Category Archives: Personal

I said “Oui”

A few weeks ago, Phil and I were back in Scotland and had a couple of days to visit the town of St Andrews, where we first met and studied together.

I thought we were there to visit some old friends, reminisce, and search for puffins.

But it turns out that Phil had another thing in mind too…

Needless to say, I said “Oui” – though now I probably do need to learn a bit more French than that!



Congratulations Dr Phil!

It is my pleasure to introduce to you – Dr Philippe Jean-Francois Bouchet!!!

Dr Phil Bouchet and his primary supervisor, Prof Jessica Meeuwig at Phil's graduation ceremony

Dr Phil Bouchet and his primary supervisor, Prof Jessica Meeuwig at Phil’s graduation ceremony

Two weeks ago, Phil graduated from the University of Western Australia.  He also had the honour of delivering the Valedictory Address to close his graduation ceremony:

You can read more about his thesis, publication, and PhD highlights on a specially-dedicated blog post on the Meeuwig Lab website.

Needless to say, I could not be more proud 🙂

Dr Phil Bouchet and his extremely proud partner!

Dr Phil Bouchet and his extremely proud partner!


Full Disclosure

Sorry, this isn’t a post divulging all my anecdotes and secrets!  It’s a quick note to point you in the direction of a new page created on this site, titled “CV“.

Here you can find links to my various online profiles listing my work / research history.  Alternatively, you can check out the slightly longer versions by viewing my full CV and Curtin University student capability statement.

Happy browsing!

Roebuck Bay - Sarah on Teena B

Filming snubfin dolphins in Roebuck Bay (Photo:  Joshua Smith)


Finding Inspiration

I love what I do.  But sometimes inspiration is hard.

Another long day in the field without seeing dolphins.  Another never-ending report that stubbornly clings to draft form.  Another day of battling off emails from supervisors wanting results, students needing help, randoms requiring your time, and family / friends wondering why they haven’t heard from you for weeks.  It can wear down even the most dedicated of scientists.

This has been particularly hard for me over the last couple of months.  My Grandad passed away in January, and for the first time I’ve been faced with a “writers block”, finding it hard to draft blog posts, work on manuscripts, or prepare talks.  Ironically, he placed great emphasis on writing and public-speaking skills, and would no doubt of had some words of wisdom on the topic of writers block.  But it has been hard to focus through the grief and guilt – is it worth chasing dreams when they take you so far from your family?

Even more ironically, it was during this period that I was asked to give the occasional address at the Curtin University Science Students Awards ceremony.  For some unknown reason I said yes (saying “no” has been a long-running issue, which I’m unsuccessfully working on).  So I was then confronted with the task of writing a motivational speech when I was feeling the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Old Favourites

Luckily, I had some old favourites to turn to.  I am a creature of habit. When I am unwell, I read Terry Pratchett – I escape from my world to a world of magic.  When I worry about the purpose of my research, I read Gerald Durrell – his beautiful descriptions of all the places and creatures he encountered feed my imagination, and his passion for conserving them motivates me.  When I am stressed, I save it up for the weekly phone call home to my Mum – a remnant of our late-night cup of tea chat sessions from whenever I am home.  And when I am angry at the world I go to the gym and run – I used to save it for martial arts, but too expensive in Perth.

So perhaps it is not surprising that all these things contributed in some way to giving me the motivation for a motivational speech. I agonised over it for weeks, starting and re-starting, discarding drafts, knowing it was not sincere and not quite right. They wanted me to speak for 6 – 10mins on my work-life balance, my tips for success, and what adventures I’ve had along the way.  The first was obviously nonsense – if I wanted a 9 – 5 job with good pay and weekends off, I wouldn’t be a scientist.  Tips for success was a tricky issue.  I don’t feel particularly successful, and like all PhD students I have a strong sense of Imposter Syndrome – if anything I am generally the one in need of tips for success.  The last part was easiest.  My Master’s supervisor Paddy used to groan whenever I entered his office, bracing himself for whatever tale of mis-adventure had befallen me in the field that week.  But perhaps mis-adventures weren’t best for a motivational speech…

But the week before the ceremony, I was thumbing through a collection of Gerald Durrell stories and found a perfect quote which summed up my approach to life decisions.  Typically, after spending so long worrying about it, I then wrote the speech in about 20mins.  The fact that this was on the weekend further illustrates my lack of a typical work-life balance.

  • Take Chances

There is one particular idea from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld that stays with me:  “Million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten”.  The fact that no matter how low the probability, how much the odds are against you, there is still a chance that this might work.  So don’t be afraid to take a chance.  And have faith in the strength of the narrative.

  • Make a Mix of Logical and Illogical Choices

The Gerald Durrell quote that caught my attention was:  “I have rarely, if ever, achieved anything I wanted by tackling it in a logical fashion … now I am speechless at my audacity“.  I never planned to be a scientist; I didn’t dream of being a marine biologist as a child.  Through a mix of seemingly random events that centred on my naturalist nature, I found myself on this path.  I’ve bounced from one decision to another with sometimes worryingly little thought, but a vague belief that things will work out for the best.

  • Do What You Love

I’ve done my share of newspaper rounds, check-out tills, and shelf-stacking type jobs, and I’m pretty happy where I am.  My Mum always says “You either do the work you love, or work to afford the things you love“.  I’d rather be enjoying my work throughout the year with a few bad weeks than be hating my job throughout the year and saving up for a few good weeks of holiday.  Everyone is different, but for me I choose to do what I love (even when I sometimes feel it doesn’t love me back).

  • Strive for Excellence

Our local gym has inspirational quotes scattered around the walls.  Whilst I was suffering through a set of lunges one day, this one caught my eye:  “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit“.  The gym attributed this to Shaquille O’Neal, who Google tells me is a retired basketball player and rapper.  But Google also tells me that the original sayer of this phrase was Aristotle.  Which is concerning for the gym but a win for me because it makes me sound a bit smarter in my speech, whilst also giving encouragement to students to look beyond what they are wining today and start thinking about what they can do tomorrow.

The Final Speech

If you are interested in reading the final product, you can download my motivational speech by clicking here.  I think it went well – there were good questions and follow-up conversations at the drinks and nibbles afterwards, even though I had to refer to my notes more often than I would have liked.

But I think the person most motivated by my motivational speech was me.  Explaining your life story and personal philosophy to a large room of people gives you a new perspective on what you do.  It reminds you of all the things you have achieved, are still to complete, and why you are doing them.  So I hope the students and their families had fun hearing about my adventures.  And I also hope that Grandad was watching from a corner of the room, enjoying hearing once more about his grand-daughter’s adventures, just like he used to.

Christmas Corals!

I’m not usually one for mass Christmas greetings, but this one was too cool not to share!

Christmas Corals

These letters are spelled out using natural shapes found on brain corals in the Caribbean!  A husband and wife team spent two years searching for all the letters of the alphabet, and created this pretty funky card as a result!

Happy holidays everyone!

Easy Christmas Crafts for Kids (and PhD Students)

My university closed for the Christmas break last Friday.  As everyone knows, this means nothing for PhD students.  Generally you are too busy to easily justify taking a few weeks off.  And even if you do convince yourself to have some down time over the holidays, you will still risk being hit with PhD Lifestyle Guilt.

This feels so wrong!

This feels so wrong!

Plus sometimes it’s just hard to get in the Christmas spirit.  As a Northern Hemispherean, I find an Australian Christmas hard to adjust to.  Every little fragment of my DNA is screaming that it should be cold, dark, and snowy – i.e. perfect weather to wrap-up in woolly jumpers, drink hot (possibly alcoholic) beverages, and eat plenty of mince pies to ensure survival through the winter.  So to be confronted with these same urges whilst sweltering through a 40° Celsius, sun-filled afternoon is pretty confusing.

An additional problem is the PhD budget.  Although we live pretty comfortably, there isn’t a whole lot of extra cash floating around at the best of times, especially not to be spent on decorations which only make an appearance once a year.

This will be our third Christmas Down Under, so we have accumulated a few festive knick-knacks.  But not enough!  Until now…

This weekend I spent some time Googling “Christmas Crafts for Kids” (because I’m aware of my own craft skill level).  I found some pretty cool sites (such as Kid Spot Christmas), and thought I’d give it a whirl!  The result is that I’ve now spent most of the morning improving my multi-tasking abilities by combining uni work with simple crafts.

Multi-tasking acoustic research with cutting paper snowflakes!

Multi-tasking acoustic research with cutting paper snowflakes!

For instance, I’m currently going through hundreds of acoustic files from the Swan River to see what I can hear (for the record, a LOT of snapping shrimp).  This means that my ears are busy, my hands are idle, and my brain is floating somewhere in the middle.  So whilst listening to my recordings this morning, I also started cutting out dozens of paper snowflakes.  At $2 for 180 small sheets of coloured paper, it’s a bargain and a time-saver!  These will eventually get strung up all over the house.  I also spent some time faffing around with glitter, but this came to a halt when I sneezed suddenly and managed to inhale a large amount of it.  Like I said, I know my craft skill level.

So teamed with a few yards of discounted tinsel, our pint-sized Christmas tree, and a few (surprisingly neatly wrapped) presents, it’s starting to feel pretty festive in here!  Especially if you turn on the air-conditioning and your imagination.

This is all greeted with a certain amount of suspicion from Phil (he still hasn’t forgotten our first festive season together, when I decorated the house with miles of tinsel then insisted on leaving it up until April).  But thankfully nowadays he only gives a single heart-felt sigh of resignation before assisting me with whatever new project has popped into my head.

I can’t wait until he comes home tonight and sees the house 🙂

Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?

What made you happy today?

Perhaps you enjoyed a conversation with a friend, or had a really good work-out, or treated yourself to a cheeky tea and cake combo this avro!

Or maybe you are sitting there thinking back through your day and nothing springs to mind…  In which case, this could be the challenge you didn’t even know you were waiting for!


Did you find happiness in some yummy afternoon tea...

Did you find happiness in some yummy afternoon tea…

The first step to long-term happiness is finding small everyday things to be happy about.  Once you start to become more aware of the little things, they will soon add up!

The idea behind the #100happydays challenge is to take one picture each day of something that made you happy.  You can choose to post it on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram with the #100happydays hashtag, or email it into the foundation to avoid publicity, or even just keep it to yourself.  The hope is that by creating this daily ritual of stopping to share your happy moments, you will start becoming more mindful of the existence of such moments thus training yourself into the good habit of appreciating life.

Slipping into Neutral…

... or a really good workout ...

… or a really good workout …

Whenever I ask someone how their day is going, the general response is a half-shrug and an “alright”.  With our increasingly busy lives, hectic schedules, and constant rushing between activities it can be all too easy to slip into a groove.  Wake up, go to work, come home, have dinner, go to bed.  Same old, same old.

But is every day really the same?  Do you just go through the familiar motions without even a moment of happiness?  Or can you think of at least one moment today when you have a genuine smile?

If these questions are causing you any sense of doubt, perhaps it’s time to consider this challenge…

“But I don’t have time for this”

Just stop and think about this statement for a second:  you don’t have time to be happy?  Seriously?

... or maybe a care package from home?

… or maybe a care package from home?

I am pretty bad for schedule over-loading.  Between general PhD-ness, fieldwork, teaching, and general existence I find it pretty hard sometimes to keep on top of things (see an older post on the over-whale-ming side of PhD life).  Unfortunately, the first thing to suffer are the people around me, and before I know it the phrase “Sorry” is being text around several times a week along with time-related excuses.  And that is just for the locals – for my long-distance friends and family, it’s even harder as emails go weeks without a response.

This has been on my mind a lot, as my friend Janelle is submitting her PhD thesis today, and moving away from Perth next week.  We’re both aware that it’s going to become even harder to stay in touch over the coming months.  Janelle was one of the first friends I made in Australia, and I am really going to miss having her within convenient tea-and-whinging distance.  So when she suggested using the #100happydays idea as a way of keeping in touch, I was up for the challenge!

So how am I going?

See for yourself!  All my photos are available to see on my Instagram site.  I’m now up to day 20, a fifth of the way in, and even the Sceptical Scot in me can see it’s yielding results.  I’m really enjoying seeing what Janelle is up to, and having a smile over whatever has made her day!  Even though we’re in the same city, being in different universities makes day-to-day contact difficult.  But this means at least we can share the same emotion over the same event each day!

Even better, other friends are cashing in on the deal.  Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had several messages from people (both local regulars and far-away pals) saying how much they’ve enjoyed getting these snapshot glimpses into my life.  So I’m happy, Janelle’s happy, and our happiness is making other people happy.  Win!

… So I’ll ask you again.  What made YOU happy today? 🙂

The Death of Conservation

Last month was the 19-year anniversary of the death of my greatest conservation heroes.  He fought for change – in the purpose of zoos, the role of scientists, the preservation of species and their habitats, and ultimately the attitude of people towards nature. But does public opinion still uphold such beliefs, or is support of conservation slipping?  And more importantly – particularly given recent events in Australia – will governments still fight to protect our environment?

Previously, zoo conditions were often nothing better than animal pits (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Early zoo conditions were often just animal pits (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Changing the Purpose of Captivity

Gerald Durrell was born in 1925 and quickly developed an obsession with the natural world.  His first word was “zoo” and as a toddler he demanded to be taken on daily trips to the local menagerie.  The primary purpose of zoos in those days was entertainment, with most establishments aiming to give the public a close-up view of charismatic fauna like lions, elephants and monkeys.  Unfortunately, the conditions these animals were living in were close to squalor, with more emphasis being placed on a good view than animal welfare.  Furthermore, due to their poor conditions, few of these captive animals successfully bred and so upon their (usually early) deaths they were replaced from wild populations.  This animal collecting, combined with hunting, habitat destruction, and an increased distribution of human activities, caused many wild populations to dramatically decline.

But to Gerald Durrell, the purpose of a zoo was more important than entertainment – it was an opportunity to educate the public, contribute to scientific knowledge, and create captive breeding stocks of threatened species.  His was not a zoo full of lions and tigers – it acted as a safe haven for little-regarded, yet critically endangered, species such as the Madagascan aye-aye, Mauritius kestrel, and Haitian giant gulliwasp lizard.  Thanks to his captive breeding and re-introduction programs, Durrell was able to regenerate wild populations of these species and many more.  He went on to become a world-renowned naturalist, conservationist, author and television presenter.  But his living legacy exists in the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which promotes the captive breeding and re-introduction of threatened species as well as protection of their natural habitats.  The Trust also assists with the education and training of local people in communities home to these endangered species, ensuring that they have the means to protect their native fauna and flora well into the future.

A New Generation of Conservationists

The creation of the Trust coincided with a time when public feeling regarding the natural environment was changing.  The 19th Century had been a time of increasing interest in nature and scientific thinking, with several animal welfare groups being founded towards the end of the 1800s in addition to governmental departments for forestry and land management.  The idea was slowly rising that humans had a duty to protect natural resources for future generations.

The Durrell Wildlife Preservation Trust has already trained up 3,350 conservationists from 135 countries to ensure local hands-on involvement in conservation issues

The Durrell Trust has already trained up 3,350 conservationists from 135 countries.

By the 1900s, efforts arose targeting individual species for protection leading to a global awareness of conservation biology.  The decline of wild populations was being widely noted, leading the public to rise up and demand protection for wild animal populations.  Popular examples include protests to ban whaling, save mountain gorillas, and stop the hunting of big cats.  Not only was the public taking an interest in wildlife management, but in many cases they were actively protesting and fighting for the legal protection of threatened species.

Soon the idea began to spread that to protect a species you must also protect its habitat.  The work of the likes of Gerald Durrell, in establishing successful captive breeding programs, was pointless if there was nowhere to re-introduce the animals to.  And so the focus changed to creating and maintaining national parks, sanctuary zones, and other protected areas to guard both animals and their habitats.  As this need for “green space” increased and conflicted with “human space”, many groups of people began changing their habits to reduce impact on the environment.  The idea of “reduce, reuse, recycle” became widely advertised, along with eco-versions of many products.  The pressure was on society and companies to prove how green they could be.

Current Conservation Issues in Australia

Yet, at the same time, while many people continue to “do their bit” and minimise their environmental impact, others have grown complacent.  If so much is already being done, does it really matter if they slack off?  With so many protected forests, can’t they afford to take a bit more?  With so many increasing animal populations, can’t they just hunt or fish a bit more?  Everyone has done so much for the environment already, isn’t it okay to mold it to human-uses?

The last six months has seen a disturbing increase in such thinking in Australia, to the point that some are wondering whether the current government is the most hostile to the nation’s environment in history.  In Western Australia, endangered sharks are being culled.  In Queensland, the world-famous Great Barrier Reef is under threat from the dumping of dredge spoil.  In Tasmania, World Heritage listed rainforest is to be opened up to commercial logging.  Around Australia, the marine reserve network – which, when announced, was to be the biggest in the world – has been scrapped.

The shark cull involves setting baited-drum lines along the WA coast near popular beaches, with the aim of catching great white, tiger and bull sharks over 3m long.  The lines are checked regularly, and any sharks above the size limit are shot; smaller sharks are released.  Unfortunately, of the 66 sharks caught in drum-lines since 1st Feb, 50 have been undersized.  Of these, 40 were released – but due to injuries sustained from bait hooks, it is uncertain how many released sharks would actually survive.  There is also the risk that drum-lines will catch other animals, such as dolphins, turtles and non-target shark species.  Worst of all is the fact that other studies indicate that drum-lines will not reduce shark attack rates, and suggest that there are various other methods better suited to reducing the risk of human-shark interactions.  With a range of other (research-supported) options available, it is not necessary to jump to the “shoot-it-in-the-head” method.

The survival rate of hooked undersized sharks is uncertain, with some sustaining large injuries

The survival rate of hooked undersized sharks is uncertain, with some sustaining large injuries (Photo:

Before you can control any wild animal, you have to know something about its basic biology; a simple policy of slaughter – quite apart from its threat to the survival of that particular species – is liable to do untold damage to the whole ecological structure of the country.  An unbiological approach in different parts of the world to problems of this sort have, in the past, proved disastrous.  So if an animal is becoming a pest you must set out to learn everything you can about it; it is a case of ‘knowing thine enemy‘” says Gerald Durrell decades ago.  But it looks like these words are no less needed or true today.

On the other side of the country, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has approved plans to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredge spoil within the marine park area to allow expansion of a coal-export port.  Such sediment from dredging has been previously shown to damage coral and seagrasses by smothering them and causing exposure to poisons and elevated nutrients.  This comes shortly after the new government’s decision to suspend Australia’s Marine Reserve Network and change management plans to allow access to these marine areas by recreational fishers.

Meanwhile, back on land, the Federal Government has made a bid to open Tasmania’s World Heritage forests to logging.  After decades of fierce debate between forestry and conservation groups, an additional 170,000 hectares became protected as part of a “peace deal”.  The logging bid would see over half of this opened for commercial use, with the government arguing that the area in question is already degraded due to previous logging.  Yet World Heritage experts claim 90% of it is pristine forest.  Even the Tasmanian timber industry opposes this move to de-list the forest.

Durrell wrote many novels detailing his childhood as an amateur naturalist, early career as a zookeeper and animal collector, and later years working in conservation.  His book “Two in the Bush” describes a visit to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in the 1960s, in which he becomes enraptured by the land downunder:

We all fell in love with Australia completely and instantly.  If ever I was compelled to settle down in one spot – which God forbid – Australia is one of the few countries I have visited that I could choose

I wonder if that would still hold true today?

Discipline with a Deadline

The need for ongoing conservation is obvious.  But is the public willing to rise up in aid of these issues?  Thankfully,  the overwhelming answer appears to be ‘yes’.

Over 6,000 people attended just one anti-cull shark rally in WA

Over 6,000 people attended just one anti-cull shark rally in WA (Photo:

Public protests and social media petitions against the WA shark cull have seen over 6,000 people gather on one Perth beach alone.  Support has also sprung up in the form of additional protests around the world, with the public of New Zealand, South Africa, UK, USA, Spain, and so many others uniting against the cull.  Online petitions against damaging our Heritage-Listed rainforests and coral reefs are also spreading through the wonders of social media, as are messages from groups fighting for the re-instatement of Australian marine parks.

Conservation biology is often referred to as the “discipline with a deadline”, emphasising the importance of immediate action to help species reduced to a few dozen individuals or habitats shrinking in size each day.  It does not necessitate the end of modern living and everyday convenience – just a revision of old ways of thinking.  Every little helps.  As Durrell points out in his ‘Two in the Bush’ novel:

You cannot, of course, halt progress, but is it necessary to destroy everything in your path to achieve it?

As long as we continue to think about the world around us and voice our concerns, we have the chance to make a difference.  But the remaining question is: will anyone in authority listen?

Top 5 PhD New Year’s Resolutions

Academia can seem pretty tough-going at times.  In a field where everyone is striving to publish the most papers and get the most funding, but where most people are limited by time and opportunities, things can get a bit competitive.  So acknowledging your weaknesses just is not done, especially weaknesses connected to your work.

But in order to turn those weaknesses into strengths, you have to know where to start!  So to that end, here are some of my  New Year’s resolutions to work on over the next few months.  Obviously there are so many more things I can improve upon (eat healthily, call home more, go to the gym, break up with Facebook).  So these five are focused primarily on balancing PhD life.

1. Learn that it is okay to read

Good research requires a good knowledge of the subject, and this can only be achieved by searching the literature and reading,reading, reading!  But the problem with sitting reading papers at your desk all day is that you don’t have any solid outcome to show for it at the end of the day (apart from maybe eye strain and a headache).

I struggle with this lack of physical result, as it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve not been very productive by ‘just’ reading papers.  So something I aim to work on next year is to set aside time each week specifically for reading and updating Endnote.  To make it seem more productive, I’ll work on my note-taking skills – this will have the double benefit of making me feel like I’ve achieved something whilst also giving me some good quick-reference material for later.

2. Get at least 7hrs sleep each night

First step to getting more sleep - bean bag nap area under desk.  Win!

First step to getting more sleep – bean bag nap area under desk. Win!

Chronic sleep deprivation is not going to help you achieve anything.  Yes, you might have to pull some late-nighters to get that grant application in, or get up at ridiculous o’clock to reach your field site.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice sleep to do so.

It is okay to sleep in a bit later if you had to work late.  It is okay to be a granny and head to bed early if you’re up at day-break.  Need a power nap mid-avro?  Go for it!  If you’re up to date on sleep you will work a hell of a lot more effectively than someone holding their eyes open and forcing every sentence into Word.  I’m aiming to be a lot stricter (and realistic) with sleep patterns, especially as I tend to get migraines after missing a few sleeps in a row – which knocks me out for a lot longer than a lie-in would.

3. Publish

The must-have on every academics to-do list:  Publish more papers! There is a strong idea of “publish or perish”, and while this might be a bit dramatic it is probably true that you will have a better chance of succeeding with scholarships, job applications and grant funding if you can add up points in the ‘papers published’ box.  When I ask Post-Docs if they have any advice for an early-days PhD student, the recurring comment is to get multiple papers out during the PhD.

I just got around to publishing my honours thesis on bottlenose dolphin aggression this year, have a co-authored paper on whale acoustics in review, and still have material from my masters on grey seal behaviour which needs to be put into paper format.  So a big aim for next year is to finish that task, as well as publish something PhD-related.

4. Overcome the phone addiction

Smartphones are amazing.  I use mine for work a lot – especially during field work, it is very useful to be able to check emails on the go and arrange meetings without being tied to a desk.  But is there really a need for checking work emails every evening?  If you’re always online then you are always on duty.  Not conducive to the increase in sleep or quality time that most people would like in their lives.

A lot of the time I don’t mean to do this, but as I use my phone to tell the time I often see notifications about missed calls or unread emails and get sucked back into work mode without really realising it.  So the most obvious way around this would be to start wearing a watch more so I can give myself the opportunity to forget about the phone.  I’m also going to enforce a stricter ‘silent mode’ rule during quality time with boyfriend and mates in the evenings.  Feel free to give me in trouble if you see me violating this one, because it’s bound to happen!

5. Spend time with people outside of my university circle

It's important not to shut out friends during your PhD...

It’s important not to shut out friends during your PhD…

As much as you may love your office mates, it’s still important to step outside of the circle once in a while.  Because inevitably the conversation will at some point touch on work – be it project stress, supervisor management, paper writing, or “Did you hear about this grant?” type topics.  Sometimes it’s good to forget about work for a while!

Before I started my PhD, I spent a year volunteering on projects around Australia and two years working as a science communicator.  During this time I met lots of interesting, crazy, lovely people – most of whom I haven’t seen much, if at all, in the last six months, i.e. since the PhD began.  Granted I’ve been away assisting on field projects and travelling, but since I have no plans to leave Perth in the next few months this is the perfect time to re-affirm friendships and start catching-up!  But of course I’ll still have time for my university family 😉

Humpbacks, Hills and Hobbits – a summary of the last three months

I realised it had been a long time since my last blog post, but I’d forgotten that the last you’d heard from me was some comments about my dubious sea survival skills.  On reflection this might have been a bit ominous when followed by a three month silence, but rest assured I’m still here!  And I have so much to tell you!  Too much, in fact, for one post – so to avoid the risk of boring you, I’m going to give a brief summary now with more details to follow over the Christmas break 🙂

Early Sept – Mid Oct:  BRAHSS Project (Dongara, Western Australia)

Heading out from Dongara for another day of whale research!

Heading out from Dongara for another day of whale research!

Six weeks working as a marine mammal observer on the BRAHSS project, investigating the response of humpback whales to seismic surveys.  Although bouncing around in big swells off the coast of Western Australia was quite fun, it was really great to meet so many researchers from around Australia.  Since this project involves people from Curtin University, University of Queensland, and the University of Sydney there were plenty of new friends to be made!

Prior BRAHSS field seasons were conducted in Peregian Beach on the Sunshine Coast, so 2013 marked the first experimental period for Western Australian.  Fine-scale behavioural data were collected during control and active trials, thus detailing the responses of humpback whales to air-gun signals.  This work will be compared with data collected on the eastern Australian humpback whales, thus allowing comparison of different populations with different seismic exposure histories.

Mid Oct – Early Nov:  Doing a PhD! (Perth, Western Australia)

My desk of PhD awesomeness!

My desk of PhD awesomeness!

Nice to be home for a bit!  These few weeks gave me time to get-to-grips with my PhD and make progress with my application for candidacy.  Within the first six months of the PhD, students are required to submit a 10-page research proposal detailing their intended project.

So over these few weeks I did a LOT of reading through the scientific literature and swotting up on acoustics!  I was lucky enough to spend some time with the CMST technician Dave who gave me instruction in preparing the noise loggers, programming the recording software, and general electronics!  I also got lessons in splicing and mooring design thanks to Miles and Mal, more important skills that I’ll need for deploying my own loggers over the next few years!

This period also marked a move, as I shifted from the main physics building at Curtin University to the physics student building out the back.  Although it’s strange to be away from the staff, it does mean that I get my own big fancy schmancy desk and computer!  Woop woop!  Now to decorate it with as many dolphin pictures as possible…

Most of Nov:  SouWEST Project (Geographe Bay, Western Australia)

Blue waters and blue whales for the Geographe Bay 2013 theodolite team!

Blue waters and blue whales for the Geographe Bay 2013 theodolite team!

A sudden flurry of activity to organise the theodolite and acoustic components of the Southwest Whale Ecology Study (SouWEST) project for the 2013 field season.  I headed down to Geographe Bay with Chandra, Angela and Damien to continue our blue and humpback whale monitoring program which has now completed its fourth season!

I’m very proud to have been part of this project since 2010 when I helped Chandra with the first theodolite monitoring from our hill-top site near Dunsborough.  From here we can track the whales in real-time as they move through the area, and also record their behaviours and pod compositions.  Combined with the acoustic monitoring, boat surveys with photo-ID and community-based observations, these data give us a thorough view of how whales are using the Geographe Bay region.  This year was particularly exciting, as we deployed an array of four noise loggers – having multiple hydrophones will allow us to triangulate the positions of calling whales, and track them acoustically! It is also our first year with funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to support the SouWEST project.  Check out my post on the SouWEST blog to read more about our season!

Late Nov – Mid Dec:  Holidays and Conference! (New Zealand)

My SMM conference poster describing pygmy blue whale interactions with vessels in Geographe Bay

My SMM conference poster describing pygmy blue whale interactions with vessels in Geographe Bay

I’ve been dying to visit New Zealand for years, so the fact that the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) conference was held in Dunedin this year provided an excellent opportunity / excuse to head over!  You might remember that I had an abstract accepted back in July, meaning that I was able to present some work on the response of pygmy blue whales to vessels in Geographe Bay.  Over 1000 abstracts were accepted for presentation at the conference, and hundreds more people simply attended the proceedings, so this was an excellent chance to not only discuss this research but promote the SouWEST project!

Of course, it also gave us the chance to travel!  Phil and I flew into Auckland on the 29th November and travelled down to Dunedin for the conference by way of hot water beaches, kayak trips, Hobbiton, glow worm caves, kiwis, thermal spas, sperm whales and Hector’s dolphins!  After the conference we headed west to spend a few days exploring the wilderness of Fiordland before heading home, checking out amazing fjords by kayak and boat.

Mid Dec – Now:  Christmas!  (Perth, Western Australia)

Now we’re back in WA and have been immediately thrown into a strange mix of PhD work and Christmas festivities!  After taking the time out to travel, there is a lot of work to catch up on…  But there are also a lot of people to catch up with!  So a 7:30am breakfast meeting the first day home was quickly followed by a CMST Christmas meal with friends (and even a santa!).  Writing emails and funding applications is punctuated by present-swapping and Phil’s amazing Christmas cookies.  Planning of fieldwork is inter-mixed with planning of Christmas morning beach BBQs and dinner with friends.  It’s a strange and busy – but happy – time of the year!

So before I nip off for (another) biscuit I’ll wish you all a merry Christmas and all the best for 2014!