The Making of a Marine Naturalist: Meet Sarah Bonneson

A few weeks ago we introduced you to one of our Marine Naturalists at Pacific Whale Foundation, Erin Hord. We’re back again and excited to introduce you to another crew member, the charismatic Sarah Bonneson. Let’s dive deeper into her passion for the ocean, and find out what brought her on this journey towards working with our team in research, education, and conservation. Make sure to stay tuned for our next crew interview!


Hey Sarah! Where did you originally call home? 

I’m originally from a small town in Southern Maine. Growing up so close to the ocean and being immersed in Maine’s rugged beauty no doubt helped form my immense passion for the environment.

What about the ocean most captivates you?

The ocean is liquid outer-space. It is home to some of the most bizarre organisms on the planet and caters to some of the most mind-boggling adaptations of life. I love the mystery that the ocean holds and the endless questions that it prods from us.

What do you enjoy most about working for Pacific Whale Foundation?

I love the platform PWF creates to reach people and tug on their heart strings. For many of us, being able to connect a feeling with an experience can be life changing and I think that is the ultimate goal of Pacific Whale Foundation: to enact change through education and use our trips as an avenue to empower our passengers to be advocates for the ocean.

What experiences and education were most influential on your path to becoming a Marine Naturalist?

I went on my first whale watch out of Plymouth, Massachusetts and completely fell in love with humpback whales as one swam under the boat, showing its colossal size paired with an elegance and awareness that cemented my ties with the ocean indefinitely. From that moment on I was hooked.

What does the world need to know about conservation?

You do not have to be a scientist to make a difference. It can be as simple as eliminating one plastic item off of your shopping list, remembering to bring your reusable bags or forgoing that plastic straw at the bar. You will soon find that these small changes begin to bleed into your everyday decisions and now you are creating a ripple effect. Your friends, family, your children see you taking the extra time to be environmentally conscious and it will empower them to do the same. Start today, let your actions speak volumes for the ocean!

What is your favorite humpback whale behaviour to see and interpret for guests on board a whalewatch?

This is a hard one. I have to say one of my all time favorites would have to be an Inverted Pectoral Slap. A repetitive behavior thought to be used for communication. The whale looks like its “lollygagging” at the ocean’s surface and doing the backstroke. Honestly though, I really love when I see a whale doing a behavior that I have no idea how to interpret. I think it humbles my whale watches and reminds me of how little we truly know about these magnificent creatures and how much more we have to learn.

Why do you feel whalewatching is an amazing way to connect people with the marine environment?

I think connecting a powerful emotion with an experience is what brings about change and this is exactly what these gentle giants are best at. Most of the time on whale watches the whales speak for themselves, creating an intimate connection with every person onboard. Being able to view these animals for yourself and see them leap out of the water, take an interest in the boat or just enjoying their natural habitat is incredibly moving.

How do you stay motivated while working in the field of marine biology and conservation?

Most of my favorite memories are connected to the ocean in some way or form. Its taught me a lot about patience, trust and respect. From meeting eyes with a humpback whale to flying with manta rays or just bobbing with turtles, these animals have been some of the most wonderful hosts I have ever met as they share with me their world. I want everyone to have these connections as it becomes so incredibly paramount that we must protect their home and in turn our own.

And lastly…what is your oceanic spirit animal?

I think I would want to combine a few different ocean animals but I’ll go with an octopus. I am by no means as intelligent as these underwater aliens but their ability to make the best of whatever backdrop they are given and learn from their surroundings reminds me of my own nomadic lifestyle.


There you have it! Sarah brings an incredible energy to the team and to each and every one of her whalewatches; it’s a true delight to have her onboard Ocean Defender as a Marine Naturalist. Come visit us in Hervey Bay and experience the powerful message of ocean conservation and whale research that Sarah shares every day.

Stay tuned for our next interview!

The Making of a Marine Naturalist: Meet Erin Hord

Our Marine Naturalists at Pacific Whale Foundation are so much more than boat crew. Each member of our marine education team has a unique background and brings a variety of knowledge and experiences. We love highlighting the uniqueness that each of our Naturalists brings to the boat, and diving deeper into their passion for the ocean. We’ll be highlighting a new crew member each month. As our whalewatching season continues in full swing here in Hervey Bay, we’re thrilled to introduce Erin Hord.


Hi Erin! Whereabouts are you from? 

I was born in Miami, Florida, but I have lived the majority of my life thus far in Madison, Ohio.

What is your first memory of the ocean?

I think my first vivid memory of the ocean was when I was 8 years old and the ocean was flooding the street outside my family’s apartment building because of a tropical storm. That obviously didn’t deter me from ending up in a Marine Biology career though!

What drew you to work for Pacific Whale Foundation?

I was drawn to work for Pacific Whale Foundation because I absolutely love watching
whales in their natural habitat and working to protect the oceans they dwell in.

What experiences and education prepared you for your journey to becoming a Marine Naturalist?

I went to a small liberal arts college where the opportunities to get involved in my future career were endless. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Marine Science, and I was able to study at the Duke University Marine Lab and have immersive marine science courses in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix. I think the experience that helped most with my journey to becoming a Marine Naturalist was my summer internship with the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, based in New Hampshire. I was an education and research intern aboard whale watch vessels, which really helped ignite my passion for marine mammal conservation.

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Are Swim-With-Whale Operations Ethical? PWF Strives to Learn More

Swim-with-whales tours are becoming more and more popular around the world as travelers become increasingly interested in ecotourism and engagement with nature and wildlife. But, with more and more visitors jumping into the backyard of these vulnerable marine mammals, how can we keep track of the effects on their well being? We can’t manage an operation properly if we don’t understand its effects.

So, are swim-with-whales operations ethical? It’s not an easy question. The challenge is that, as interest and demand for these activities grows exponentially, scientific research simply cannot keep up; it takes time, patience, and careful precision to collect reliable data.

Yes, ecotourism is an alternative to the overuse of natural resources. It can also bring money into poor countries that are rich in biodiversity but have little else to offer in terms of world trade. These swim-with-humpback-whale operations are up and running in places such as Tonga, the Dominican Republic, Tahiti, Norway, Western Australia, and the Fraser Coast in Queensland, Australia. But as hard as the governments of these countries might work to ensure that the operations are ecologically viable, many projects are unaudited and not subject to stringent regulations. Pacific Whale Foundation is interested in finding out more about this tourist offering, specifically in Hervey Bay. In 2014, the Queensland government authorized commercial operators to begin immersive “swim-with-whales” tours with the vulnerable humpback whale, and we want to learn more.

Photo taken August 3, 2018 from Pacific Whale Foundation’s Swim-With-Whales Impact Study. This humpback whale approached the passengers and swam around them a few times.

Our research team has developed an impact study with three objectives:  (1) to better understand if humpback whales change their behaviour due to in-water interactions with humans, (2) to identify factors which may influence behaviour change, and (3) to provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism.

We believe that wherever possible, baseline research into natural behaviour patterns should be carried out before tourism activities are undertaken. This is also a very unique opportunity for the public to get involved with our research, as we allow a limited number of passengers to enter the water as part of our research. Are you interested in being in the water alongside a humpback whale, or learning more about the study? Please visit us here.

We’re excited as we embark on this new adventure, which will have significant implications for humpback whales in Hervey Bay and around the world. Come and join us!

The Dangerous Truth of the Modern Seafood Industry

The ocean may seem like an endless resource; vast, mysterious and without limit. Throughout history, the ocean has provided humankind with massive amounts of fish and other marine creatures to consume, yet the health and biodiversity of our oceans are rapidly declining worldwide. Fortunately there is plenty we can do to help if we take responsibility and make ourselves aware of this issue.

The threats to our seas are often kept out of the public eye for the sake of economic profit, with many large corporations in the seafood industry adopting the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Overfishing, lack of effective management, and human consumption habits are all factors causing a rapid decline in wild fish populations. These aren’t just theories or speculation, either; there is plentiful evidence for the decline of many species of fish. Atlantic populations of halibut and yellowtail flounder are at all-time lows. The reproduction rate of Pacific bluefin tuna is at only four percent of its original size. Up to ninety percent of the world’s fisheries are overexploited, fully exploited, or collapsed.

The fishing industry doesn’t just affect the target fish species. With the use of most types of modern fishing gear, unwanted bycatch and habitat damage are of growing concern. The gear is large, covers extensive area, and is highly unselective – meaning it catches (and often kills) many more animals than just the target species. This bycatch can include sharks, sea turtles, porpoises, dolphins, and even whales.

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Ocean Play, the Sustainable Way – the Importance of Using Reef-Safe Sunscreen

The chance to explore the warm, bright blue waters and vibrant coral reefs of Maui is one of the biggest draws for visitors to our island paradise. It’s nothing short of magical to watch colorful reef fish dart amongst the coral heads beneath you while graceful, lumbering green sea turtles meander slowly up from the sea floor to take their gulps of air. When you’re lucky enough to be frolicking in the ocean here, whether you’re snorkeling, diving, surfing, beach-combing, swimming, paddle-boarding, kayaking, or simply floating on your back and watching the world go by, you’re in one of the most relaxing places on Earth. We get so much from the ocean – shouldn’t it be part of our job to make sure we’re taking care of her in return?

Sunscreen, one of the first toiletries many think to pack when traveling to an island, has become a big topic of concern out here in this popular vacation spot. Naturally, sun protection is an important part of taking care of our skin, but many don’t consider that there are plenty more options apart from the typical creams, sprays, and lotions that line the shelves at convenience stores. Did you know that certain ingredients in many of the most common sunscreen brands are actually killing our coral reefs? It’s easy to forget about the products we’re slathering on our bodies when we’re excited to jump in and explore these beautiful underwater places. But oxybenzone and octinoxate are two common active ingredients in sunscreen that can dramatically harm the tiny animals that make up our fragile coral reef ecosystems. Researches are finding that these chemicals can cause coral viruses, which in turn can cause bleaching and polyp death. They’ve even been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of larger marine creatures, like shrimps and clams.

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Whale Tales – Stories from Across the Sea by a PWF Naturalist

Maui is certainly one of the most spectacular places in the world to watch humpback whales in their breeding grounds. But when those of us in Hawaii bid these animals aloha in the spring as they journey north to their feeding grounds, a few PWF naturalists follow suit and head to other parts of the world to experience a summer whale season and the different types of wildlife, and behaviors, that entails. May through September is the prime time to watch humpbacks and other migratory whales in their feeding grounds up north – Alaska and the upper coastlines of the west and eastern U.S. are a few of our favorite options.

Many of our amazing naturalists stay in Maui year round (it is, after all, hard to find a reason to leave); there’s so much to see and do during the summer in Maui, and Pacific Whale Foundation’s snorkel and dolphin watch cruises offer visitors an exciting chance to see many beautiful marine creatures that call Maui home besides our winter whale visitors. Others of us take this time to journey abroad, or across the U.S., for different eco-tourism jobs and have ended up in Massachusetts, or Alaska, or California, or Washington. In this post, I want to highlight my summer experiences away from Maui, and in future posts I plan to talk with other naturalists who have also moved away to work in the conservation field.

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