One of the things I was super keen to do this summer was get out to explore the waters around the Isle of Wight. There have been several media reports of dolphins and seals around the island. Locals tell me they often see porpoises relatively close to shore. Plus there are even some potential whale sightings.
The plan was to spend a couple of weeks living out on the island with some student volunteers, visiting two cliff-top vantage points to keep watch for marine mammals. Throughout the summer, we were also planning to take the lovely new IMS research vessel Noctiluca out for some boat-based surveys.
Inaugural sailing of University of Portsmouth research vessel Noctiluca, lovely day for it. #uopskipper#ims#uop#marinebiology pic.twitter.com/IMepUrDSNR
Unfortunately, COVID-19 seems to have other ideas regarding my dreams of a field season…
But this doesn’t mean that research has to stop! Instead, my MSc student Robyne Castles has developed an online questionnaire to collect some local knowledge about marine mammal occurrence around the Isle of Wight:
The questionnaire asks when and where people have seen marine mammals in the past, along with any details about the species, behaviour, and time spent in the area. Although we’d obviously love to collect as much information as possible, every little bit helps!
This gridded map helps people identify where they saw a marine mammal. For example, square G3 for sightings near Ryde.
Marine mammals play an important role in the ecosystem, but also face many threats to their survival. So it is important to understand where and when these animals are occurring around the Isle of Wight and the Solent. We know that harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, harbour seals and grey seals use this area – but otherwise, our information is pretty limited.
By using local knowledge to create a map of historic marine mammal sightings, we will know how to best focus our future research efforts. This online survey is a crucial first step in developing a broader research program to study marine mammal ecology in this area.
So when we are eventually allowed back out on the water, we’ll know exactly where to go!
The number of vessels utilising the marine environment is on the rise, with a corresponding increase in noise pollution from this activity. But what are the effects of ship noise on marine mammals? We reviewed 154 scientific articles to document the species, areas, and effects studied. From this, we were able to identify common themes and important research gaps.
This was a hugely satisfying project and a delight to work on. One of the best parts of research is finding great people to work with, which was certainly the case here!
The paper is already receiving good reviews and the Altmetric score is soaring! I’m looking forward to seeing how this paper can help shape future research.
Nice to see river dolphins highlighted here as the species mostly likely impacted by ship noise and the least studied https://t.co/wv2NCuOGuZ
Very important new publication providing a full global picture of the effects of vessel noise on marine mammals – fascinating reading (and extremely helpful to those of us working on the legal issues of noise and vessel strikes!) https://t.co/Ig9fdlCiGg
Fantastic paper which highlights the importance of data collection in the marine environment. ..”it is not straightforward to translate acoustic recordings made in one environment to another..” https://t.co/K0GpdxUitH
One week left to apply for a PhD on “Vessel Collisions with Large Whales: Behavioural responses and areas of risk”, supervised by myself, Professor Alex Ford, and Ms Lucy Babey!
This PhD aims to quantify vessel collision risks for fin whales in the Bay of Biscay. Organisation Cetacea (ORCA), a cetacean conservation charity, has been utilising platforms-of-opportunity to collect cetacean sightings around the world since 2001. On-board observers collect data relating to effort, ship location / speed / heading, and whale sightings. The current project will both utilise ORCA’s long-term dataset and conduct fieldwork to collect additional data. Behavioural analyses will assess fine-scale behaviour of whales during vessel encounters, whilst density surface models will be used to identify high-risk areas.
This competition-funded PhD is open to UK / European students only. A BSc (minimum second-class) or a Masters degree in a relevant subject is required, along with English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 (with no component score below 6.0). The ideal candidate would also have previous field experience (e.g. vessel-based surveys, marine mammal observations, behavioural observations), proficiency in R and GIS software, and a strong background in statistical techniques.
The deadline for applications is 17th February 2019.
I’m now safely home after attending the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s biennial conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was an amazing eight days of conference talks and workshops, interspersed with plenty of networking. As well as meeting lots of interesting new people, it was particularly wonderful to catch up with so many old friends. Totally worth the 35hrs of one-way travel and 12hr time difference jetlag!
As human activities continue to expand across the marine environment, anthropogenic ocean noise is also rapidly increasing. This is of concern to acoustically-specialised species, particularly those displaying a high degree of habitat overlap with anthropogenic activities, such as bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.). There is a need to describe the soundscape of coastal dolphin habitats and examine how prominent anthropogenic noise sources may impact these animals. The Swan River in Western Australia flows through the state capital of Perth, containing over 1.4 million people, and consequently experiences a range of anthropogenic activities. However, the river is also extensively used by a resident community of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (T. aduncus). Autonomous underwater acoustic recorders were used to collect data throughout the Swan River, which were analysed via weekly spectrograms, power spectrum density percentile plots, octave-band levels, broadband noise levels, and generalised estimating equations. Land-based theodolite tracking at two sites provided information on vessel traffic and dolphin behaviour, which were assessed using generalised additive models and Markov chains. Acoustic datasets collected from 2005 to 2015 indicated that the Swan River was comprised of multiple acoustic habitats, each with its own characteristic soundscape and temporal patterns in underwater noise. The ‘noisiest’ site from an anthropogenic perspective and in relation to dolphin communications was the Fremantle Inner Harbour (mean broadband noise level: 106 dB re 1 µPa rms [10 Hz – 11 kHz]). Theodolite tracking at this site found that dolphins remained present during periods of high vessel traffic. However, behavioural observations indicated significant alterations to dolphin movement speeds and activity states at high vessel densities. Furthermore, whistle characteristics varied in conditions of high broadband noise. This work suggests that dolphins maintain occupancy at key foraging sites within the Swan River despite the presence of vessels, but alter their behaviour in periods of high vessel traffic.
I’ve previously spoken about the need to define the soundscape of dolphin habitats and examine patterns of when and where noise occurs. But whilst we can monitor dolphin acoustic habitats and describe how they are now, in many cases it is hard to say how they were in the past. We simply don’t have enough long-term datasets that capture the expansion of human activities into the marine environments – i.e. datasets that go far enough back in time to capture when the habitat was pristine and free of human influence. Understandably, this can also make it hard to decide how we best manage man-made noise in these habitats into the future. It’s hard to determine what noise mitigation measures are necessary when you don’t know how quiet an area is ‘supposed’ to be.
A potential solution to this conundrum for managing ‘urban’ areas is to find comparable ‘pristine’ areas which are also used by the study species, and see what differences exist. Of course, this is reliant upon pristine areas still existing in the first place. However, in Western Australia we are fortunate enough to have some areas up in the remote north of the state.
The Kimberley region of NW Australia
The Kimberley region in north-western Australia is one of the most remote, pristine wildernesses in the world. The largest town in the region is Broome, which has a permanent population of only 16,000 people (although the temporary population can increase to 45,000 in the tourism season). Broome is located on the shores of Roebuck Bay, with a relatively large population of snubfin dolphins and is also regularly used by bottlenose dolphins and humpback dolphins. This area offers a nice contrast with the busy, urban environment of the Swan River, which flows through the Western Australian state capital of Perth. This river is also used by bottlenose dolphins. To create successful noise mitigation strategies for coastal dolphins, there is a need to compare ‘quiet’ and ‘noisy’ acoustic habitats. Roebuck Bay and the Swan River offer the perfect opportunity to do just this.
Prepping the Roebuck Bay acoustic gear
I chose to compare the pristine soundscape of Roebuck Bay with the Swan River’s anthropogenically-noisiest site, the Fremantle Inner Harbour. I used autonomous underwater acoustic recorders to monitor the soundscape at these sites, and assessed these using a combination of weekly spectrograms, power spectrum density percentile plots and probability densities, octave-band levels, broadband noise levels, and generalised estimating equations – i.e. a shedload of nifty acoustic analyses.
What these essentially showed were that these two sites are very different in their acoustic characteristics. In Roebuck Bay, biological sounds (such as crustaceans and fish) were the most prevalent sound sources, with very few instances of vessel noise. However, in the Fremantle Inner Harbour, man-made noise dominated. This worked out to a 20 dB difference between sites on average, and the frequencies used by dolphins for communication were more likely to be masked in Fremantle Inner Harbour based on elevated noise levels.
In this study, I was also lucky enough to get some acoustic recordings of sounds produced by snubfin and bottlenose dolphins in Roebuck, and could use these for a comparison with the sounds produced by bottlenose dolphins in Fremantle. This helped me to discuss the potential consequences on Roebuck Bay dolphins if noise levels were to increase at that site. Such information is going to be useful going into the future, as several coastal developments are currently planned for Roebuck Bay.
To do this, I used a combination of visual and acoustic monitoring techniques. I found that dolphins significantly increased their movement speeds when vessel traffic occurred at high levels. Similarly, dolphins also changed their behavioural budgets at high vessel densities, spending more time travelling and less time resting or socialising.
I monitored dolphin movement speeds and behaviours, to see how these changed as vessel traffic increased
I also looked for acoustic responses, by measuring nine characteristics to describe the shape and frequencies of dolphin whistles in different noise scenarios. I found that all nine of these characteristics varied with increasing levels of broadband noise, and that the response was particularly strong for low-frequency noise.
I used nine characteristics to describe dolphin whistles
I’ve spoken before about the importance of scientific publishing, in terms of career brownie points for researchers. So I’m pretty chuffed to have completed publishing my PhD! To view the full list of papers from this and other projects, check out my Publications page. Now to deal with all the ‘leftover’ PhD data that I collected, but didn’t get around to including!
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)
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
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 (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!
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)
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!
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 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?
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
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 😛