Tracking Whales Near and Far
Julia O’Hern is an Iowa girl who spent four years in Ithaca, NY, getting a bachelor’s degree in Earth systems science and government from Cornell. She then journeyed to Texas A&M to study oceanography.
“I did an undergraduate concentration in ocean sciences and knew that I wanted to continue studying marine mammal habitats,” she said. “I had read several papers on Dr. Doug Bigg’s Sperm Whale Seismic Study (SWSS), so I contacted him to see if he was taking any students.”
The study that brought Julia to Texas A&M explored the impact on sperm whales that the increasing use of seismic airgun surveys by the oil and gas industry to search for mineral deposits in the Gulf has had.
After successfully defending her masters thesis titled "Using Orbital Altimetry and Ocean Color to Characterize Habitat of Sperm Whales in the Gulf of Mexico" in 2007, Julia is now working on her Ph.D.
“I decided to stay here at A&M because of the research opportunities available through INOCAR,” O’Hern said.
INOCAR is the oceanographic institute of the Ecuadorian Navy. Through a memorandum of agreement between Texas A&M and INOCAR, the Oceanography Department sponsors joint cruises for faculty and students on INOCAR ships, joint research and teaching projects with Ecuadorian Navy scientists, and study-abroad programs taught by A&M faculty at INOCAR’s research facilities in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
“There hasn’t been much research done in the past decade on studying marine mammal presence in the Pacific between the Ecuadorian coast and the Galapagos Islands, and it’s such an important part of the world,” Julia said. “I wanted to go out on their cruises to map out what species are down there and investigate their habitat using remote sensing and satellite technologies.”
“I love being out at sea and in the field and doing the actual collection of data,” she added.
According to her graduate advisor Doug Biggs, Julia and her research partners made 57 sightings of individuals or groups of six species during a 1,032 nautical-mile survey in September/October, 2008, and 97 sightings of individuals or groups of nine species during a 1,153 nautical-mile survey in April 2009. She plans to make four additional cruises in the next two years.
Being at sea collecting data is something Julia has had ample opportunity to do since coming to A&M. She made her 15th research cruise this summer, and has now logged over 160 days at sea. She’s cruised in the Gulf, off the coast of Massachusetts, in the equatorial Pacific, and even in Antarctica.
While Julia stays pretty busy in her field of study, she doesn’t limit herself to oceanography however. She is a member of the Texas Aggie Storm Chasers, a student group based in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences that tracks severe weather and chases storms. And she’s a member of the A&M Sailing Team based at Lake Bryan and has also done some offshore sailing at TAMU Galveston.
“Yes, I’m usually the only oceanography student in the storm chasers,” she admitted, “but every year I try to recruit at least one or two more students to get involved.
“I love Texas A&M,” she added, “and I’ve had lots of opportunities to try new things.”