras and video equipment to record images and footage of marine mammals and their behaviour. This can provide additional data for analysis and documentation purposes.

GPS and navigation equipment: MMOs use GPS and navigation equipment to track their location and ensure they are in the designated monitoring area. This is important for ensuring accurate data collection and reporting.

Data recording tools: MMOs use various data recordings tools, such as notepads, voice recorders, and specialized software, to record observations and other data on the marine mammals they observe.

Safety equipment: MMOs may wear personal protective equipment, such as hard hats, life jackets, and safety harnesses, to ensure their safety while working on offshore platforms and vessels.


What is the difference between a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) and a Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operator (PAM)?

Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) and Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operators (PAMs) are two different types of professionals who work in the field of marine mammal monitoring and conservation. While both roles involve monitoring marine mammal activity, they have different responsibilities and use different tools to accomplish their tasks.

MMOs are responsible for visually detecting marine mammals and other protected species near offshore activities, such as seismic surveys, offshore wind farms, and oil and gas exploration. They typically work from a vessel or platform and use binoculars and other visual aids to observe the animals and record their behaviour, location, and other data.

On the other hand, PAM operators use underwater microphones, or hydrophones, to listen for the vocalizations of marine mammals. PAM systems are often used to detect the presence of whales and dolphins, which can be difficult to see from the surface. PAM operators use specialized software to analyze the acoustic data and identify the species and behaviour of the animals.

In summary, MMOs primarily rely on visual observations to detect marine mammals, while PAM operators use acoustic monitoring to detect vocalizations. Both roles are essential in ensuring the protection and conservation of marine mammal populations.

A man walking on lightning, protecting himself from the rain with an umbrella.


What are the biggest challenges of being a Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operator?

This role comes with some significant challenges. One of the biggest challenges of being a PAM Operator is the need for constant vigilance and attention to detail. The job requires long hours of monitoring underwater sounds for extended periods, sometimes in challenging weather conditions. PAM Operators need to be able to concentrate for long periods and stay alert to detect subtle changes in the acoustic environment, such as the presence of vocalizing marine mammals.

Another challenge is the need for technical expertise and equipment knowledge. PAM Operators must have a solid understanding of the equipment used in acoustic monitoring, such as hydrophones and digital acoustic recorders. They must also be proficient in data analysis, software, and programming used to interpret and analyze acoustic data.

Furthermore, PAM Operators face the challenge of working in remote and offshore locations, which can be physically demanding and require them to work in isolation for extended periods. Sometimes, they must also navigate the logistics of transporting equipment and personnel to and from offshore locations.

Finally, PAM Operators also have to deal with regulatory requirements and adhere to strict environmental and safety standards. They need to keep up to date with relevant regulations and ensure that their work practices are compliant with environmental and safety policies.


Diving Deep: A Candid Conversation with MMO and PAM Experts Raquel and João in the Offshore World

In an enthralling and informative conversation, we had the opportunity to dive deep into the world of marine mammal observation with two esteemed experts: Raquel Soley and João Gonçalves.

Raquel, a passionate marine biologist with a strong foundation in oceanography and marine mammal science, has dedicated herself to working with marine mammals since 2006, and has been a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) in the industry since 2015.

João, also a marine biologist and oceanography engineer, has transitioned from traditional desk work to immersive roles as a Marine Mammal Observer and Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operator, employing both visual and auditory techniques to study marine life for years.

Throughout our captivating dialogue, we explored the dynamic roles of MMO and PAM operators, discussing the elements they love about their jobs, the obstacles they encounter, the tools they rely on, and the tactics they use to thrive in their profession. Furthermore, we unveiled a treasure trove of amusing facts and compelling anecdotes, offering a fascinating glimpse into the captivating realm of marine mammal observation.


Video Interview with two MMO and PAM Operators in the Offshore Industry


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11 thoughts on “Marine Mammal Observer versus Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operator”

    • Hi Tomasso,

      Most marine mammal observers have a background in marine biology, ecology, environmental science, or a related field. A bachelor’s degree is often a minimum requirement, but a master’s degree can be advantageous for more competitive positions.

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