Whale Scientists Story: Ronald Smit

Ronald Smit

Ronald Smit is a 26 years old marine biologist from the Netherlands. He holds a MSc in Aquaculture and Marine Resource Management from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. We became friends with Ronald during our internship in Italy in 2016. Here is his story …

Ronald’s Education

I have always been fascinated by nature and especially marine mammals. And, like so many others in this field, I was also a huge fan of the Free Willy movies! After high school, I decided to follow the BSc “Bos en Natuurbeheer” (Forest and Nature Conservation) at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. I also thought about studying Biology, but this is a very general study with some subjects that I already knew I would not want to pursue in the future. During the last year of my BSc I followed the minor “Marine Living Resources”. This convinced me that I wanted to continue my studies in the field of Marine Biology/Ecology.

I continued with the MSc Aquaculture and Marine Resource Management (also at Wageningen University). Before deciding that I wanted to do this particular master, I looked into the possibility to do my internship and thesis with marine mammals. This was possible, and other people had done this as well. I had to actively search for these positions however, and they were not handed to me on a silver platter. But nobody said studying whales was easy! My BSc took 3 years and my MSc took me a little bit more than 2 years.

Internships / Research

I have done one internship, one thesis project and one volunteer project.

Research in Northern Norway

In 2015, I worked on my master thesis project studying harbour porpoise occurrence in the tidal current Rystraumen near Tromsø, Norway. This was done both acoustically with the use of 5 C-PODs and with visual observations from land. This project was a collaboration between Wageningen Marine Research, the Arctic University of Tromsø and Akvaplan niva. I found my thesis by contacting professors and researchers from my university that I knew where involved with marine mammal research. Eventually I found someone that was planning a harbour porpoise project! For this thesis I spent 3 months in Northern Norway. 2 months at the research location and 1 month near the university to work on my data.

Searching for porpoises in Norway - © Ronald Smit
Searching for porpoises in Norway – © Ronald Smit

From the Arctic to the Mediterranean Sea

Research in the Mediterranean Sea

In 2016, I followed my master’s internship at the CIMA Research Foundation in Savona, Italy. I believe I found my Internship through a mailing list called MARMAM. This is a very interesting mailing list where scientists post internships, jobs, and new publications related to marine mammals! There, I worked on a project that involved mapping the habitat use of commercial whale watch vessels and the potential risk these vessels might have on marine mammals in the north-western part of the Mediterranean Sea. I worked on data that was collected onboard whale watch boats and a research vessel. It was very nice to be able to help with this data collection and then work with the data I and the other interns had collected!

Back to the Netherlands

After my studies, I have been a volunteer for Stichting Rugvin (literally translated as dorsal fin Foundation). I found my volunteer position by browsing the internet and finding out they needed volunteers. Stichting Rugvin does Photo-ID research on the harbour porpoises in the Eastern Scheldt (Oosterschelde) in the Netherlands. This is a tidal estuary with a seemingly resident population of harbour porpoises. I have helped with the research by driving the research boat (RIB), by taking Photo-ID pictures, and by performing other general tasks. I also got my boat driving license to be able to do this. This was a very fun experience and I am still involved with the foundation.

My internships taught me so much. I learned a lot! Both my thesis project my internships were amazing experiences. Of course, living abroad is something that is exciting enough, but then also being able to work on the thing I love (whales) is even better! On top of that, I met a lot of new people! Of course, there were challenges as well. It can be scary to leave your country/state to live somewhere else, but it is also very rewarding! Doing a thesis and internship is also hard work. While I was lucky enough to quite a lot of fieldwork, I spent most of my time behind the computer working with data and writing my reports.

Ronald’s current job

In 2019 I worked as a whale watch guide in Reykjavík, Iceland. I guided whale watching tours, puffin, sea angling, and northern lights tours. During the whale watch tours, I informed the passengers about the characteristics, behavior, and ecology of the wildlife we encountered. I also informed the passengers about science, conservation, and environmental protection!

The obvious advantage of being a whale watch guide is that you are able to search for whales every day! Every day is different and is always exciting when you are leaving the harbor. It is also amazing to tell the guests about the wildlife that you see, and teaching them about nature conservation. But you will not see whales every trip, and some trips you will only see them shortly. This can be disappointing for the guests. And when the sea is rough you don’t want to get seasick! Be prepared to clean up afterward as well! So I recommend going on a few tours as a passenger before you apply for a job like this. I did this throughout the years on my holidays and my studies. If the trip was the best experience of your holiday (like it was for me) and you did not get seasick, then this might be something for you!

Future plans in Iceland or elsewhere…

I was planning to go to Iceland again this year (2020) but this might not be possible anymore (COVID-19). I will see what the future will hold after that. Maybe I will continue with whale watching for a bit longer, find an (ecology-related) job, or maybe even apply for a PhD if the right one comes along! If I am able to help with the protection of our planet in any shape or form, I am happy!

Ronald’s advices to futur whale scientists

If you are on this website and you are reading this text you most likely want to do something with whales. So you are orienting and educating yourself, that is already a good first step!

I can recommend doing volunteer work. Try to find an organization close to you (or not so close!) that is need of volunteers in the summer for instance. If you have done volunteering before even starting your studies, you are already one step ahead. Not only because of your skills and knowledge but also because of your starting network! I have done volunteer work after my studies. So this is, of course, possible as well.

Another thing that I can recommend is to go to conferences! This might sound a bit boring, but I can assure you that it is not! Going to a conference is an amazing experience where you can showcase your work, learn new things, and meet new people! I always leave these conferences very inspired! You can go to more international conferences such as the ECS (European Cetacean Society) or the SMM (Society for Marine Mammalogy) conferences, but you can also search for more local events (or both!).

Lastly, If you want to work on a whale-watching boat, or if you are interested in Photo-ID research, I can recommend you to look into (wildlife) photography. If you know how to work with a camera, you are another step ahead. If you don’t have any whales in your backyard (like most people) try to take pictures of birds, and try to identify them, this is a skill that you can easily transfer to whales!

We are super grateful for this first whale scientist story. If you would like to contact Ronald, you can find him on instagram :

Make sure to come read our other stories here.

2 thoughts on “Whale Scientists Story: Ronald Smit”

  1. What’s been your favorite moment while leading one of your tours? It looks like an amazing (albeit cold!) experience!

    1. That’s a difficult question! And it is impossible to choose one moment. But one moment that comes to mind is when we had a humpback whale breaching around 6 times very close to our boat! Another moment that I will not forget was on my birthday, when we had a killer whale visit the bay, and we were able to see it from our RIB! Probably the best birthday gift I could ask for!

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