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Meet Sara Davis, Protected Species Observer, RPS

From Emergency Medical Technician to protecting the oceans

Sara Davis is a Protected Species Observer (PSO) and PAM operator* with RPS. Read about her career path, amazing animal experiences and more below.

*What's a PSO? Find out more here

 

10 June 2022 | 2 min read
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How did you become a PSO?

I actually didn't study marine biology. I grew up in Big Bear, California, a small ski resort town in the mountains, but I spent a lot of time on sailboats. I always wanted to be a marine biologist, but decided to go into the medical field. I was a certified EMT, but realized I couldn't handle anything bad happening to children. I moved on into other ventures before a very close friend (a PSO) really pushed me to get into this industry. I did, and I've never looked back.

Once you got started, what was your first impression of the work?

It was really just second nature. I loved it. In the Gulf of Mexico, I was standing outside and it was absolutely breathtaking. A full moon on the water and no light pollution. You can see all of the stars. It's quiet except for the sound of the boat. My captain comes out and he says, “What do you think?”

I say, “I don't think I could ever do anything else again. I don't think I could be in an office or on land.”

And he says, “Yep, once it's in your blood, it's there. You're never going to walk away.” 14 years later, I’m still here.

PSOs do BOSIET (Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training) and similar courses. What was yours like?

My very first HUET (Helicopter Underwater Egress/Escape Training) was back in 2008. This was before we had helicopter fuselages that we could get into. It was literally this PVC pipe chair thing that you sat in, they flipped you backwards and you had to find this [escape] hole that they had made in a PVC pipe. It was not where we're at now!

We also had to jump off a five-meter platform into the water. You realize some people are more scared of the water than others.

I would highly suggest not doing your training in Louisiana in the middle of summer because you sweat profusely - it's horrible!

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I had a police officer ask me what I do one day and he says, “That's one of those mythical jobs.” I was like, “What do you mean?” He says, “It's up there with astronaut. You don't meet people that are working marine biologists!”

Do you get seasick?

People get seasick, but it presents in different ways. Now I just get a headache, but I was on board for a week in winter in the Gulf of Mexico and I got seasick on a break. We were on ancillary watch because we were down for weather. I threw my water bottle across the bridge into the trash, bolted out the bridge wing and started leaning over the side. And my captain says, “I was gonna take pictures of you in that moment because it's hilarious! My poor PSO’s puking.” But then I realized every one of us has had that experience! Every one of us didn’t want to have pictures! And I don't think I've ever gotten sick again. (Other than small boats. Small boats and I are not friends!)

The next time I was cage diving with Galapagos sharks. I just got back in the cage and it was fine. It was very, very difficult not to reach out and touch the sharks, but it was an awesome experience.

What's the craziest or coolest thing you've seen offshore?

The craziest weather was watching lightning strike less than 10 feet from the boat and what it does to the water. There were multiple water spouts – including one that on land would probably be an EF3. It was huge. And yelling on the radio at our chase boat, which had our poor FLO [Fisheries Liaison Officer] over there, to get away from it because they were too close.

I've seen so many animals. My very first experience was seeing a blue whale. It was probably five or six kilometers away, but because of the blow, there was no way you could misidentify what it was.

The next one I saw was off the West Coast of New Zealand. He was lunge feeding and we watched him for a couple of hours. The closest he got was probably about 700 meters away. People onshore only ever see pictures or videos, so you never get the real perspective of how large these animals really are. He was just massive. It was surreal. We were on a scientific survey, not for an energy project, with a local Maori PSO on board. She was sitting there in shock because they thought these whales were only on the East Coast. After it lunged, its tail came up sideways and she got this beautiful picture of it.

I’ve watched seals and tiny little penguins in New Zealand, and I worked in Canada for a summer; there was an unbelievable amount of wildlife. The expectation was maybe 100 [wildlife] detections for the five boats with an environmental team on them; we ended up having over 500 detections per boat. There were six or seven different Mysticetes, killer whales, northern bottlenose whales, a lot of Mola molas. We even saw a turtle up there. (That shouldn't have been there, but we did.)

What do you love most about the job?

I love the travel, the environment and working with many cultures, learning new things about countries that as an average American, you would never know.

In the beginning, I said I never wanted to work in the North Sea cause it's crazy weather and super rough. I didn't want to work in the Bering Sea or go to West Africa. Now I've worked in the North Sea, I've worked in West Africa a lot, haven't made it to the Bering Sea yet, but I’ll get up there eventually!

It's very refreshing that industry is starting to catch up with the environmental side of trying to protect our oceans. I appreciate that because when I started, they weren't as concerned as they are now.

What do you feel is your biggest impact on the planet?

It's educating people, like when the subject comes up of what I do for a living. I had a police officer ask me one day and he says, “That's one of those mythical jobs.” I was like, “What do you mean?” He says, “It's up there with astronaut. You don't meet people that are working marine biologists!”

Any tips for people who want to become PSOs?

I highly encourage you to have some sort of experience working offshore. [Editor: This is a huge plus before becoming a PSO. It helps to know whether the lifestyle is something you love before you commit.]

Be open-minded to other people’s beliefs. Working with a lot of folks around the world, everybody has different views, whether political, religious or their take on the environment. Listen and understand that everybody can come together to try and fix what we've broken as a human race.

Have thick skin. Don’t close yourself off because someone has a different view or culture to the one you were brought up in. People are going to say things that are probably going to bother you; I've had that over the years and it doesn't make them a bad person and it doesn't need to cause conflict offshore.

Be very open to travel and taking in everything around you. Yeah, I think that’s about it!

Sara's tips for protecting the ocean

There are lots of small changes we can all make to be more environmentally responsible. Here are some of the behaviors Sara, as a marine biologist, wishes more people knew.

She says, “One person might not be able to make a massive impact alone, but in the long run, all of the little things you can do are going to help everyone!”

Balloons

Please never release a balloon into the air. I can't tell you how many thousands of balloons I've seen released that end up in the ocean to cause damage there.

Drinks

Let's stay away from plastic straws! If you get a six-pack of soda, please cut up the plastic rings because they could end up round a gull’s neck or a baby turtle.

Injured animals

If you see a wild animal that's hurt, it’s often best to leave it alone. It may not really need help – read more about what to do here and call the proper people instead.

Be mindful

Pay attention to your everyday activities. For example, if you're changing the oil in your car, make sure you don't spill it. That oil could end up in the water table or the environment.

Educate other people

Increasingly, people understand the environment and that we need to protect it. However, there can still be misunderstandings or gaps we can educate people on.

Here’s an example. The PSO team are degreed biologists who support the offshore energy industries, monitoring protected species during sound-producing surveys conducted offshore. Some people will point out that dolphins play in the acoustic array, so how is that harmful? The thing is, you might go to a rock concert and stand in front of the speakers too. You're enjoying yourself and having a great time, but afterwards you can't hear very well. Dolphins are intelligent creatures and this is a loud noise that they’re seeking out to try and figure out what it is. They're investigating. The bubbles are entertaining to them, but it's still causing damage. To protect these animals and the environment, we need to educate others about how to do their part.