The County Down woman who gets paid to listen to whales

By Amy Stewart

Media caption, Dr Sharon Doake from County Down

Dr Sharon Doake from County Down has anything but your regular nine to five job.

The 33-year old from Gilford is, what some might say, the Doctor Dolittle of the ocean.

When ships look for oil, the equipment used can affect mammals' hearing and it's her job to prevent that.

While others may slog over a computer, she spends her time offshore, looking and listening for the sights and sounds of dolphins and whales.

Dr Doake is what is known as a marine mammal observer, or more dramatically, she's the Whale Listener.

And, as far as she knows she's the only person from Northern Ireland who does that job.

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, An Orca whale that Dr Doake photographed while at work

When large, survey ships search the seabed for oil, the equipment used creates sound.

This is necessary for finding oil but it can be noisy and can affect marine life that travels through or comes to feed in the area.

"Sound to them is like eyesight to us and if it's damaged it can be disastrous for them," Dr Doake says.

"It can physically damage them or it can just scare them off coming to the area which, if it's a feeding ground, is a problem.

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, Sharon Doake with the PAMS system she uses to hear whales and other marine mammals

"Animals, like whales and dolphins are most affected but there's evidence and research that it may be worse for whales as the sounds they make are low pitched, like the sound created by the equipment.

"It's not bad to use this equipment but it's just that we need to mitigate any effect it can have," she adds.

Dr Doake finds the animals in two ways - by scanning the surface, usually for dolphins - and as whales spend less time at the surface, by using a water-based microphone known as Passive Acoustic Monitoring Systems (PAMS) which visualises the sound of their calls.

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, One of Dr Doake's favourite memories is the first time she spotted a rarely seen blue whale, the largest animal on earth

Depending on where Dr Doake is working, she may have to shut down operations if she locates the large mammals.

"Asking a company to shut down operations is such a big judgement call, as every time you do it, it costs them a lot of money, so it's quite a big decision to make," she says.

Dr Doake comes across all species of whale and dolphins in her work although she says her first time seeing a blue whale in Australia is her favourite memory "because of the sheer size".

"With whales, in a way you don't want to see them, we want to be interfering as little as possible," she adds.

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, Sharon Doake pictured at work

Offshore sexism

Meanwhile, there are other challenges to a life at sea.

One of the more frustrating aspects, she says, is what she sees as the gender imbalance on rigs.

"I'm often the only woman or one of three women on a ship of, maybe, 50 men.

"You can get treated differently. It can be a very sexist environment and you do come across sexist attitudes.

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, Dr Doake sees dolphins regularly as they spend much more time at the surface than whales

"I've been told not to help in the deployment of equipment and been told: 'You can't do that, you're a woman.'"

Dr Doake studied Zoology at Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and then undertook a PHD, which led her to a life off land.

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, It's not all whales and dolphins - she sees the odd turtle too

"I had originally wanted to be a vet but didn't get into the course," she recalled.

"It was a blessing in disguise because my job now is so unusual, varied and provides opportunities for me to travel.

"I've worked in all over the world including New Zealand, South America, and Australia."

Image source, Sharon Doake
Image caption, She listens for creatures but also spends time on deck looking for them

She returned to the ocean last week for another six-week stint, closer to home this time, in the North Sea.

The dolphins and whales are in good hands.

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