I was born and raised in the North West Province of South Africa, in the tiny mining town of Orkney, about as far away from the sea as you can get. After completing Std 7 at Potchefstroom Girls High school (age 15) I left South Africa to attend school in the UK and completed my GCSE’s and A –Levels at Kelly College in Devon. From there I went on to Cardiff University to do a BSc in Zoology and after completing the first 2 years, embarked on a professional training year at the Centre for Dolphin Studies in Plettenberg Bay, under the supervision of Dr Vic Cockcroft. It was here that I started collecting photo-identification data on the South African inshore Bryde’s whale which was the catalyst for my passion and career in marine mammal research. After completing the final year of my Zoology degree (2005) I registered for a PhD with the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU), St Andrews University in Scotland, to continue with the Bryde’s whale research I began in 2003. After three years of fieldwork and 18 months of laboratory work and analysis in St Andrews I finally became Dr Penry in March 2010. I then worked with the Namibian Dolphin Project in Walvis Bay for 2 months before embarking on a 3 month voyage from Malta to Cape Town aboard a private Australian research vessel ‘RV WhaleSong’ where I was responsible for collecting observation data on pelagic birds and cetaceans.
In January 2012 I began a 2 yr post-doctoral position with the University of Pretoria’s Whale Unit, based in Cape Town. I expanded the Bryde’s whale research to include False Bay and East London in order to cover almost the entire known range for the inshore population. The analysis of the data collected during 2012 and 2013 is underway and will result in the first, range wide population estimate for this population in over 30 years.
Importance of the Bryde’s whale work:
The South African inshore Bryde’s whale population is resident in our coastal waters and is completely dependent on our small-pelagic fish (sardines and anchovies) for their food source. Very little is known about these mysterious animals, but due to the ever changing conditions of our marine environment, from natural and human induced causes, there is growing concern over their conservation status. It is estimated that there are only a few hundred individuals in this population and as the largest resident predator in our waters (and therefore a critical player in maintaining balance in the ecosystem) it is a conservation imperative that we understand their requirements and identify potential threats to their survival.
My fields of interest and expertise are in estimating the abundance of wild populations through mark recapture data, molecular techniques for determining phylogeny, species identification and genetic diversity within populations, and the environmental factors that drive the distribution and occurrence of marine mammals. I have also recently completed an Environmental Impact Assessment short course at Rhodes University for which I obtained a ‘highly competent’ score. My interests are expanding into the impacts of marine ecotourism on cetaceans and I have been working with local stakeholders and industry to implement mitigation measures to reduce negative impacts.
My other passion is as a keen, amateur birder. My knowledge of pelagic birds has developed over the many hours spent at sea in pursuit of whales and I organise occasional dedicated pelagic bird watching trips out of Plettenberg Bay. I’m a keen kayaker (never misses an opportunity to be on the water) and photographer and several of my photos have appeared in published books on the cetaceans and other marine life of Southern Africa.