Category Archives: Research

The (After) Life of a Whale

Over the last few weeks, a small town in Canada has lived in fear of exploding whales.


A Whale of an Explosion

At the end of April, a dead blue whale washed up on the shore of Trout River, Newfoundland.  Amid concerns it could be a shipping hazard if dragged out to see, locals were forced to leave the whale decomposing on the beach whilst local and federal authorities argued over who should deal with the remains.

Inside a blue whaleThe carcass then proceeded to expand to about twice its normal size due to bloating from methane gas, a normal by-product of decomposition.  Unfortunately, there is only so far a bloated blue whale can stretch, leaving local residents on stand-by for a pretty big bang.  Strange as it sounds this is a legitimate concern – last year a washed up sperm whale in the Faroe Islands exploded as a biologist attempted to dissect it (warning:  video not for the faint-hearted).

Eventually, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum headed over to dismantle and remove the blue whale – a feat which took them almost a week.

A Sight to See (and Smell…)

Whale carcasses aren’t that great in general, regardless of their explosive potential.  A few years ago in Scotland, I took my sister to see a washed up sperm whale at our local beach.  We arrived at the car park and started walking.  When we were 1km away, she sniffed a few times and asked “What’s that smell?”.  It only got worse.

Dead sperm whale - winner of Aberdeen's Top Tourism Attraction 2009.

Dead sperm whale – winner of Aberdeen’s Top Tourism Attraction 2009.

But despite this, hundreds of people came to see it.  The carpark was overflowing for days whilst people made the trek to see the spectacle because, dead or alive, it’s just not every day you see a sperm whale.  People brought their kids (who poked it), dogs (who rolled in it), and cameras to remember the experience.

So, given the high number of marine mammals out there, why aren’t we constantly assaulted by the stink of washed-up whales?  When they’re not washing up on our beaches and becoming a gruesome attraction, what happens to the remains of whales and other marine life?  The answer:  Whale Fall.

Whale Fall

Deep-sea zones are pretty special when it comes to food-chains.  A lack of light means no plant life, which is generally the foundation of most food webs.  Instead, the deep sea ecosystem consists mostly of scavengers, who are fed from above by a constant drizzle of organic particles and detritus known as ‘marine snow’.

But every so often, a really big particle falls in the form of a whale.  And when this happens, the whole community turns up for a feast.

Recently, a deep-sea graveyard was discovered off the coast of Angola by remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) conducting oil and gas exploration.  Consisting of a dead whale shark and four rays, this represented a surprisingly high concentration of deceased megafauna over a relativley small area.  Scientists are now using this footage to compare the species composition of scavengers on the shark and ray carcasses to the scavenger species present on whale falls.

Ecosystems within ecosystems.  A pretty cool example of how life goes on!

Humpback whales and seismic surveys

This week the “Behavioural response of Australian humpback whales to seismic surveys” (BRAHSS) project kicks off in Western Australia, with the aim of studying how these whales respond to the air guns used in seismic surveys.  This project is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies undertaken on the effects of noise on whales.  And this year I’ll be one of the marine mammal observers working there.

What are seismic surveys?

Seismic surveys use reflections from air gun noise to study the structure of the sea floor (Source:  Open Learn)

Seismic surveys use reflections from air gun noise to study the structure of the sea floor (Source: Open Learn)

Seismic surveys are used by industry to locate oil and gas deposites beneath the sea floor.  These surveys are also used by geoscientists conducting research on submarine rock structures.   This is done using air guns, which produce noise using compressed air.  This noise penetrates the sea floor and ‘bounces back’ off the underlying rock formations.  Survey vessels tow an array of hydrophones (underwater microphones), which receive the reflected noise signals produced by the air guns.  Scientists can examine the readings from this reflected noise to determine the structure of rock strata, and decide whether it is a potential oil / gas site.  Unfortunately, such surveys produce quite a bit of noise and there are concerns regarding the effect of this on marine life.

Where do humpback whales come into this?

Australia is lucky enough to have two populations of humpback whales.  Both populations spend the (austral) summer months feeding in Antarctica; but in the winter, the populations split with one migrating up the West Coast and the other up the East Coast of Australia to their tropical breeding and calving grounds.  During this migration, and particularly on the south-bound journey when females are travelling with young calves, the whales sometimes congregate in coastal bays for a “rest stop”.  This journey takes humpback whales past many sites of human significance, in terms of recreation, transport and industrial work.  Thus it is important to understand how human activities may effect these animals.  Of particular concern are the effects of underwater noise, as marine mammals have specialised hearing which assists with their navigation, foraging and communication.

What will BRAHSS be doing?

Humpback whale making some noise of its own (Photo: S. Marley)

Humpback whale making some noise of its own (Photo: S. Marley)

Broadly, the BRAHSS project aims to provide information that will reduce uncertainty in evaluating the impacts of seismic surveys on humpback whales.  This will lead to improved management and mitigation measures, allowing such surveys to be conducted efficiently and with minimum impact on the whales.  The project has previously run two successful research seasons off the East Coast of Australia in 2010 and 2011.  It is now repeating these experiments on the West Coast population of humpback whales.

As a marine mammal observer (MMO) on the project, I will be off to Dongara in Western Australia for the next 6wks.  My role will be to assist in spotting humpback whales and tracking their movements from the survey vessel, in addition to monitoring animal behaviours in response to air gun noise.  Dongara is reputed to be a pretty bouncy area sea-wise, so hopefully I manage to keep sea-sickness at bay (and don’t have to put my sea survival skills to the test!) – but it’ll be good to get out with some whales again 🙂

Did you hear? Recording whale sounds in Albany

This weekend the Centre for Marine Science and Technology (CMST) deployed two noise loggers in Albany, Western Australia to record underwater sounds, and I had the pleasure of assisting!


Angela and I with our first ever sea noise logger!

Angela and I with our first ever sea noise logger!

On Thursday, my supervisor Dr Chandra Salgado Kent (deputy director of CMST) showed Angela and I how to calibrate and prepare the noise loggers, which are specially designed and built by CMST.  Essentially an underwater microphone, the noise loggers have previously been deployed all around the Australian coast, allowing CMST to build up a catalogue of underwater sounds and tackle various questions in marine acoustics research.  As the centre’s two newest PhD students, these are pieces of equipment we are going to become very familiar with over the next few years!  We were shown how to program the noise loggers, which can be set to different sampling rates – they might record most of the time, or only every so often depending on the research question.  We also learnt how to secure the noise loggers in their casing, ready for deployment!

… Set …

The next day Chandra, Jose and I drove the two noise loggers down to Albany, ready for an early-morning deployment on Saturday.  Two officers from the newly formed Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) kindly met us at 7am to help finish preparing the noise loggers, then took us out in their vessel to deploy the loggers along with a representative from Albany Port.  Although there was a wee bit (i.e. fricking huge amount) of swell, we managed to get both loggers deployed in King George Sound – success!  We were also lucky enough to spot some marine mammals, with both bottlenose and common dolphins popping up next to the boat and plenty of New Zealand fur seals lounging around on the rocks.  A promising sign for a marine mammal research project!

Chandra gets some photos of the New Zealand fur seals off Albany

Chandra gets some photos of the New Zealand fur seals off Albany

… Go!

Now the noise loggers will (hopefully!) record for the next two months, recording the underwater ‘soundscape’ of King George Sound.  The project is a first for Albany, and will record all sounds produced in the bay be it from natural (waves, rain), biological (fish, whales, dolphins), or man-made (ships) sources.  But the main focus of this project are the humpback and southern right whales which use the area during their seasonal migrations.

Whales appear to be very vocal, with male humpbacks being particularly renowned for their ‘songs’, the purpose of which is still under debate.  However, both male and female whales also appear to produce ‘social sounds’, which may be used in various behavioural contexts.  The type and number of calls recorded help to give an idea of how many whales might be present in the area, and what they are up to.  This data will act as a pilot field season, which can be built upon in future years to establish trends in whale abundance and seasonality over time.  This will provide an idea of migration patterns for these species.  It’s an exciting development, and has already received media attention from the local press (“Whale song to be recorded“).

Now we just have to wait two months to hear what the whales are saying!

The Importance of Attending Conferences

In December 2013, the Society for Marine Mammalogy will be holding its biennial conference on the biology of marine mammals in Dunedin, New Zealand.  Last Friday, I was notified that I am lucky enough to be presenting at the conference!  But why are conferences such a big deal?

What is the SMM conference?

The Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) biennial conference is a gathering of marine mammal scientists from around the world, with the goal of enhancing collaboration, sharing ideas, and improving the quality of research on marine mammals.  Every SMM conference has a fantastic turnout, with hundreds of scientists in attendance.  This year promises to be no different, with over 1000 abstracts for talks and posters being submitted.  Unfortunately, about 20% of these were rejected.  But 200 talks and 400 posters have been accepted for the event.

What will I be presenting?

Pygmy blue whale and vessel; Geographe Bay, Western Australia

Pygmy blue whale and vessel (Geographe Bay, Western Australia) – how close is too close?

I will be presenting a poster based on work by myself and colleagues at the Southwest Whale Ecology Study (SouWEST).  Check out my Projects page for more information on this group.  The poster will document the responses of pygmy blue whales to vessel traffic during their migration through Geographe Bay, Western Australia.  Understanding the impacts of anthropogenic activities on marine fauna has become of increasing concern as the human population continues to expand its activities in the marine environment.  The SMM conference will be an excellent opportunity to share our research findings with the scientific community.

What’s the point of conferences?

Of course, conferences aren’t just a way of spreading the word about your own work – they’re also a great chance to hear about developments in your field and keep up-to-date with recent research.  The best part is that if you have questions or would like to know more about any particular topic, the researchers are right there to ask!  Conferences are great networking opportunities, whether you’re a student looking for a job, a professor looking for students, or a researcher interested in finding collaborators for a particular project.  Since presentations are often discussing work at varying stages (from preliminary findings through to recently published), it is also a good chance to get some informal peer-feedback.  Plus, you often get to travel to pretty cool places!

But for me the best thing about academic conferences is this:  inspiration.  Being surrounded by passionate people, new ideas, recent discoveries…  It all acts as a massive source of motivation and encouragement to continue in what can sometimes be a difficult field.  Everyone needs a pick-me-up sometimes, and I find the buzz of conferences invigorating.

So bring on New Zealand!

Dolphin Watch: Community Science in Action

How can a small team of scientists hope to measure a community of bottlenose dolphins – highly mobile animals – inhabiting a river stretching 60km through the capital of Western Australia?  By creating a network of citizen scientists!

The Swan-Canning Riverpark is an estuarine protected area flowing through Perth, WA.  Despite being situated in a major metropolitan area (over 1.4 million people), the river is home to a resident community of approximately 20 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.  Murdoch and Curtin Universities are leading the research into Perth’s Swan River dolphins, investigating how environmental changes in the river and human activities can affect the dolphin community.  For more information on the latest paper from this project, please click here.

Dolphin Watching for Science

Click here to view the Dolphin Watch Annual Report 2012-13

Click here to view the Dolphin Watch Annual Report 2012-13

The Dolphin Watch project is a partnership between the Swan River Trust’s River Guardians program, and Murdoch and Curtin Universities.  It was instigated in April 2009 to learn more about the bottlenose dolphins residing in the Swan and Canning Rivers by training members of the local community to monitor the dolphins.

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of attending Dolphin Watch Day 2013.  Each year, the amazing  contribution of the Dolphin Watch volunteers are celebrated on Dolphin Watch Day, providing an opportunity to share the most recent discoveries and research news.  Since the project began in 2009, volunteers have contributed 7,180 records of dolphin sightings detailing the location, group size and behaviour of animals seen in the river.  This has helped develop scientists’ understanding of how the dolphins are using this area, and will support the conservation of these much-loved locals.

Benefits for scientists…

Marine mammals are difficult to spot at the best of times.  But trying to track them down in a long river system, full of bays and inlets, can be a time-consuming process.  However, each year thousands of people use the Swan River for sport, recreation and travel.  If those people are already out on the river, it makes sense to make use of local knowledge to discover more about the ecosystem and its inhabitants.  Dolphin Watch essentially gives the scientists ‘eyes’ along the whole length of the river.

The growing size of this data set will allow scientists to begin studying long-term trends in dolphin habitat use and behaviour.  It will also improve their ability to detect changes in population size and behaviour which may effect the conservation of these iconic animals.  Citizen science projects such as this help us to develop our understanding of the world around us, and directly contribute to important research and conservation efforts.

… as well as volunteers!

This ever increasing amount of date is due to the growing size of Dolphin Watch, as well as the ongoing efforts of established members.  With almost 600 members of the Perth community out voluntarily monitoring the river, it is extremely heartening to see so many people taking an interest in preserving the local environment and it’s fauna.

But it’s more than just spotting the occasional dolphin.  People go out of their way to attend training sessions, fill in sighting reports, and spend hours scanning the water.  Already this year, they have submitted over 600 sightings so far – that’s a total of 2,467 hours dolphin watching!  A phenomenal effort!

And this is because people care.  They take an interest in the world around them, and want to know the outcomes of the research they’re helping to conduct.  They enjoy spending time in the natural environment, and want to ensure that future generations have the same opportunity.  They are an inspiration – and I hope their numbers continue to swell, bringing benefits to not only the dolphin community but our own community as well.

More Info?

The Dolphin Watch Annual Report (2012-13) became available on 14th June 2013.  For more information about the work of this exemplary citizen science program, have a flick through the report here!