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Marine Mammal Observer

A Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) is a trained and experienced professional, who advises appropriate mitigation guidelines during industrial acoustic activities that could potentially impact marine mammals.

A Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) is a trained and experienced professional, who advises appropriate mitigation guidelines during industrial acoustic activities that could potentially impact marine mammals. In certain parts of the world, it is also the responsibility of a Marine Mammal and Protected Species Observer (MMPSO), or a Protected Species Observers (PSO) to provide this service for birds, sharks, turtles and any other potential ‘nessies’, as we might say here in Scotland (yes, OSC has been involved in a hunt for Nessie).

An offshore MMO should be positioned as close to the sound source as possible, preferably aboard the sound-emitting source (e.g. vessel/rig/platform etc.), or on a vessel. Marine megafauna are hard to spot, so MMOs often works in conjunction with Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operators.


Ian Todd at Forth Road Bridge. © OSC 2013.

Becoming an MMO and the Marine Mammal Observer Handbook

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as others might contest…), there are no academic qualifications required to become an MMO; however, most reputable firms (like OSC), only supply personnel with at least an honours degree (2:1) in a marine-related science subject, such as marine biology or oceanography from a decent University specialising in these subjects. In order of OSC’s preference, well-established UK universities* include: Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle, Hull, and Bangor). Fortunately, since publication of the Marine Mammal Observer and Passive Acoustic Monitoring Handbook, industries world-wide now also often stipulate a marine science degree requirement.


If this is a career that genuinely interests you, the Handbook (Todd et al., 2015) is well worth the investment. Note, while written by OSC Directors and staff, the Handbook is a zero-profit venture for OSC. There’s a bitter OSC joke kicking about the office that we could take the staff out for a curry on Handbook royalties so far, despite the book having been hailed a ‘bible’, by the esteemed Marine Mammal Science journal (not that we are blowing our own trumpet or anything). www.Amazon.co.uk reviews can be seen here, just in case you think we’re making it up.

*which of course, has nothing to do with the fact that some of the OSC Directors and staff attended these Universities…ahem, so anybody from MIT/WHOI, or Scripps are also welcome wholeheartedly (again, not just because some of the OSC Directors attended these institutions either). We digress…


In many countries, it is mandatory to complete an MMO training course to prove fundamental understanding of mitigation measures set by the applicable statutory body. Guidelines are reasonably similar world-wide, with differences attributed to ecosystems and species found within territorial waters, along with individual legislative interpretation of best practice.


In the UK, the Joint Nature and Conservation Committee (JNCC) are the statutory advisory body that provide mitigation guidelines for marine mammals in UK waters. JNCC require an MMO to attend a one-day approved training course before being deemed suitably knowledgeable to effectively execute guidelines. Just a single day…


In New Zealand, an MMO must comply with the Department of Conservation (DOC) legislation and adhere to their statutory guidelines. Training in NZ is arguably the strictest in the world; so austere in fact, that in 2014, there were <10 MMOs in the world eligible to work in NZ. Assuming those individuals have not retired on their Caribbean yachts by now, fortunately this number has increased, but in 2018, there was still a fair shortage of trained and qualified personnel available. Experienced NZ PAM-operators, for example, are still like hen’s teeth, and New Zealand is one of the only countries in the word to advocate native New-Zealander (Maori) training. As an example to all countries, it is pleasing that MMO standards and NZ PAM standards are second-to-none.


Ireland’s statutory organisation (and provider of guidelines) is the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS). Based originally on JNCC guidelines, there are Irish-specific amendments. For example, most sound producing activities in waters up to a depth of 200 m require a 30-minute marine-mammal-free period in the required mitigation zone before any sound producing activity can commence. JNCC guidelines stipulate 20 minutes.

Unfortunately in Ireland, there is no recognised qualification for MMOs; however, NPWS (2014) guidelines state that:

‘A qualified and experienced marine mammal observer (MMO) shall be appointed to monitor for marine mammals and to log all relevant events using standardised data forms.’

Passing an approved training course such as the UK’s JNCC one-day MMO training course is deemed sufficient and, unless otherwise stated through survey licence obligations, completing a minimum six weeks experience is expected.


NPWS (2014): Guidance to manage the risk to marine mammals from man-made sound sources in Irish waters. Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. National Parks & Wildlife Service. 59 pp.

Todd, VLG, Todd, IB, Gardiner, JC, and Morrin, ECN (2015): Marine Mammal Observer and Passive Acoustic Monitoring Handbook. Pelagic Publishing Ltd, Exeter, UK.