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Marine Mammal Observers in NZ

Ocean Science Consulting and Marine Mammal Observers

A Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) conducts visual surveys of the area around an underwater noise-producing activity (e.g. seismic survey, pile-driving, military sonar etc.) to detect any marine mammals present at the sea surface before operations commence, and in some cases, whilst they are ongoing. MMOs may also conduct visual surveys to collect baseline data for planning future projects.

As with land mammals, all marine mammals breathe air, and must come to the surface to do so. Consequently, all marine mammals are detected visually by a MMO when they surface. A well-trained, qualified, and experienced MMO scans the sea surface constantly within the area of interest with specialised reticle binoculars in a methodical manner to maximise detections of surfacing marine mammals.

Where possible, MMOs identify species and record animal behaviour and movements, though their ability to do so depends on both prior experience and length of time that an animal spends at the surface. Large whales may only surface once before deep-diving for periods > 1 hour, which limits surface observation time, whereas a dolphin or porpoise may surface repeatedly, allowing longer observation and more data to be recorded.

If data collected by a MMO are of a good standard, they may contribute to what is known currently about marine mammal species’ distributions, behaviour, and ecology. It in the long term to employ well-trained, qualified, and experienced MMOs, since regulators are increasingly insisting that licence holders submit historical data sets for review.

Marine Mammal Observers are an integral part of real-time marine mammal monitoring; in some cases, visual observation the only mitigation method used. Visual surveys can only be conducted in daylight and when sea state and weather conditions are reasonable (i.e. do not impair visibility). For mitigation, MMO can be complemented by the use of Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM).

Marine Mammal Observers in NZ

Under the New Zealand Code of Conduct for Minimising Acoustic Disturbance to Marine Mammals from Seismic Survey Operations (referred to as the Code, available here), written by the Department of Conservation (DOC), a Marine Mammal Observer on a survey must be dedicated to that role and suitably qualified. The Code of Conduct describes the standards expected of a MMO.

To work in NZ waters, a Marine Mammal Observer must have completed (and passed) a DOC-approved MMO training course, upon which they will be considered a ‘Trained Observer.’ After 12 weeks of marine seismic survey experience, preferably in NZ waters, a MMO is considered a ‘Qualified Observer.’ Marine Mammal Observers with extensive international experience are still required to attend and pass a DOC-approved course to work in NZ.

The Code requires two dedicated MMOs for both Level 1 and Level 2 surveys, and whilst two Qualified MMOs are preferred, one Qualified and one Trained MMO are allowable.

Ocean Science Consulting and Marine Mammal Observers

Ocean Science Consulting (OSC) provides trained and qualified MMOs for work in NZ. We are also a DOC-accredited trainer (see here for any upcoming training courses) and have previously run MMO and PAM courses, including an industry-funded course specifically for iwi.


DOC, 2013. 2013 Code of conduct for minimising acoustic disturbance to marine mammals from seismic survey operations. Publishing Team, Department of Conservation, Wellington, NZ, pp 36.