Katie Jackson

Katie Jackson studies the endangered North Atlantic right whale.


Katie Jackson
Wildlife Research: Marine Mammals,
North Atlantic Right Whale Program
Jacksonville, FL

B.S., Zoology with a minor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida (2003)

I began working with marine mammals as an intern with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in southwest Florida. Our research at this field station focused on manatee rescue and carcass salvage, as well as photo-identification and tracking. After graduating college, I continued to volunteer and work seasonal positions until 2005, when I joined the FWC as a biologist with the North Atlantic right whale program. 

What are you working on now?
Currently, I coordinate right whale aerial surveys for FWRI. I also work on photo-identification of right whales, conduct vessel surveys for biopsy, necropsy large whales and assist with the disentanglement of large whales in the southeastern U.S.

How is this information beneficial?
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whales in the world. Portions of Florida and Georgia coastal waters are critical habitat and the primary calving area for the species. Vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading known causes of death for right whales. Even one unnatural death per year could have a significant effect on the population, so efforts to prevent human-caused mortality are a priority.

FWRI conducts aerial surveys to monitor seasonal presence of right whales, mitigate vessel-whale collisions, assess population dynamics and detect dead, entangled and injured whales. NOAA Fisheries coordinates an Early Warning System communication network designed to protect right whales from vessel collisions by notifying key agencies, ports and mariners via email or text message when and where right whales have been sighted. Photographs taken by aerial observers are used to identify individual right whales based on the callosity pattern (a natural growth of rough, cornified skin) on their heads, as well as other natural marks and human-related scars. Over time, photo-identification research, along with other techniques, helps us monitor right whale population demographics, reproductive success, mortality (deaths) and health trends. FWRI is one of a handful of major contributors to the North Atlantic Right Whale Identification Database – the central repository for archiving and maintaining right whale photographs and sighting data.

Data on whale distribution, habitat preferences, environmental conditions and vessel traffic provide a framework for quantifying the risk to right whales, informing conservation managers and evaluating the effectiveness of proposed management plans.

What is your typical work day like?
During the winter calving season (Nov. 15 to April 15), I start each day by evaluating the weather to decide if conditions are acceptable for field work. Our aerial surveys are conducted any day the winds and wave height are low enough to reliably detect whales. If survey conditions are met, we ready a survey team. We don a flight suit and life jacket; grab camera equipment, a tablet computer and a satellite phone; and head to the airport to get into our mobile office for the day, a Cessna 337 Skymaster. From this point, we may also decide to launch our 22-foot rigid hull inflatable boat for a vessel survey. On the water, our primary mission is photo-identification and biopsy sampling (tissue collection for genetic analysis).

Back at the office we track the locations of the field efforts and facilitate communication between teams for safety purposes. We receive whale sighting information from the survey aircraft and send whale alerts to our collaborators through the Early Warning System. If an injured or entangled whale is sighted, we respond to document and assess the entanglement and any associated injuries, and intervene if needed. We coordinate the recovery of dead whales for a necropsy (autopsy) following documentation at sea. Once field activities are complete for the day, we clean and stow our field equipment; process and back-up our survey data; and begin photo-identification and analysis.

We share information about whales we identify and sample with our research partners in Georgia, NOAA Fisheries and volunteer sighting networks based in Florida. When the field season is over and the whales have returned to their feeding areas in Canada and the northeastern U.S., we complete our data analyses, prepare summary reports of the season’s activities and findings, and start to prepare for the whales’ return to Florida the following winter.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?
Our right whale project is a team effort, both within FWRI and with our external partners. I don’t have a specific accomplishment to highlight, but one of the greatest moments of my career was being named FWRI’s Cooperative Science Award winner in 2011. I am still inspired by the kind words of the people who I have worked with over several years.

What are some of your biggest challenges?
Right whales – a migratory, international and critically endangered species – live just a portion of their lives in our backyard. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about right whale habitat use and their chances for long-term survival. Collaboration between researchers and managers all along the western North Atlantic is key for developing strategies to gain the most knowledge with available and often limited resources.

What do you like most about your career?
Each day has the potential for a new discovery, whether it is a newborn calf, a genetic sample from a rarely sighted individual whale or a database revision. The answers we find often lead to more questions.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?
If you asked my parents they would probably say yes, but I didn’t know this would be my path. Growing up, I loved the water, dirt, drawing, math and all kinds of animals, so in hindsight it all makes sense to me now. After briefly studying interior design in college, I took a wide range of courses and found my greatest interest was in the sciences, specifically ecology.                                               

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?
Honestly, I have no idea! I can’t imagine my life without science.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Internships and volunteering are essential to learning the basics of this career field. You should take opportunities as they come, remain open-minded and absorb as much information as you can from each one. Always be helpful, work hard and ask a lot of questions. Through this process you will discover where your greatest interests lie.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoy learning about the native habitats and animals around me. For the past few summers I have been volunteering with the statewide sea turtle monitoring program. I have a soft spot for gopher tortoises from previous work experience and look for them everywhere. I have also taken an interest in local farming and efforts to reduce single-use plastic waste, which makes for fun trips to the grocery store and restaurants!

FWC Facts:
Freshwater fish have a series of sensory pores called the lateral line that detect movement and vibration in the water, which helps with predatory and schooling behavior.

Learn More at AskFWC