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Meet Joe O'Callaghan


Oceanographer at NIWA.

Job description: 

The range of projects I have worked on is broad. Sometimes, this has been on fish farms in Marlborough Sounds, tailrace flows from the Manapouri hydro-electric power station in Doubtful Sound or continental shelf dynamics on the West Coast, South Island. I have led numerous observational campaigns around NZ, on small coastal vessels through to NIWA’s RV Tangaroa. I use observational data to better understand regions of the ocean where people work and play.

Work background: 

After completing my doctoral studies in Australia, I spent several years teaching marine science at the University of Auckland. I moved to Wellington to focus on research at NIWA and have been here for a while now. 

Favourite part of job: 

I spend time trying to understand what all the observations I've collected mean. I do this by testing whether the observations match theories about ocean dynamics. Sometimes this happens, but since many processes interact its usually more complicated than a single theory. It's unpicking these puzzles that I really enjoy.

Least favourite part of job: 

Admin and getting seasick.

What I am working on now: 

Underwater gliders are the latest observational tool I am working with now. Underwater gliders are autonomous robots that map ocean stratification (layers of temperature and salinity)  below the surface of the ocean. These ocean robots collect data in the ocean for 4 weeks, at better resolution than ever before, and in any weather. This means I don’t have to get seasick to get data!

A quick story about a job well done: 

Sea-going voyages on Tangaroa require lots of planning and preparation before the ship leaves port for month-long voyages. But the ocean is a harsh environment and even with the best planning, instruments sometimes don’t work. On a voyage I was leading off Auckland an instrument from the Otago team would not work no matter what was tried. As there are no shops to go to fix gear we brainstorm and use what’s on the ship. I came up with an unusual solution which meant that the trace metals team could keep sampling which they were happy with and I was pleased my problem-solving worked!


I studied Maths and Physics at school. I completed a BSc at Flinders University in Adelaide, and Honours degree at James Cook University where I got to spend 6 weeks doing field work in New Caledonia. I did my PhD in Perth. 

Interests outside work: 

I try to spend my spare time near or in the ocean – stand-up paddle boarding and surfing (badly). Walking along rugged beaches in winter is great as there aren’t many other people about. 

Joe O'Callaghan is an oceanographer at NIWA. Joe is standing beside and ocean glider. Image: Dave Allen, NIWA.