The South Coast is richly endowed with visiting whales and resident dolphins. Richard Morecroft and Alison Mackay meet a local whose commitment to these magnificent creatures has helped build an important research organisation.
Scott Sheehan seems to have his eye pressed permanently to the viewfinder of his camera and you can hear the clicking of the shutter as he takes multiple shots of a whale’s tail sliding gracefully out of the water, curving over and disappearing again. He’s hoping for some good results, clearly identifying the whale from its unique tail-fluke markings and he’s taken thousands of photographs like these, documenting the whales and dolphins of the South Coast – and Jervis Bay in particular. Scott’s enthusiasm for marine life has taken him from keen volunteer to Project Coordinator for Marine Mammal Research – a research, education and conservation organisation whose findings have been presented at internationally recognised scientific conferences.
As a youngster, Scott spent plenty of time in the sea around Jervis Bay, surfing and snorkelling. And as an active participant in the local community he has pursued various roles, including running a surf shop, coordinating the See Change winter arts festival and managing a graphic design company. But when he volunteered his photographic expertise to help with a PhD researcher’s work on the resident bottlenose dolphins of Jervis Bay, he knew he’d found a way to turn his enthusiasm for the ocean into a valuable contribution to conservation. It’s been a remarkable few years for Scott.
“It set me off on a new career path. I’ve now completed my Bachelor of Marine Science and I’m contributing to research projects on the east and west coasts of Australia as well as working overseas. Marine Mammal Research was formed in 2005 with myself, marine researcher Dr Michelle Lemon-Blewitt and Victorian wildlife consultant David Donnelly. Now we’re working with several major universities doing research up and down the coast.”
Scott’s remarkable perseverance in taking (and sorting through!) vast numbers of whale and dolphin photographs has made him a valuable contributor to cetacean research in Australia. He’s also created guide books filled with information to help the thousands of visitors who come to the South Coast each year and go out on dolphin and whale-watching trips. And he wants those visitors to become “citizen scientists” and put their photographs and videos to good use. By sending their images to the Marine Mammal Research website, they can contribute to identifying and tracking individual whales who return to a particular area year after year.
Scott and the Marine Mammal Research team achieved national media prominence last year with their involvement in the ABC documentary “The Search for the Ocean’s Super Predator”. It might not be everybody’s idea of fun to spend days on a boat off the West Australian coast looking for the ocean’s largest predators – great white sharks, killer whales and giant squid, but for Scott it was a unique chance to document these awesome creatures. Now back home in Jervis Bay, he’ll be spending the next year building an up-to-date data base of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay and comparing their identities to a range of photographs taken 20 years ago to see how the populations have changed and whether any old-timers are still around. And there’s a further project looking at how whale mothers use Jervis Bay as a place to teach their calves a range of behaviours.
Although the Marine Mammal Research team members travel widely following the animals they study, Scott would like to see a permanent base for the organisation on the South Coast.
“In the future, we’d love to see some sort of facility, either supported by a university or tying in with Marine Parks – a central location for the data we’ve collected,” he says. And as a not-for-profit organisation, they depend on donations to cover project expenses. So far, they’ve always managed to get by.
“We sell T-shirts and other stuff to pay for boat fuel and photo hard drives,” Scott says with a smile. “And people are always very generous. Even if they don’t always understand the detail of our work, they’re happy to know we’re putting so much effort into the future of whales and dolphins – and that there’s a contribution they can make too.”