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Rebecca wellard

Founder & researcher, Project ORCA

 

And - Marine mammal scientist, Curtin University

Do what you love, and you'll do it well.

What do you do?

"I study killer whales in Australia and Antartica." 

I investigate numerous aspects of killer whales' biology, including their social structure, feeding ecology, but my main focus is on their acoustics and communication. This means I spend a lot of time out at sea and get to visit some wild and remote locations. There is no time for seasickness and the ocean can be unforgiving but working in some of the harshest elements is a part of my job that I love. I have had some incredible moments at sea with some amazing encounters with wildlife – it makes those rough days all worth it.

There are many ways you can collect calls from killer whales. The main method I use is by deploying a hydrophone – an underwater microphone- over the side of the vessel. I do this when whales are nearby – generally within a few kilometres of the recording device.

When I first sight killer whales, I take photos of the group. This helps me identify individuals and see which family group I am working with. We identify individual killer whales by looking at their unique dorsal fin, eye-patch and saddle patch. Once I have enough photos to identify individuals, we switch off the boat engine and put the hydrophone over the side and take a listen…..

But whales and dolphins don’t always talk though! That is a misconception many people have. So it is a game of patience and luck and means I must spend a lot more time out at sea trying to get these acoustic recordings, which isn’t a horrible way to spend your day.

Why did you choose this field?

"I have a never-ending fascination with animals."

Growing up on the beaches of Australia meant I was always in or around the ocean. Whether I would spend the whole day exploring our local beach or sitting tight in Dad’s boat out on the bay - I found out an early age that the ocean was my happy place.

 

Since I was a kid I was intrigued with all creatures- my poor Mum would find lots of different animals tucked away in my bedroom, from snails to the neighbour’s cat! So, combine this love for animals and my love for the ocean, and it makes sense that I’ve been studying marine animals for the last 15 years now.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"I am the first person to do a PhD on the Australian killer whales."

Anything is possible. And I think younger me knew this, but at times didn’t truly believe it. So many goals I have set myself and achieved, and I think at times, they seemed so far out of reach, that younger me truly never thought I could attain them. But hard work and dedication opens many doors. I think one of my biggest achievements to date is the work I am doing now. I was told as a teenager that marine biology was a dead-end career and it was almost impossible to study cetaceans and make a career out of it. I’m glad I never listened to any of them and followed my passion. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working with like-minded people whose souls are also ignited by the daily curiosity of science and wonder of nature. I have met some incredible people along this journey, whom inspire me and make me a better scientist, and I am so grateful to be able to work alongside them and learn from them.

Best advice for the next generation

Back yourself, keep your mind and heart open and don’t be afraid to constantly challenge yourself- that is how we grow. If you follow your heart, you can never go wrong. Do what you love, and you’ll do it well.

Real life hero

Dr. Sylvia A Earle, “Her Deepness”, is one of my biggest heroes. She has helped break the glass ceiling for women in marine biology and science. Her lifelong commitment to marine life and habitats is commendable and this oceanographer, explorer, aquanaut and author is certainly someone I gain inspiration from.