Whale Scientists Story: Leanne Rosser

Leanne Rosser is a 30-year-old British marine mammalogist currently studying the behavior of Pacific white-sided dolphins in Japan. Here is her story.

Leanne Rosser

From music to English literature

I had a slightly longer journey than most. Throughout the majority of high school, I wanted to become a classical pianist. Music was my first love before dolphins came on the scene. I was determined to get into a music conservatoire, so I took a gap year and practiced every day. Unfortunately, I developed a repetitive strain injury, which prevented me from auditioning for music school. However, I still decided to pursue music at Cardiff University in Wales the following year. After another setback, this time relating to illness, I left university to take some time out. I then went on to do a degree in English literature mainly because I enjoyed writing and reading.

At that time I didn’t realize that my love for cetaceans would develop into a full-blown obsession! During my uni days, I began to seek out wildlife volunteering opportunities. I also read endless books about cetaceans and thought about how I could pursue my passion. The setbacks I experienced gave me time to consider what kind of career I wanted. My interest in cetaceans was more than just having a favorite animal; it was a growing curiosity to better understand these fantastic creatures.

The dolphin internship that changed Leanne’s life

I first began volunteering for Sea Watch Foundation after I graduated. I would do land watches from Penarth Pier in Wales looking for harbor porpoise (I never saw any!). Through this work, I was rewarded with a boat trip to participate in one of the research surveys. I didn’t help out much, but I did see my first wild dolphins, which completely changed my life. After the encounter, I was asked to write a blog for the Sea Watch website. It actually became a relatively regular thing. I absolutely did not think that someone with an English Literature degree could get on a dolphin research internship. Still, the lovely team at Sea Watch acknowledged my passion and gave me a chance. I am forever grateful for this opportunity.

Happy dolphins – Leanne Rosser

For two months, I worked with inspiring people who gave me a taste of real research work. I enjoyed every aspect of the internship. I got to chat about my favorite subject with people at events. That included sometimes just tourists on the pier. I spent glorious days at sea, taking shots for photo-ID and documenting critical information to understand this population further. I even enjoyed the rainy early morning land watches. Sometimes dolphins would come so close to the pier and always did something interesting that made it all worth it. This experience was what drove my determination to pursue cetacean research as a career. It is also what switched me from being all about whales to a total dolphin girl!

I think, most importantly, I learned that conservation and science are all about people. Working with a great team that motivates you and communicating with the public to spread the word is vital in achieving any research goals. On many occasions, I saw people being both shocked and thrilled to see dolphins living right under their noses. Getting people as excited about cetaceans as I am is a real joy.

Leanne’s research in Japan

English teacher in Osaka

Before I started my internship with Sea Watch, my now husband and I had accepted English teaching jobs in Japan. Still, after my experience, I knew I had found my calling in life so I decided to look for dolphin opportunities in Japan. For the first six months in Osaka, I emailed anyone remotely related to cetacean research or conservation work. I was usually met with either no reply or misunderstandings due to the language barrier.

Volunteer work on Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins

One happy day, I received a response from Prof. Mai Sakai at Kindai University who wanted to meet with me. She introduced me to her work on social behavior and flipper rubbing in wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins around Mikura Island, Japan. I started by helping her analyze hours and hours of underwater footage. To do so, I was looking for pairs of dolphins rubbing one another using their pectoral fins. After about two and a half years of doing this, I presented the work at the Japan Animal Behaviour conference in Osaka. My professor introduced me to the world of cetacean research in Japan. I was able to join research trips to beautiful places here and meet fellow researchers. This led me to my current position as a researcher for Mutsu Bay Dolphin Research.

Leanne Rosser
Leanne presenting her work on flipper rubbing in wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins at a conference – Credit: Leanne Rosser

Research with Mutsu Bay Dolphin Research

I study wild Pacific white-sided dolphins that visit Mutsu Bay in Aomori, Northern Japan, every spring on their annual migration northwards. We carry out boat surveys, take shots for photo-ID, and sometimes, with the help of a drone crew, study the dolphins’ behavior from the air. Our research boat captain (Tanaka-san) is a local fisherman, and he is the only one we work with. He is the one who always drives our boat on surveys. He has done for the past 4 four years, and he has amazing expertise. Tanaka-san can spot a dolphin a mile off! This summer, I organized the past 5 years of photographs into a photo-ID catalog. With this catalog, we hope to establish whether the same dolphins are coming to the bay each year.

Leanne Rosser
Leanne engaging with school students in Japan about dolphins – Credit: Leanne Rosser

I also do outreach work and connect with the community so we can work together to understand this under-studied species. I particularly love presenting our work in schools and getting kids excited about dolphins! Living in Japan is something I love so much, and I have felt wonderfully welcomed here. My limited Japanese can sometimes be frustrating! Luckily, most professors and researchers have an excellent English level, so it doesn’t hinder me too much. Of course, Japan has a bad rep for cetaceans, which is both a good and bad reason to study here. I think communicating with Japanese people from within Japan is an excellent opportunity to try and change perspectives and open people’s eyes to the fantastic diversity of cetacean species in Japanese waters.

Leanne’s advice to aspiring marine mammalogists

Keep learning, keep trying, and keep sharing your passion with people. I think it’s essential to find out all you can about the species or topic you are most interested in. You should also keep reading about new research to stay on track. Get as much experience as you can. My research on Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins was all done voluntarily on the side. I would do a few hours of video analysis and then go off to work and teach English to pay my way. Connecting with people in the field or just people who share your passion is so important. It may even lead you to an amazing opportunity, as it did for me! I genuinely believe that anyone can achieve their dream in life as long as they put the work in and never let go of their passion.

Jumping Pacific white-sided dolphins – Credit: Leanne Rosser

What is next for Leanne?

I am currently working on publishing my research for the Pacific white-sided dolphin behavioral studies and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose flipper rubbing work. Next year, we have plans to hopefully expand the Mutsu Bay research and better understand the migratory patterns of Pacific white-sided dolphins. My ultimate goal is to continue researching dolphins and I hope to find a PhD project soon.

Exotic Japanese adventures

I’ve already had so many wonderful experiences at sea. I have watched Pacific white-sided dolphins cooperatively feed on a school of fish while listening to their communicative chatter on a hydrophone. I once watched hundreds of dolphins for an hour of leaping and bow-riding by our boat. Living in Japan has brought me many unique experiences, such as spotting the elusive finless porpoise in Osaka Bay and joining a research trip to a tropical Japanese island where we went on a night wildlife tour and saw an array of endemic animals. I’m terrified of rats and mice, but I had a close encounter with a giant Ryukyu Islands tree rat! I’ve explored a whale-shaped island with a group of Japanese school kids. I also lived in a Japanese nature museum for a month, by the end of which I’d started to feel like one of the exhibits!

Credit: Leanne Rosser

We would like to warmly thank Leanne for sharing her story. Make sure you check out her accounts down below:

You can also contact Leanne on Twitter and on her blog

Here are the links for Leanne’s research group:

Check out our other Whale Scientists Stories here:

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