Tammy Silva: Nothing Stops Women from Conquering the Ocean


What noise does a dolphin make? Marine biologist Tammy Silva has built her budding scientific career around this question.

When she’s not teaching ballet to her students or playing with her Husky-Golden Retriever mix, Tobey, she’s climbing aboard sea vessels, tracking and analyzing the trills and whistles of the majestic toothed whales of Massachusetts Bay. To this scientist, the high-pitched squeals, rattles and clicks of ocean-dwellers aren’t an annoyance; it’s music to her ears.

The goal of Silva’s research, which comprises her PhD project at the University of Massachusetts, is to uncover the precise ways dolphins and whales interact in the bay, and how they are impacted by human activities.

"Why should we care about dolphins? They are important to the environment because they are good natural indicators of the environment health. Ultimately the way that we impact dolphins will eventually come back to affect humans," Silva says. "Also, they are top predators on the food chain and probably have a significant influence on our ocean food webs and ecosystems because they eat several species of fish and squid." 

Ever since she was a child, Silva has had a passion for protecting animals and their surrounding environment. Throughout her undergraduate studies, she volunteered for six years at the Buttonwood Park Zoo, a decision which she says “jump-started a deep interest and journey into conservation.”

From boomboxes in ballet class to the chatter of monkeys at the zoo, Silva is constantly thinking of sound as content to dissect and study. For decades, researchers have long presumed that ocean noise doesn’t impact toothed whales because they vocalize at a much higher pitch. However, Silva’s recordings demonstrate, perhaps, that the scientists who have gone before her weren’t listening hard enough. 

“There’s significant ship noise in the same range that dolphins communicate, which could directly affect their ability to communicate.” she says. “By constructing quieter ships and closing off certain areas to activities like shipping, drilling and sonar use, we can keep human interference to a minimum and protect the habitat of these animals.”

By now, the 30-year-old Massachusetts native is accustomed to disrupting the norm and exploring uncharted territory. Not only is her work groundbreaking, but she’s leading the path in a field predominantly run by men. Drawing inspiration from her mother, who she claims as her most influential mentor, Silva says, “As women, we can be scientists and engineers. We can go out to sea and build stuff, use technology, write code and we deserve to be just as respected—and well-paid—as men.”

Working as a marine biologist, Silva occupies a unique space between an incredibly active life on the sea, and hours of solitude behind her computer screen. For the past nine months, she has traded ocean waves for sound waves to work on her research using her ThinkPad machine, which she explains has the robust processing power and functionality to analyze bioacoustics.

“Assessing the vocal behavior of the animals requires unique software, such as Raven Pro and MATLAB,” she says. “This is where my trusty Thinkpad comes into play—so far, it’s been great at meeting all my research needs.” From generating complex graphs to editing massive audio files, Silva’s ThinkPad makes her research easy so she can focus on the tones in the tide—instead of technical issues.

Even though she loves the nitty-gritty details of audio analysis, it’s not long before she gets the itch to get back on the ship, or take Tobey on a seaside run along the water. And of course, she’s always on the lookout for interesting stories to tell her students in ballet class. “They’ve invented ‘Whale Fact Wednesday,’ where I have to teach them something new each week,” laughs Silva.

“Maybe there’s a future marine biologist in the class? Who knows?” Juggling the whistles of dolphins, the toe-tapping tunes of dance and the bustle of daily life is a lot of noise for any one person to handle, but Silva has shown she’s a master DJ when it comes to getting the mix just right.

“My mother always told me when I was young that I could do anything I put my mind to, and she lived as an example of that everyday,” she says. “My larger goal in life is to reach people and share messages about the importance of conservation.Scientists can collect data and write papers, but it only matters if we get the message out to people and make it important to them.”