Category Archives: Fieldwork

Discovering Conservation

Discover Conservation_Sarah InterviewA couple of weeks ago I had a very fun interview with James Borrell, a conservation biologist with a passion for science communication.  Apart from studying the genetics of trees, James is also the founder of Discover Conservation – a website which aims to tell the stories of field scientists and, by doing so, inspire an appreciation for conservation in people around the world.

My interview with Discover Conservation discussed my PhD research on bottlenose and snubfin dolphins in Western Australia, but also touched on my “science story” and how I got where I am today.  It finishes off with some of my advice for young conservationists, particularly those currently trying to find work experience.

Interested in more information?  Read the full article here!


Studying Snubfins in the Kimberleys

Have you ever heard of a snubfin dolphin?  Not many people have – and up until 2005, no one had at all.

Snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay (Photo Credit:  Sarah Marley)

Snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay (Photo Credit: Sarah Marley)

In that year, what was previously considered to be a bunch of Irrawaddy dolphins swimming around off the northern coast of Australia, was discovered to actually be a separate species entirely.  And so snubfin dolphins became Australia’s first endemic species of cetacean.  But now, almost ten years later, we still don’t know a whole lot about them.

As part of the Kimberley Marine Research Program, the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) is funding research into the distribution, abundance and genetic connectivity of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins across the Kimberleys.  This is a collaborative research project, involving scientists from Murdoch University, Curtin University and Australian National University.  Through a mixture of visual observations from vessel-based surveys and acoustic monitoring using underwater noise loggers, the project hopes to improve our knowledge of where and when dolphins occur.  It will also investigate the effectiveness of using noise loggers as an alternative technology for collecting data on distribution and seasonality of dolphins across the Kimberleys.

Listening for snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay

Listening for snubfin dolphins

During July and August this year, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Roebuck Bay component of this project.  My supervisor Chandra and I spent a few weeks working with Dr Deb Thiele (Australia National University) to collect visual and acoustic data on the snubfin dolphins of Roebuck Bay.  It was a real pleasure to work with Deb, who has been conducting research in Roebuck Bay for several years on the abundance, habitat-use and behaviour of this snubfin dolphin population.  We were also working in with local Yawuru Indigenous Rangers Cornell and Johani, who helped us on the boat to collect observational and photographic information on the dolphins.  And to finish off our Snub-Team, we had Jason from Environs Kimberley who helped us navigate through the bay.  The Kimberleys are a stunning place in general, but it was especially great to explore it with people who know the area (and its wildlife) so well!

Over five weeks, we spent a lot of time out on the water and became familiar with a whole host of Roebuck Bay’s other marine residents.  Sightings of dugong, turtles, manta rays, sharks, sea birds, and various fish made every day unpredictable but very special!

Chandra, me and Deb

Chandra, me and Deb.

I’ve been remarkably quiet the last wee while partly because I’ve been away on fieldwork.  But also because it involved such amazing animals, cool people, and beautiful surroundings that I had no idea how to begin describing it!  A large part of PhD life revolves around stress – the pressure of making progress, meeting deadlines, producing outcomes.  But an important part of PhD life is to realise how lucky I am to have these experiences, travel to these places, and meet these people.  And this trip was definitely one of those fortunate events.

Fashion in the Field

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest scientist of all…

This week I was re-reading some old Women’s Health magazines (being a student I’m too poor to buy new ones so use the oldies for fitness motivation!). I came across an article called “(Don’t) Take a Good Look at Yourself“, which was about the trend of mirror fasting. This got me thinking about the effect fieldwork can have on your appearance…

Mirror Fasting
Bloggers in the US started the craze of mirror fasting a few years ago. The idea was that by avoiding your reflection for a set period of time (generally a month), you will start to realise how much time and attention you waste worrying about your appearance. And hopefully by the end of the period, you will have weaned yourself off the need for constant visual consultation, and thus be devoting more time to other things such as relationships, career, etc.

Generally people find this pretty tough, especially with regards to hair-dressing and make-up application, combined with the fear of looking like a crazy homeless person without realising. Which is admittedly pretty concerning when you’re on your way to a big work meeting or presentation. Once on a work trip, a girlfriend and I stayed in a motel for a couple of days which didn’t have a single mirror in the unit. Each morning I would find her pressed against the side of the truck, applying her make-up in the side mirrors.

Dressing Like a Biologist

Dressing like a biologist in 2004...

From dressing like a biologist in 2004…

Several years ago, my sister told me I dressed like a biologist. I looked down at my red hoodie, baggy jeans and sneakers, and thought “Huh, I guess so!”. Fashion sense wasn’t a part of my teenage self, and it only occasionally makes an appearance even now, generally prompted by third-party advice.  Although this is partly aided by the fact we only have an above-counter bathroom mirror and a small square mirror in our house, meaning it is impossible to get a full-ensemble view without balancing on the bed and moving furniture around.

... to dressing like a biologist in 2014!

… to dressing like a biologist in 2014!

Particularly during fieldwork, comfort and practicality are my key clothing choices.  So it’s not unusual to find me rocking up to uni in between theodolite shifts rugged up in holey baggy jeans and a hoodie, with the latest addition to this ensemble is my big cosy ski jacket.  Not especially sexy, but means I don’t have to worry about wear and tear (mostly because it’s already happened…).

Looking around our office, you can usually see the distinction between desk- and field-based scientists. Pretty skirts, nice boots and proper shirts vs. fleeces, walking shoes and multiple layers. There are always a few ambiguous characters – but generally if people look surprised when you dress smart, you’re probably edging into the latter category!

Fashion Evolution

Whenever I have volunteers new to the experience of fieldwork, it’s always interesting to see how their clothing choices change over the field season.  Particularly in the summer, some of the new vollies start out pretty keen in short-shorts and strappy tops.  But after a few days of realising that it can be pretty cold early morning and that by afternoon the Australian sun is taking it’s toll, fashion choices began to edge towards knee-length pants and t-shirts.  As soon as it started edging into winter, I was busting out my scarf, ski jacket and fingerless-gloves – much to the amusement of many volunteers!  Now it’s woolly hats all round on the hill and arguments over who gets to use the one pair of gloves.

Some students are academics in the making

Some students are academics in the making

So where does this go in the long run?  I guess every university has a band of socks-and-sandals professors, but I think my career has a long way to go before that becomes a legitimate option (at this stage, even I know that’s not cool).   Last week we bought a full-length mirror, the first we’ve owned since 2011 – so perhaps a brief phase of appearance-conscious behaviour will follow!  But in the end, I’ll probably always come back to dressing like a biologist.

Well, if the (sun-smart, collar-clipped field) hat fits…

Fieldwork Update: Celebrating 100 hours of visual obs

Last week we passed the 100 hours milestone for visual observations in the Swan River!

"The early vollie catches the dolphin"

“The early vollie catches the dolphin”

During this first stage we have conducted 37 shifts spread across our Kings Park and Fremantle Port field sites. We spotted 16 dolphin pods, several of which had calves, with sightings lasting anywhere from a few surfacings to a few hours!

Interestingly, we have spotted Gizmo quite a few times, a dolphin who suffered a severe entanglement as a calf back in 2012. Fishing line caught around his dorsal fin cut through a lot of the tissue, leaving his fin rather floppy – and easily identifiable from a distance! Hoping we can start identifying other individuals soon in stage two!

So in summary, it’s been pretty busy!  Thankfully The Dolphineers have been there to share the load! These lovely vollies have put in a lot of time and effort in support of this project, including quite s few early mornings and long, hot afternoons! So to celebrate this milestone, last week we had our first volunteer BBQ down on the river shore.


BBQ with the Dolphineers!

And, of course, for such an event there must be prizes! Drumroll please, for:

Most ShiftsLucy Rudd, for conducting almost a third of all the shifts!

Busiest DayCharlotte Patrick and Bec Oliver, for dealing with the craziest shift which had over 150 vessels in the space of 3hrs PLUS dolphins!

Most Boring DayRobin Hare, for not only having the least busiest day, but the highest consecutive number of these with no dolphins and hardly any vessels!

As we move towards April, the mornings are getting colder and the days shorter.  But we are still getting in a few new faces amonst the Dolphineers, which should liven up the shifts with some new life stories!  Now I just have to start planning prizes for the next milestone…

Fieldwork Update: Watch out dolphins, Big Sister is watching (and listening!)

Over the last couple of months I have had a busy whirlwind of deploying noise loggers; learning how to program recording schedules and then process acoustic data; complete health and safety forms; obtain permits for area use; train volunteers for visual surveys; organise fieldwork shifts…  and this is before the fieldwork has even started!  But now it’s all underway and the data is coming in!

Eavesdropping on Dolphins…

Sylvia and Mal from CMST head out into the Swan River to help deploy my first batch of noise loggers

Sylvia and Mal (CMST) head out into the Swan River to help deploy loggers

Back in November 2013, three noise loggers were deployed in the Swan River as part of my PhD project examining the acoustical and behavioural response of coastal dolphins to noisy environments.   I have been lucky enough to have great support from the students and staff at CMST to help me with deployments.  Now the first batch of acoustic data from this first logger deployment is in my office, ready for processing!

These noise loggers record underwater sound produced by ambient (wind, waves), biological (dolphins, fish, crustaceans), and human sources (vessels, traffic, and construction).  For more info on these noise loggers, see my previous post on recording whale sounds in Albany.  Whilst I am examining this first acoustic data batch, the noise loggers have been moved to new locations and are busy recording more underwater sounds.

Over the next year, I will be deploying noise loggers at several spots throughout the river.  I can then use these data to describe the underwater soundscape of the Swan River and examine the vocal behaviour of bottlenose dolphins.

…  Whilst Watching from Above!

Visual observations of dolphin behaviour began in January 2014.  I am conducting visual surveys at various vantage points along the shoreline, using a theodolite to record dolphin movements and behaviours in the river.  This visual information can then be used to understand the context of dolphin sounds and their use of the underwater acoustic environment.

A theodolite is traditionally a surveying instrument, used to create 3D models of the landscape.  It does this by selecting different points, then measuring the horizontal and vertical angles to give an exact bearing and distance to each point; this creates a scale map of the area.  But we can also use this technique to get the position of objects out at sea – such as dolphins!  So we can use a theodolite to map a dolphin’s position each time it surfaces, giving a very fine-scale track of how the animals are using an area.  The added bonus being that the dolphins are not aware of our presence, so we do not have to worry about disturbing the animals and influencing their behaviour.  Although I do often wonder if they have a “feeling of being watched”…

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me (and theo) surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

To run these visual surveys, I require a theodolite team:  one person entering data on the computer, one collecting positions using the theodolite, and some others to find the dolphins!  Thankfully, I have had an overwhelming amount of support from my ex-students (and some marine biologist friends), and currently have around 25 volunteers donating their time to help out in the field.  Many are studying or working full-time, making their contributions all the more amazing and appreciated!

But we have had some particularly awesome dolphin sightings to make it all worthwhile – and even on quiet days, the great team spirit (and masses of life stories to tell) keeps us pretty entertained!