My First PAMGUARD Instruction Experience!
You never know what opportunities may come up from one day to the next. When I attended my first passive acoustic monitoring course, with Intelligent Ocean in 2011, I never imagined the day would come when I would be an instructor for a PAM course. Quite unexpectedly the opportunity to do just that came up in May!
I was working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as a casual employee since September 2017 but, due to the start of a new fiscal year, I was in limbo waiting for my next contract through April and May. Two months without work may sound stressful to some but I am used to this lifestyle. When I work as an offshore contractor I often have two or more months between contracts and the jobs pay well enough to offset the time when I have no income. Fortunately, just before I was to start my next DFO contract, I was offered the opportunity to teach the software portion of a passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) course in Newfoundland.
How did this come about? Well, the Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) and PAM Operator world is small. I was contacted by Ashley, the CEO of Edgewise Environmental, through my friend Manuel. Manuel and I were in the first year of the Master of Research in Marine Mammal Science at the University of St Andrews, Scotland for 2007-2008. Manuel and I also reconnected in 2015 when we worked together as PAM operators on a seismic survey project offshore New Zealand. Though I hadn’t met Ashley in person, I was already aware of her from my friend who worked with her as an MMO a few years ago. I had only heard praises of Ashley’s work so didn’t hesitate to teach with her. Ashley started the first Canadian environmental mitigation training company, Edgewise Environmental, in Newfoundland which focuses on training in marine mammal and seabird monitoring and underwater noise.
Ashley’s company was launched this past spring and demand for her training courses for MMOs, Seabird Observers and Passive Acoustic Monitors grew quickly. Edgewise Environmental’s first PAM course was set for mid-May with Ashley teaching PAM theory and another instructor teaching PAM hardware. However, they still needed an instructor to teach PAMGUARD, the acoustic monitoring software used to detect, classify and localise marine mammals during offshore oil and gas survey projects. Prior to connecting with me, Ashley had contacted Manuel, a very qualified PAM operator with a PhD on sperm whale acoustics from New Zealand. He was not available due to a prior commitment so Manuel suggested Ashley contact me. As fate would have it, I was available!
Now I must confess my first thought when I read Ashley’s email, offering the teaching opportunity, was “What?! ME teach PAMGUARD?!” Yes, Imposter Syndrome had struck! If you don’t know what Imposter Syndrome is then you’re lucky because this probably means you haven’t experienced it…or don’t know you have. You can learn more about Imposter Syndrome in this article in Psychology Today which sums it up nicely. Of course, after taking some time to consider it, I realised that I was (really? Little ol’ me?!) qualified to teach these students PAMGUARD and this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.
In fact, I felt I must jump at the opportunity for two reasons. First, the one and only time I’d been to Newfoundland was in 2015. Unfortunately, less than two days after I arrived in St. John’s, I ended up in the hospital for five days on an IV drip and antibiotics due to a painful, unexplained infection. Of course, I was not allowed to work offshore after a hospital stay so flew back to Victoria shortly after my release from the hospital. So, my only memory of Newfoundland was a rather unpleasant stay at the hospital! I saw this opportunity as a chance to experience Newfoundland actually outside the hospital in St. John’s! The second reason I decided to teach was to face my Imposter Syndrome head on. I’ll admit I had a little anxiety at the thought of teaching for a PAM course but told myself “You’ve got this”. I realised there was no reason I couldn’t teach students how to use a software I’d used on multiple offshore projects since 2010 and, most recently, for archived acoustic data analysis for Fisheries and Oceans Canada!
So, less than one week after I was offered the work, I was on my way to Newfoundland to help instruct the first PAM course with Edgewise Environmental! It was a busy few days leading up to my departure as I had to create a teaching plan and put together a presentation. Much was done on the beach and by the campfire during a previously planned weekend camping trip and then on the plane en route.
The course ran from Monday May 14 to Friday May 18. I flew Monday evening to arrive Tuesday morning. It was quite a journey flying across Canada from Victoria to St. Johns on the ‘red eye’ (overnight) flight and, because I don’t sleep well on planes, I didn’t have a proper sleep until I checked into my hotel in St. John’s the next day. So, I arrived Tuesday morning and left Saturday afternoon; a very quick visit to Newfoundland but a wonderful experience.
I attended and helped instruct the PAM Operator course for the last three days of the course, Wednesday May 16 to Friday 18. On Wednesday I was introduced to the nine students who spent the majority of that day learning about PAM hardware systems. In this case, the other instructor, Jill, who was from Ocean Sonics, a company based in Nova Scotia which designs and builds hydrophones, demonstrated their PAM hardware system. Once again it was apparent how small the MMO and PAM community is because Jill and I had already worked together. Last summer we were involved in a couple of deployments of Ocean Sonics hydrophones for DFO’s Whale Tracking Network project. Our paths crossed once again as we co-taught the PAM course with Ashley!
I was impressed with the students on this PAM course. All of them seemed very well qualified, most had some form of graduate study experience, some had already spent some time working offshore and all had relevant experience. I was happy to see that these were the people being trained to work offshore informing seismic operators regarding the use and implementation of environmental mitigation requirements in Canada. It is very important that the people in these roles (MMO and PAM) are educated, well informed, experienced, intelligent and willing to ensure mitigation rules are adhered to.
My day to instruct the students on the PAMGUARD software was Thursday. After a short introduction about my experience and background, I got the students straight to work with the software. PAMGUARD is open-source acoustic monitoring software and has a steep learning curve. Ashley and I decided the best plan of action was to give the students as much hands-on experience as possible and I would guide them through the challenges of the software. For the first half of the day the students worked through tutorials available from the PAMGUARD website. These are meant to provide the students a good foundation of the software basics. Then, for the latter half of the day, I taught the students additional material on PAMGUARD modules with which they needed to be comfortable if they were to be proficient as PAM operators for offshore oil and gas PAM work.
Friday, the last day of the course, consisted of an examination and the opportunity for students to apply their newly acquired knowledge with real PAM equipment on a vessel. They wrote their exams first thing in the morning and then we traveled to Conception Bay South to meet with the vessel, Ocean Predator I, for the practical portion of the course. We were SO fortunate because it was a beautiful, sunny, calm day…not what I expected in May in Newfoundland! The practical session required the students to demonstrate their ability to work together setting up and deploying the PAM equipment and running the PAMGUARD software. We also put the students into groups of 2-3 to run them through scenarios they would encounter while working as a PAM operator. For example, they practiced correct data collection procedures for when they have marine mammal detections. Overall, the students worked well together with the hardware and software and it was a great day on the water. Unfortunately, no detections today…but that’s the way it often goes when you’re a PAM operator!
And some photos of the students and teachers in action!
Not only did I enjoy teaching the course but I got to experience many of St. John’s pubs and restaurants! Fortunately, with Ashley as our local guide, I enjoyed some tasty eating and drinking at the Bocas Tapas Bar (very tasty, genuine style Spanish tapas), The Gypsy Tea Room (great ambience and lovely drinks!), Christian’s Bar (where I got Screeched-In!) and O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub (great live music). As fun as it was to train students in the use of acoustics software, I must say that getting Screeched-In was the highlight of my week! Oh and if you aren’t familiar with the Screech-In ceremony, where visitors earn the status of honorary Newfoundlanders, check out this National Post article. Definitely worth doing the next time you’re in St. John’s!
In hindsight I am happy I seized the opportunity to be the PAMGUARD software instructor for Edgewise Environmental’s PAM Operator course. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching this group of students and look forward to future opportunities to teach with Ashley and Jill. I have also created better memories of Newfoundland and I look forward to going back and exploring more of the island and the friendly people of Newfoundland!