First respondent for marine mammals

Even as a child, Tonya Wimmer heard her mother say that her daughter would make a career out of whales. From an early age, she was immensely fascinated and curious about marine mammals. Tonya still remembers the time she saw her first cetacean: a bit ironically for a Nova Scotia native, it was a dolphin swimming playfully on the other side of the glass wall in an aquarium.

Getting started in research

The dolphin in the aquarium moved her, but it was her first whales observed in the wild that would mark her career. After studying marine biology at Dalhousie University, Tonya Wimmer was discouraged about the prospects of eventually making a living working with marine mammals. It was at that time that a friend told her that Hal Whitehead was looking for a research assistant for a project on pilot whales. From there, everything started falling into place!

Through this job and her graduate degree studying whales off Nova Scotia, she built a network of cetacean enthusiasts and initiated her first post-graduate foray into conservation with the World Wildlife Fund-Canada (WWF) as their species conservation manager. With the WWF, Tonya Wimmer studied the impact of bycatch on cetaceans, including the North Atlantic right whales, as well as sharks and other large marine species.

Strandings and rescues

During her time as an undergraduate student, Tonya founded the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), which works to protect marine animals in the Maritime Provinces. MARS does this primarily via responding to incidents of dead and distressed marine animals, identifying threats and working with others to implement effective conservation measures.  MARS aimed to fill a void in the Maritimes, where there was no system in place in the event of dead or distressed marine animal incidents. In 2018, MARS is a fully functional network run by a small team of three enthusiasts which includes an educational component and response training program. Since 2007, they’ve been working collaboratively with a wider network of organizations and partners to respond to all types of marine animal incidents throughout the Maritimes – the Maritime Marine Animal Response Network. MARS coordinates these efforts and operates the toll-free incident reporting hotline.

For the Nova Scotian native, it is extremely important to use the knowledge gained from MARS research and experiences in the field to provide a better future for marine mammals. In fact, if one had to sum up her career in a few words, Tonya Wimmer could be described as a biologist striving to give a voice to marine mammals, a voice that often goes unheard amidst the roar of ships and waves.