Whale Scientists Story: Danielle Conry

Marine mammalogist Danielle Conry is a 31 years-old South African working on killer whales for the Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme (MIMMP). Her journey has involved many exciting opportunities that have led her to where she is now. She discusses how COVID-19 has halted some of her plans but has not deterred her in the slightest. Danielle discusses with us her very unique killer whale necropsy and how she found love in the process…

Danielle Conry
Danielle with a Cape fur seal pup ready for release after stranding in Plettenberg Bay – © Frikkie van der Vyver

Danielle’s Education

From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to work with cetaceans and that studying zoology or marine biology was the best way to achieve this career path. My studies began at the University of Cape Town where I completed my BSc in Zoology and Marine Biology. I then moved to Nelson Mandela University where I completed my Honours and MSc degrees in Zoology. In total, it took me eight years to complete these three degrees.

Danielle’s research experience

Bachelor and Master projects

Between my studies, I did an internship where I was based at Nelson Mandela University for one year as a research administration intern. This internship was broadly advertised within various mailing lists such as SANCOR. During my time there I learned a lot about research administration which I had previously not had any experience with. I also learned a lot about responding to strandings, performing necropsies, and managing photo-identification databases.

Danielle Conry Sperm whale stranded along the Garden Route
Danielle standing alongside a Sperm whale stranded along the Garden Route – ©Frikkie van der Vyver

I have also done a number of research projects. The first was for my Honours degree where I spent a year assessing sexual dimorphism and geographic variation in striped dolphin crania from the South African coastline. During my second research project, I spent three years studying the abundance and habitat-use of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins along South Africa’s Garden Route. I found out about the projects for my Honours and Masters from my university supervisor. Now, I am busy with a third research project on Indian Ocean humpback dolphins in Plettenberg Bay, which I designed and started with advice and help from fellow scientists.

Sometimes, working on marine mammals is tough…

During my Master’s work and the Plettenberg Bay Humpback Dolphin Project, the biggest trial was getting on a boat. We needed both a boat and skipper as we did not have our own dedicated research vessel. We, therefore, had to rely on whale watching companies or SANParks to help us. Sometimes, the whale watching company would need the boat for commercial trips or park rangers would suddenly have other commitments. It was always extremely frustrating having to cancel research surveys or cut them short. However, this taught me to find diplomatic solutions and carry out my research while maintaining working relationships. I also learned that on some days you won’t win and you can only do your best.

Thanks to my research experiences, I have gained useful skills in photo identification techniques. I learnt how to take photos of cetaceans at sea from an unstable boat, and how to process and match individuals. Overall, I value each experience for what it has taught me, and for the time spent with these amazing animals.

Danielle Conry Dolphin skull
Assessing sexual dimorphism and geographic variation in striped dolphin crania for Danielle’s Honours research – ©Nora Weyer

What is Danielle up to now?

In December 2019, I finally got accepted for my dream job. I get to collect data on killer whales and pinnipeds (seals) on a remote subantarctic island, as a part of the University of Pretoria’s MIMMP. We were set to depart for the island in April 2020. Unfortunately, due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the trip was canceled.

The fieldwork for the Plettenberg Bay Humpback Dolphin Project has also come to a grinding halt. While waiting out the pandemic, I have been searching for records of killer whale sightings across South Africa as a part of another project at the University of Pretoria. The goal is to set up a database of these records as well as a catalog of all the individuals. I have also been using the time to publish a number of scientific articles.

With the current global pandemic, the future seems a bit uncertain at times. However, I am hopeful to make it Marion Island, eventually to collect data on killer whales. I also hope that I will always be fortunate enough to find an opportunity that will allow me to work with and study cetaceans.

Danielle Conry Collecting photo-identification data on Indian Ocean humpback dolphins in Plettenberg Bay
Collecting photo-identification data on Indian Ocean humpback dolphins in Plettenberg Bay – ©Frikkie van der Vyver

Danielle’s tips for aspiring whale scientists

The world of marine mammal science has some serious drawbacks. They often include low salaries with little to no contribution towards medical aid and pension funds; limited funding for research; long working hours (sometimes in poor weather conditions); and limited employment opportunities with lots of competition.

However, if you are very passionate, it is a real privilege to be able to work with such amazing animals. You get to promote and advance science; you can help with conservation; and you get the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature … Being with these animals in their natural environment far outweighs the harshness of marine mammal science.

I would advise to only follow this career path if you are truly passionate about working with cetaceans and willing to make the sacrifices it often requires. My advice would be to get at least a MSc in Zoology, Marine Biology or another relevant field; do well in your studies; build connections with scientists in the field; volunteer in order to gain experience; and finally, do not give up on your dream if it is what you truly want for yourself!

First killer whale necropsy

A killer whale in Plettenberg Bay

It had always been my dream to see a killer whale (very cliche, I know). Unfortunately, this can be difficult living in South Africa, where sightings are rare. During my Master’s studies in Port Elizabeth, a female killer whale was sighted in Plettenberg Bay. After a few days, she was still there, close to the shore, which is highly unusual for a killer whale. It likely meant that she was unwell. She beached and was re-floated a number of times. Normally, I would not drive 3 hours after hearing of a sighting of killer whales with no guarantee to see them. But because the whale had stayed in the area for so long, I figured my chances were good!

At 4 am, I departed on my 3-hour drive through to Plettenberg Bay. I popped into the first whale watching company upon arrival. I asked them if the killer whale was still in the area. After telling them about my story, they were kind enough to offer me a free trip. I was so thankful and excited to see her. We quickly found the female killer whale close to shore. Finally! My first sighting of a killer whale! Once the boat trip ended, I drove to the spot where the killer whale was and watched her for the whole day before driving back to Port Elizabeth.

Danielle Conry killer whale in Plettenberg Bay
My first sighting of a killer whale! – ©Danielle Conry

Sad news… But an amazing opportunity

The next morning, I found out that she had beached during the night and died. It was sad that she didn’t make it and I wondered what could have caused her death. Fortunately, I got invited to help with her necropsy. Killer whale strandings are very rare and therefore provide important opportunities to collect samples! I assisted a strapping young lad, who was temporarily working for the Port Elizabeth Museum Stranding Network, with the necropsy. It was truly amazing to see her beautiful features so closely. We rushed to get as much of the necropsy done before nightfall. In our haste, we decided to collect the organs intact and subsample them later. As it got dark, we decided to leave the rest of the necropsy for the next day. But we still had to do some subsampling and labeling. We drove to a nearby riverbank where we could complete the work because we were staying at some friends’ house, and did not want to trash it with our organs and samples.

Somewhere in between sorting through intestines and writing labels, we saw that a man was staring at us suspiciously. As he walked a bit closer he asked, “Perlemoen?” (it means abalone or sea snail). Suddenly, we realized that our bulging black bags and suspicious behavior so late at night might be confused with the illegal operations of abalone poachers. We laughed it off and continued to do our subsampling.

Danielle Conry killer whale necropsy
A rare opportunity to disect a killer whale – ©Frikkie van der Vyver

Playing Tetris: killer whale head vs. fridge

The next day we finished the necropsy and got some locals to help us sever the animal’s enormous head. A kind gentleman lent us his trailer. After a quick stop at the local supermarket for some “padkos” (road food), and a few curious glances, we drove back to Port Elizabeth with a bakkie full of killer whale samples and a huge head. Upon arrival at the museum, we discovered that the killer whale’s head was a bit too big to fit through the door of the walk-in freezer room. After a lot of maneuvering and shoving, we finally managed to get it inside. Little did we know … a month later the museum’s marine mammal curator was not able to get the rigid head out again for maceration. He had to defrost the entire freezer along with all its contents… Whoops!

After years of wishing to see a killer whale, I never dreamed that my first sighting would not only involve seeing one, but also the very rare opportunity to help dissect it. And I got to meet the strapping young lad with whom I have now shared many marine mammal related adventures…

Danielle Conry
Danielle and Frikkie, now doing research together

We would like to thank Danielle for this incredible story. Danielle and Frikkie have their own website. You can find out more about their projects here.

Here is her facebook page as well: Click here.

Make sure to check our other stories here.

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