Joining the MMRP ʻOhana!

Jens Currie

September 2022

Throughout my entire life, I have always lived close to the ocean. Whether it was my childhood home on the Bay of Fundy or my current office in the middle of the Pacific, the ocean was never far away. As a child, I enjoyed going whale watching when we had visitors, but I never thought I’d be studying whales in Hawai’i someday. It has been 15 years since I last attended university and most of that time has been spent researching whales and dolphins for the Pacific Whale Foundation. So, why pursue a Ph.D. at this stage? Join me as I share some of my past experiences and how I ended up pursuing my dream.

Encouraged by my parents, I attended University on the east coast of Canada, at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. During this time, I enrolled in several field intensive courses offered at the Bonne Bay Marine Station, tucked amongst fjords on the west coast of Newfoundland. These courses gave me experience in field techniques for researching the marine environment and confirmed that I wanted to pursue marine sciences. This is also where I was first introduced to the marine mammal science field through a course focused on marine mammal biology. Through these experiences, I began to learn more about potential career options, and this led me to pursue graduate school.

With an initial goal of working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), I pursued a master’s degree. I thoroughly enjoyed my graduate work and got to spend the first year of graduate school on various-sized fishing vessels interacting with local fishermen and collecting egg samples from "berried” lobsters (i.e., females with egg clutches on the abdomen).

The goal of the project was to develop a scalable model to estimate fecundity, a key metric for management of the fishery, and this research led to my first publication. For my project, I developed a new technique to estimate eggs counts that did not require the removal of eggs from the lobster. To this day, this is still one of my proudest innovations, as it challenged an age old technique and provided a solution that aligned with conservation efforts.

After graduating, I was offered a job with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. For the next couple of years, I worked as a physical scientist and modelled the impacts of fish farms on the areas surrounding aquaculture pens. Although this work was interesting and would put me on track for a secure job, the slow bureaucratic process of implementing management that comes with a federal job led me to explore other options. I was young and eager to see the world and so I applied for and was accepted into a highly competitive program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency that sends Canadians abroad to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I was ecstatic to learn that I would be sent to South Africa to work for a non-profit called Sustainable Seas Trust, that focused on ocean conservation and sustainability. Over the next year, I worked with coastal communities to better understand the potential impacts of climate change on ecosystem goods and services and met many great people. The work was memorable, and the potential to drive past zebra, giraffes, and wildebeest on my way to work is something I will always remember.

Fresh from my experiences abroad, I applied on a whim for a position in the research program at Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF), a nonprofit based on Maui, Hawaiʻi. I was hired and soon found myself packing my bags to move to Maui in February 2013.

I was initially hired to lead a line transect survey to investigate how varying speed affects the likelihood of whale-vessel collisions, and I soon expanded PWF’s scope of work to include dolphin and marine debris studies. Today, I am the principal investigator for PWF's Hawaiʻi research with a focus of investigating anthropogenic and environmental impacts on cetacean populations. Most recently, I have focused on researching and developing vessel guidelines for the whale watching industry to minimize behavioral disturbance and using drones to assess body condition and size of various species of dolphins.

I have worked with the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) as a collaborator on various projects since 2018 and this relationship is what started me on my current Ph.D. journey. I first met Dr. Lars Bejder at an IWC-sponsored workshop focused on Modelling and Assessment of Whale watching Impacts (MAWI), in Italy. At that workshop, Dr. Bejder asked if I would like to pursue my Ph.D. with him, but I was not ready at the time. I have thought about pursuing a Ph.D. many times since then, and never forgot that offer from Dr. Bejder. Over the next five years, the potential for a Ph.D. began to look better, as I worked more closely with MMRP and Dr. Bejder through my position at PWF. Fast forward to 2020, when I learned about MMRP’s use of CATs tags (non-invasive suction cup tags with a built-in camera, pressure sensors, and accelerometers) on humpback whale mother and calf groups, I started seriously considering the idea again. You can read more about the humpback whale CATs tag work here.

After seeing the types and amounts of new data gathered from these tags, Dr Bejder and I began discussing the potential of deploying the tags on additional species, particularly smaller odontocetes. After many discussions, we had the idea of being the first to deploy a CATs tag on false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens). Not long after that, we began surveying the deep waters off Lānaʻi, and completed what would be the pilot surveys of my eventually Ph.D. project. Although we still plan to be the first to attach a CATs tag to a false killer whale, their elusive nature forced us to try out the tags on the more commonly sighted short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus).

These deployments proved to be successful and showed promise for eventually tagging a false

killer whale. Although we had several successful deployments, we unfortunately had one unsuccessful retrieval, with the tag still adrift somewhere in the Pacific. I hope it will be retrieved someday and returned to the lab!

Knowing that the deployment of CATs tags on false killer whales could lead to new exciting insights and require the dedication of a Ph.D. project, I began the discussions of pursuing a Ph.D. with Dr. Bejder, which brings me to where I am today. A combination of finding the right school and supervisor, coupled with a first of its kind project was enough to let my wife and daughter know I was heading back to school.

I very much look forward to working with the other lab members at MMRP and being a productive Ph.D. student at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.


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