Dr Nick Gales—the life aquatic

Dr Nick Gale

Photo: Chris Crerar

In the case of Australian Antarctic Division director Dr Nick Gales, a degree in veterinary science—coupled with a research interest in marine mammals—has led to a varied and exciting career. By Adam Morton

Nick Gales was six months away from finishing his veterinary science degree when a passing conversation changed his life.

A lecturer at Western Australia’s Murdoch University, where Dr Gales was studying, discovered his pupil had a fascination with marine mammals. This wasn’t something that was heard every day; as with most veterinary courses, the focus at Murdoch was on domestic and agricultural animals. The revelation sent the lecturer, Bob Wyburn, rushing to his office rubbish bin.

“He said, ‘Oh, we had a phone call from someone looking for a marine mammal vet the other day’, dug out a piece of paper from the waste paper basket and gave me the name and a phone number of a Japanese chap, Ishi Umahara,” Dr Gales recalls from his office at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) in Hobart’s southern suburbs.

Dr Nick Gales

Dr Gales anaesthetises a crabeater seal in Antarctica.

“I rang up and found out there was a company wanting to build a large aquarium at Yanchep, just north of Perth, and they wanted to have marine mammals—dolphins and seals and sea lions—and they hadn’t found any vets with marine mammal experience.”

The idea was to capture the mammals, along with fish and other marine life, along the Western Australian coast and showcase them to the public. Being 1980, ethical concerns about capturing animals in the wild were yet to cross into the mainstream. Dr Gales was hooked by the idea of caring for bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and green turtles, among others. He ditched early-stage plans to volunteer overseas, or get a pilot licence and work on cattle stations in the Kimberley.

“Those were the two alternate pathways for me and then this one came along and it was like, ‘Right, this is what I want to do’,” he says. “I was incredibly lucky that this place was about to start when I was graduating, but I also certainly worked really hard for them to give me the opportunity for the job. I pushed them and lobbied really hard, and they gave me a go.” It is a mindset that set Dr Gales on a remarkable path that has seen him spend seven years chasing sea lions along the Australian coast compiling a PhD, sign on for a year researching in Antarctica, play a key role in reducing seal fatalities at New Zealand squid fisheries, give evidence on behalf of his country at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and, in his current role, take responsibility for Australia’s programs on the frozen continent.

Back when he began university, Dr Gales was torn between two degrees: veterinary science and marine biology. As the son of a British army officer, he had spent most of his childhood moving around South-East Asia before arriving in Perth midway through high school. Growing up in a warm climate meant swimming, diving and snorkelling; it led to a love of marine mammals that has stayed with him throughout his life. But the marine biology course at Murdoch University was less developed than that of vet science, and he didn’t want to cross the country to study at James Cook University in Townsville, renowned as the best place to learn the former. Vet science it was.

While his career has since progressed through research into science-based policy and management, he says his vet’s training was important in laying the foundation for what followed.

“I’m not much of a looking backwards or looking forwards sort of person. I try and just get absorbed in doing what I’m doing at the time.”

“The great thing about a veterinary degree is it’s a really broad degree,” he says. “Veterinary science has to, by its nature, teach you such a range of difference types of practice, from small animal to large animal practice. You have got to learn physiology across multiple different species and in multiple scenarios. You’re learning everything from pathology through epidemiology—how diseases spread—through to how a healthy system in a body functions. It was a base for both a PhD, which was much more a deep dive into a very specific area of science, and everything that came after it.”

Dr Gales’ first job out was a success. Over four years at the aquarium there were no mortalities and the young mature mammals he captured began reproducing in captivity. He rose to became assistant manager of the park, but gradually realised he was more interested in free-ranging animals and research than caring for those in captivity. When a position came up at the AAD that involved a year at the Davis Station and another writing up his research in Hobart, he leapt at the chance.

Dr Nick Gales

Dr Gales and colleagues monitor a fur seal on Heard Island in 2003.

His project involved looking at the physiology of blubber in elephant seals, something that was only possible if they were asleep. “Very few people had anaesthetised elephant seals but being a veterinarian I had a background in physiology and anatomy, I had sufficient maths and I could learn about anaesthetics,” Dr Gales says.

The winter spent in Antarctica, including a stint on barren, volcanic Heard Island, was educational and formative. Reunited with his wife, Taff, who travelled north overseas while he headed south, Dr Gales decided to return to study. “I knew, having had my time with the division and published various papers on the backend of that, that if I wanted to continue in a research career I had to do a PhD,” he says.

Meanwhile, the marine park that gave him his first break wanted him back. He wasn’t overly interested, but its management was desperate after a few failed appointments and made an offer to support his return to academia—so much so that he was told he could write his own contract. It was too good an offer to refuse, so Dr Gales and his wife moved back to Perth. He worked at the aquarium part-time while investigating in depth the reproductive cycle of the Australian sea lion, a project that required island hopping from the WA mid-coast to the South Australian-Victorian border.

Not everything went perfectly. The marine park ran out of money and was to be closed, but this offered Dr Gales another challenge: how to reintroduce the animals the park had collected into the wild? It meant visiting overseas parks that had attempted the same and drawing up a two-year map to release about 15 sea lions and 11 dolphins.

Once his responsibilities in WA were dealt with, he accepted a new challenge in the New Zealand capital of Wellington, again working with sea lions, which were dying in large numbers in fishing nets, causing significant public outcry. But he had also bought a yacht, so a compromise was reached: he took a four-month break to get there, sailing around Australia’s top end with his young family, which had expanded to include then five-year-old Jemma and new arrival Jeremy, who was barely three weeks old when they left.

On arrival, the family lived on the yacht in Wellington Harbour while Dr Gales assumed the role of government scientist charged with diagnosing what was killing the seals and dealing with both the industry and environmentalists to find a solution. The result was the introduction of the first limits on how the industry dealt with sea lions.

“That was really the leap into management and policy. It was a highly acrimonious political issue in New Zealand. It was exciting and I learnt so much,” he says.

“The great thing about a veterinary degree is it’s a really broad degree. Veterinary science has to teach you such a range of difference types of practice, from small animal to large animal practice. You have to learn physiology across multiple different species and in multiple scenarios. You’re learning everything from pathology through epidemiology … through to how a healthy system in a body functions.”

Four years in New Zealand were followed by four more back in Western Australia with the then Department of Conservation and Land Management developing a marine mammal science program before a life-changing opportunity arose to return to the Southern Ocean to conduct an independent assessment of the health ramifications of hot iron branding elephant seals on Macquarie Island. The program was cancelled based on his advice.

It was the start of what has extended to a 17-year and counting career with the Australian Antarctic Division. In that time, Dr Gales has served as principal research scientist and been promoted to chief scientist of both the division and the federal Environment Department. His expanded responsibilities broadened from mammals to include Antarctic climate, marine ecosystems and terrestrial science.

One of the key jobs in his evolving role was driving Australia’s work in the International Whaling Commission. He helped develop the scientific model that underpins the commission’s decisions, and played a central part in arguments over the future of commercial whaling. It culminated with his being an expert witness in Australia’s successful case against Japan in the International Court of Justice.

Dr Nick Gales

Drs Gales and Rochelle Constantine during a break from tagging humpback whales in the Southern Ocean in 2009.

Dr Gales says it was a rare opportunity to be part of the first fully independent review of so-called “scientific whaling”. While the work and win in The Hague were hugely satisfying, the ultimate outcome—Japan no longer recognising the court in marine areas that cover whaling and its program continuing in altered form—remains an ongoing frustration.

Dr Gales was appointed head of the AAD in August 2015. Though the role’s challenges—including overseeing the building of a $1.9 billion icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, in Romania for a 2020 delivery to Hobart—differ vastly from those of his first job, he says the changes through his career have always felt like a natural progression.

“I’m not much of a looking backwards or looking forwards sort of person. I try and get absorbed in doing what I’m doing at the time. I’ve been lucky that as director I know the doing side of our business, having spent time at sea on marine voyages.

“I’ve had to learn so much about procurement of massive expensive assets, but working with all the wonderful people we have doing that work has been a great challenge. Probably the Antarctic division is going through as big a change as it has ever been through at the moment with this new ship, modernising our aviation, looking at engaging more with the private sector—there is cultural change driven through the whole place—so it’s a really exciting time to be director.”

Away from work, Dr Gales prefers a quiet life, though one still connected to the ocean. He and Taff live on Bruny Island, off Tasmania’s south-east coast. He travels to work each day by ferry.

“While my career path has been mine and is unique because that’s where I’ve gone, I bump into people all over the place in roles that have nothing to do with vet science but who also started life as a vet,” he says. “It is very clear a veterinary degree is a springboard that does take people into many, many different areas.”

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