New Paper: Spatial and temporal variation in dolphin acoustic habitats

There is a growing awareness of underwater noise in our oceans and the potential impacts of such noise on marine life, an issue which was the major theme of my PhD thesis.  This is particularly relevant for “acoustically-specialised” species, such as dolphins.  However, before we can start investigating the effects of noise on these animals, we first need to define the soundscape of dolphin habitats and examine patterns of when and where noise occurs.

We get a glimpse of them at the surface – but what about their acoustic habitat beneath the surface? (Photo: Sarah Marley)

This description of noise in dolphin habitats formed my third PhD chapter, which has now been published online in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science.  In this paper, I examine spatial and temporal variability in the soundscape of the Swan River using over 11,600 hours of acoustic data collected from five sites within the river system across eight years.  Multiple sound sources were recorded at these sites, but the prevalence of these sounds at each site differed, giving each location a characteristic soundscape.  Consequently, some sites were ‘noisier’ than others.

Deploying acoustic recording equipment with help from Fremantle Ports. Spot the dolphins in the background! (Photo: Jeanette Murray)

Want to know more?  The full paper is available online! I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Marley et al. (2017) Spatial and temporal variation in the acoustic habitat of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) within a highly urbanised estuary.  Frontiers in Marine Science, 4: 197.

And watch this space, as the remaining three PhD papers should be going up online in the next few months!

 

 

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New Video: The Dolphin and the Sound

As you know, I’m fortunate enough to be sister to the amazing wildlife film-maker Lisa Marley.  I’ve written about her documentary on Scottish raptor poisonings here previously (and incidentally, this work is currently touring the film festivals – scroll to the end for details!).  But in June, we actually worked together on a short film project as part of the Aquatic Noise 2016 conference I attended in Dublin.

The conference held a public evening involving short lectures around the theme of underwater noise, and also invited submission of videos on this topic.  Lisa and I worked together to create a short film describing the effects of human noise on coastal dolphins, similar to the idea of my 3MT speech – but with much cooler visuals than just me standing on a stage!

I wonder if anyone recognises the locations involved in this production?  Suggestions on a postcard please…!

So now I have a professional video to highlight my research AND had the awesome experience of working on a creative project with my sister.  And all without a single sibling squabble to be seen!


“Red Sky on the Black Isle” lastest screenings:

  • Hebrides International Film Festival (on Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra; UK):  14-17 September 2016
  • Aberdeen Film Festival (UK):  17 October 2016
  • Festival de Menigoute (France):  27 October 2016

Follow the film’s Facebook page for more updates!

Famous Last Words

FameLab Australia Final

MC Robyn Williams revs up the crowd at the FameLab Australia Final 2015 (Photo: OK White Lane)

My last post spoke of my experience competing in the WA State Heat of FameLab.  Although I was delighted to be voted the Peoples Choice by audience vote, unfortunately only the winner and runner-up of each state heat progress to the National Final.

Or so I thought…

But a couple of weeks after the State Heat, I received a phonecall from FameLab Australia organiser Chris Hodge, inviting me back to present again as the British Council Wildcard entrant.  So I made it to the Final by a fluke!

Sussing out the Competition

The FameLab Australia Final involved entrants from New South Wales, Victoria, ACT, Queensland and Western Australia.  A mix of PhD students, post-docs, and scientists-with-real-jobs we covered a range of subjects from coughing guinea pigs to spider behaviour, gut bacteria to brain function, biofuel to artificial intelligence.  A mysterious group of people at the best of times, especially when most of us had never met before!

I had the chance to suss out one of the competitors, David Farmer, on a radio interview with ABC Melbourne presenter Lindy Burns.  Ironically, when discussing the Australian competition, the station had managed to select two Scottish people to interview.  So this combined with dolphins, lasers and squishy brains made for some great banter in a pretty unique interview!

With competitors like that, it was obviously going to be some stiff competition…

Love and Science

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists (Photo:  OK White Lane)

The lead-up to the National Final included two days of media training with science communication guru Malcolm Love.  Chief Trainer of FameLab International, Malcolm was originally a freelance journalist in South America before working for the BBC as a producer on features and documentaries for over 20 years.  He is now a specialist in the public engagement of science, giving lectures on the subject at the University of West England and providing training for a range of science-stakeholders, as well as hosting his own weekly radio show “Love and Science“.  So this guy knows what he’s talking about.

In the training, we covered a variety of topics including body language, story-telling and interview tips.  But one of the best things about it was interacting with people who love science communication.  Many scientists still hold onto a fear of presenting to the public, and worry about “dumbing down” their research or coming across as boring.  But all the participants were obviously people who were passionate about their research, and it is hard not to get swept up in that kind of enthusiasm!  So it was an awesome two days of being a science geek with other science geeks and discussing how to turn other people into science geeks too!

The Final

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation...  (Photo:  OK White Lane)

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation… (Photo: OK White Lane)

A sell-out event with over 200 people in attendance, the final was a bit more nerve-wracking than the state heat.  But I always tell presenters that you just have to try changing the nervous energy into excited energy, so when I stepped up to the spotlight I tried to remember my own advice.  Unfortunately, I still felt my performance lacked the right mix of enthusiasm – even as I was speaking, I knew it sounded over-rehersed.  So although the crowd laughed in the right spots and seemed keen, I knew it wouldn’t be a winning presentation.  But that’s okay – there will be others!

Science is a serious business - need to work on that intense expression!  (Photo:  Ok White Lane)

Science is a serious business – need to work on that intense expression! (Photo: Ok White Lane)

The overall winner of FameLab Australia 2015 was Dr Sandip Kamath, with Dr David Farmer coming a close second.  Sandip is studying shellfish allergies at James Cook University, and spoke of his ambition to help people overcome these reactions – with the help of Mr Pinchy the lobster, his side-kick slash prop.  David moved away from squishy brains and lasers to give a fascinating description of his research at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience, investigating the cough reflex and brainstem function.  To see photos from the night, check out the British Council Flickr Page.

And, of course, we all had fun celebrating at the FameLab after-party!  The official function was in the WA Maritime Museum, with some speeches and lots of well-wishers…  But the scientists and British Council crew headed out into Fremantle to celebrate afterwards!  After all, we’re twelve of the top young science communicators in the country!

So now, as Sandip flies to the UK to compete in the FameLab International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival, for the rest of us it is back down to Earth.  I’m back in a world of fieldwork, marking student assignments, and desperately trying to finish the first scientific paper of my PhD.  I can see all my new sci comm pals talking about the same reality bump on Twitter.  But to be honest, getting back to research is quite exciting enough… for now!

Intro to Underwater Acoustics: Two dolphins walk into a bar…

One of the things many scientists find challenging is how to explain their research in an interesting manner.

It’s one thing preparing your research for academic publications – there is a recognised structure to follow, certain items to always include, and feedback from co-authors and reviewers to improve your writing.  But presenting that same information to the general public is a whole other ball game.  How do you keep a class of undergraduates interested for a whole 2hr lecture on underwater acoustics?  How do you encourage community volunteers to develop scientific thinking skills?  How do you explain your research to media personnel in a way that makes it exciting and worth sharing?

These are problems that I find really interesting.  Obviously traditional science communication (academic publications and presenting at scientific conferences) is important.  But I’ve spoken before of the importance of also becoming a virtual scientist, and learning new science communication techniques to promote your research.  So I was pretty chuffed last week to find myself at a day-long workshop on “Science Communication and Presentation Skills” as part of FameLab Australia.

Bringing Science into the Spotlight

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition to discuss underwater acoustics

FameLab is one of the world’s leading science communication competitions.  It aims to get people “talking science” by mentoring young scientists and engineers to turn them into awesome communicators.  Similar to the 3-Minute-Thesis Competition (3MT), speakers are given only 3mins to explain their area of research – no powerpoint, no labcoats, no jargon!  Organised by the British Council, there are over 45 countries participating in the event, having their own national finals to determine their competitors for the final FameLab International Competition in the UK.

I was encouraged by Curtin University to enter, so went along last Thursday to the workshop, which culminated in the WA State Finals that evening.  The workshop was held by three local science communicators – Emma Donnelly (Science Outreach Coordinator; Curtin University), Sarah Lau (Communication Managed; ChemCentre), and Renae Sayers (Theatre and Events Coordinator; Scitech).  We spent an amazing day bouncing around between flaming hands, personal brands, communication platforms, and vocal toolboxes.  It was like a step back into my former Science Presenter life…  If I could find a way to incorporate explosions, liquid nitrogen, and / or flaming limbs into my dolphin presentations, I would be complete!

Like Taking a Keyboard from a Baby

For my talk, I really wanted to get people thinking about underwater soundscapes.  To do this, I wanted to use an example that people could relate to – and since I knew my audience would majorly consist of young to middle-aged adults, I figured comparing the underwater environment to a bar would be a pretty nifty metaphor! Almost everyone in the audience had probably experienced the masking effects of background noise in a pub at some point, so it nicely familiarised the problem faced by dolphins.

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

But how to illustrate this on stage?  FameLab requires the use of a prop, which I struggled with for a while.  I got a friend to record some bar sounds from his weekend exploits, but playing them on stage quickly became a logistical pain.  The rules didn’t allow me to use the FameLab sound system, and bringing my own wasn’t feasible.

But a brainwave on the treadmill (I often problem-solve whilst walking) reminded me of the last time I was babysitting.  Owen wandered over to the electric keyboard, switched it on, and pressed the ‘random filler’ option to churn out some beats before dancing around in circles for ten minutes.

Random cheesy filler music would make a great bar-sounds alternative – loud enough to make the point, whilst being tacky enough to be funny.  Win!

Two Dolphins Walk into a Bar…

The resultant talk wasn’t filmed as part of FameLab, but Phil managed to catch the talk on his phone.  The volume is a bit low, but still gives a pretty good video of my performance!

"Tursiops Wins Again!" - Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People's Choice winner

“Tursiops Wins Again!” – Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People’s Choice winner

I was delighted to be awarded People’s Choice by audience vote, but unfortunately I didn’t make it through to the Australian Finals.  The judges consoled me afterwards by saying that it was my lack of results rather than my performance which hindered my progression to the next round, and strongly encouraged me to come back next year.  Although, as a friend kindly pointed out, it means I got the votes of 200 audience members as opposed to 3 judges!

Regardless, I still enjoyed the whole experience!  I always enjoy the chance to talk about dolphins and get people excited in science!  And it was a wonderful opportunity to meet some fellow science enthusiasts whilst flexing my science communication skills.  Plus applause isn’t something you get often in research, so that was pretty appreciated!

A massive congrats go to Amber Beavis (WA Museum) and David Gozzard (UWA) who were the winner and runner-up for the WA competition.  I can’t wait to see you guys at the Australian final down at Fremantle in May!

Any More Talks?

But looking at the birthday card I got from the department this week, perhaps I should be focusing more on my research for a while – I appear to be getting a bit of a reputation 😛

Sarah's Birthday Card 2015

What a Fluke – Citizen Scientists Sight Whale Species First for Europe

Last week, two friends enjoying a beach-walk in the Isles of Scilly saw an unusual-looking whale not far off the shore.  They quickly used their mobile phone to take some photos, and noted down the relevant sighting details.  This information was later submitted to the Sea Watch Foundation, a UK marine environmental research charity.  As the whale did not appear to have a dorsal fin, the ladies assumed it was a sperm whale – which would have been unusual in itself, given that this species is a deep-water specialist.

The Mystery Whale

When the cetacean experts at the Sea Watch Foundation reviewed the photos, they were astonished to realise that what the ladies had sighted was even more unusual!

Dr Peter Evans, Founder and Director of Sea Watch Foundation, admits that the photos were a challenge.  “Even with enlarging them, and trying to sharpen them up within Adobe Photoshop, it was very hard to pick out the more subtle features due to the low resolution of the pictures, or even to tell exactly what part of the body was showing in some of the photos“, he says.  “One image, however, showed the animal closer than the rest, and revealed the shape of the head and even the jaw-line“.

The head of the whale, photographed by Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

The head of the unusual whale sighted in the Isles of Scilly last week.  Photo: Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

This curving jaw-line eliminated sperm whale as an option, as this toothed species has a very straight mandible as opposed to baleen whale species who show a downwards-curving jaw.  Dr Evans sought second-opinions from colleagues in the US, including experts such as Dr Tom Jefferson from Texas A&M University, Dr Phil Clapham from the government agency NOAA in Washington DC, and Dr Scott Kraus from New England Whale Museum in Provincetown. They isolated identifying features, including the curved jaw-line, the lack of a dorsal fin, a light patch under the chin and some black spotting along the top of the head.

And the Answer is…

The consensus agreement was as exciting as it was unexpected – a bowhead whale.  Given the context of a photo showing one of the ladies entering the water with the whale, this animal is thought to be a juvenile.  Adults can grow up to 20 metres long and weigh almost 90 tonnes.  Bowheads appear to be one of the longest-lived whale species around, with some animals thought to be 200 years old, based on old Inuit harpoon heads recovered from hunted individuals.

Anna Cawthray wades into the water to get a closer view of the animal, which shows little reaction to her presence. Photo: Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

Anna Cawthray wades into the water to get a closer view of the animal, which shows little reaction to her presence. Photo: Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

A First for Europe – But Why Now?

Excitingly, this is the first sighting of a bowhead whale in not just the UK, but the rest of Europe.  These whales normally live in the high Arctic, where they suffered severe exploitation by commercial whales since the 1500s.  By the 1920s, there was thought to be only around 3,000 individuals left.  However, thanks to the cessation of commercial whaling in 1986, their numbers appear to have increased to around 15,000 – 20,000 animals, mainly in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean.

But the question now is, what was a bowhead whale doing so far south?  There have been increased sightings of warmer-water species around the UK over the past decade, presumably as a result of global warming encouraging species to extend their ranges north-wards.  So to find a cold-water specialist so far south is enigmatic, particularly as bowheads generally tend to never stray far from the ice-edge.  Dr Peter Evans suggests that global warming could still be to blame.

In March 2012, a bowhead whale was photographed in Cape Cod Bay, New England, and the same individual re-appeared in the same area a year later, in early April“, he explains.  “These records far from the natural range of the species may in fact be the result of ice fragmentation, leading to animals straying further south. The welcome increase in the size of the West Greenland population may also be a contributory factor for why this creature appeared some two thousand miles from its normal range.

The Value of Citizen Science

From my point of view, one of the other important realisations from this sighting is the role citizen science has to play in research.  It is obviously impossible for researchers to be everywhere at once – to be honest, the further you progress into a marine research career, the more time you spend land-locked at your desk!  So having trained eyes, in the form of citizen scientists, scattered around the coast provides whole new opportunities for data collection.  Citizen science also promotes awareness of the natural world, by educating volunteers, connecting them with scientists, and actively engaging them in conservation.

The Sea Watch Foundation was founded in 1991 to find out more about cetaceans in British and Irish waters.  It aimed to do this by involving the public in the study of these animals, rather than relying on occasional scientist-led surveys and examination of dead animals from strandings.  Sea Watch Foundation now has two main offices in the UK, as well as 35 local groups of observers who have generated thousands of sightings.

Why not explore what citizen science projects operate near you?

 

 

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!

And the winner of the 3-Minute-Thesis competition is…

3MT Trans-Tasman Competition 2014 Sarah Marley and Rosanna Stevens

3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 Sarah Marley and Rosanna Stevens

…  Sarah Marley from Curtin University

When I heard those words, my heart stopped.  I did the “shocked-actress-wins-award” face.  I hugged my friends sitting on either side.  I repeatedly gasped “oh my goodness“.  I may have even made a rather embarrassing Oscar-worthy acceptance speech.  Now over a week later and I am still riding the high 🙂

View the talk below:

Now let’s back up a bit.

The 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition was developed by the University of Queensland back in 2008.  It was intended to be an exercise in communication for graduate students, giving them just three minutes to explain their PhD to a generalist audience.  Since then, the competition has expanded to universities around the world.

I’ve known about this competition for a couple of years now, after seeing various friends compete to present their own PhD at other universities.  I couldn’t wait to become a student myself and give it a go!  So when Curtin University emailed around to announce that registration was open for the 2014 competition I immediately sat down, wrote my talk in 20mins, and started practicing!

The Curtin heats were a couple of months ago, where I surprised myself by not only making it through to the Curtin Final top ten but also by winning my heat.  “A great start,” I thought.  “Now back to fieldwork!” as I prepared for the second trip up to the Kimberleys.  A few weeks later, I made the special one-night-only trip back from Broome to Perth for the Curtin Final, and won both the Final and the People’s Choice award!  Certainly justified the trip down!

All the competitors from the 3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 competition at UWA

All the competitors from the 3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 competition at UWA

But the Trans-Tasman Competition was the hardest yet.  I was competing with winners, so you can imagine that the standard of talks was extremely high!  Most amazing of all was the team spirit – everyone was so nice to each other!  After every presentation, the speaker would return to the “green room” amid cheers and high fives from their opposition 🙂  It was a great vibe!

Then it was time to give my talk…

Not a stutter in sight!  Quite different to a couple of years ago...

Not a stutter in sight! Quite different to 4 yrs ago…

As I stepped on stage, I felt such a buzz.  I love the work that I do, and the opportunity to talk about it always gets me excited!  Quite a far cry from four years ago, when I could barely give a short talk to a group of friends without blushing and stuttering my way through the presentation.  So I felt a certain glow of accomplishment at having enjoyed something that just a few years would have terrified me!

From a happy glow to radiating surprise, I was ecstatic to be chosen as winner of the 3MT – but the whole experience was a delight!  From the thrill of presenting to the team spirit backstage to the happiness of making new friends, the whole 3MT journey has been a blast.  If you ever have the opportunity to take part I would thoroughly encourage you to do so!  Even if you’re not confident of your presenting skills, just ask yourself – when will you get a better opportunity to try?

But work on your potential acceptance speech beforehand, and practice your photo face:

Me laughing manically as I receive my giant novelty cheque from sponsor James Mercer.  Sorry James...

Me laughing manically as I receive my giant novelty cheque from sponsor James Mercer. Sorry James…

Now all that is left is for me to thank my partner, my friends, my family, my university, the organisers, the sponsors, the judges, the competitors, the audience, the backstage staff, my high school science teacher, my pets…

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.

The Last 55: Final chance for Maui’s dolphins

Maui's dolphinFifty-five is not a big number.  But it could mean a world of difference to one small dolphin species in New Zealand.

Maui’s dolphin is the world’s rarest and smallest known subspecies of dolphin.  Found only in New Zealand,they typically range close to the coast in small pods although they can also be found around harbour mouths and further offshore.  But their numbers have been decreasing due to entanglement in fishing gear and disease, with approximately 4 to 5 Maui’s killed each year.  Which doesn’t seem like too many, right?

A bit of maths

In the 1970s, the dolphin population was reportedly around 1,800 individuals.  But the species has rapidly declined since net-setting and trawling were introduced in the 1970s.  A 2012 research study estimated that only 55 Maui’s dolphins now remain.  Suddenly that 4 to 5 death rate seems a lot bigger.  So just since that study was conducted, we are probably already approaching a population size of around 40 animals. Extinction isn’t just a threat – it’s a very real likelihood.

If we are losing 10% of the population each year, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that things aren’t looking good for the Maui’s.  Especially given their slow reproduction rate – females reach maturity at approximately 8 years of age, and only have one calf every 2 – 4 years.

What is being done?

The New Zealand government generally has a pretty good standing when it comes to conservation.  In 2003, a ban on commercial set nets was added to an existing ban on recreational netting from north of Auckland to north of Taranaki, covering out to four nautical miles from shore.  In 2008, this was extended to seven nautical miles and in 2012 the ban on set nets extended further south.  Last year, the Minister of Conservation finalised a Maui’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan, which includes codes of practice for seismic surveys, regulations for inshore boat racing, and the establishment of a Maui’s Dolphin Research Advisory Group.

So are things improving?

Debatable. Although various marine protected areas have been created with the aim of conserving Maui’s dolphins, the government has failed to extend protections to areas where there have been credible recent sightings of the animals.  That’s the thing about marine mammal conservation – these are free-ranging animals who cover large areas in a dynamic habitat.  Thus, the distribution of populations will change over time and so needs constant re-assessment if protected areas are to have a positive effect.  But this is an investment the NZ government seems unwilling to make.

And despite several promising moves on the government’s part, it looks like money might win through in the end.  This week, it has been reported by several news groups that the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary – home to the Maui’s dolphin – has been signed off for oil and gas exploration.

The NZ government signed off a block offer of sea and land in April, which includes a 3,000 square kilometre overlap into the sanctuary.  Oil and gas development in this area could have a devastating impact on Maui’s habitat by increasing levels of underwater noise through seismic surveys, as well as putting the area at greater risk of oil spills.

The government has already had previous bungles with the block offer, with Simon Bridges, the Minister of Energy and Resources signing off New Zealand’s biggest forest park for drilling – despite having never heard of it.  Not exactly reassuring that the government is taking conservation seriously.

In fact, politicians are arguing whether this is even an issue, and NZ Conservation Minister Nick Smith is insisting that there hasn’t been a single observation of a Maui’s dolphin in the proposed exploration area.  So no need to worry.

But you have to wonder how hard they’ve looked?

What you can do

Numerous scientific and conservation groups have already called for the New Zealand government to take action to save the Maui’s dolphin.  Just last week, the International Whaling Commission urged the government to do more to save the species, stating that it had “extreme concern” about the decline in Maui’s dolphins.

In a recent report, the IWC estimated that Maui’s will decline to just 10 adult breeding females in six years and become functionally extinct in less than 20 years – unless their full range is protected from gillnetting and trawling.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.15.55 amWWF have stepped up their “Last 55” campaign to save the Maui’s dolphin, urging parliament to announce permanent measures that remove fishing gear which kills dolphins and help affected fishermen adopt dolphin-friendly fishing methods.   “Anything less will not give the species a fighting chance at survival.”

Support their campaign by signing the WWF online petition here.  And hopefully we can convince the New Zealand government to stop faffing around and start taking effective steps to save the Maui’s dolphin.

The (After) Life of a Whale

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

Seriously.

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!