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!

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Red Sky on the Black Isle

In 2014, 22 birds of prey including 16 red kites were found dead in one small area of the Black Isle in Scotland.  One year on, their story has not been forgotten.  Portrayed in a short film by wildlife film-maker Lisa Marley, Red Sky on the Black Isle uses a combination of interviews with locals, beautiful landscape shots, and bird close-ups to tell their tale.

I won’t go on to describe how amazing the film is (I’d much rather you watched it and saw for yourself!).  But being the proud sister, I will showcase some of the media attention Lisa has received as a result of her film.

These include a mix of film reviews and news items praising her handiwork, along with articles showing a renewed outcry from conservation groups demanding to know why this case has never been solved.  The film was also recently shown at an international scientific conference in Spain dedicated to red kite research and conservation.  It seems pretty safe to say that this film has ruffled a few feathers and stirred up some discussion – exactly what a good documentary is supposed to do 🙂

Red_Sky_Official_Poster
Those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh this week have the opportunity to view her film on the big screen!  The aptly (but coincidentally) named Raptor Filmz Short Scottish Film Festival aims to promote and encourage film making in and about Scotland.  It will be screening Red Sky on the Black Isle on 5th February 2016.  Check out the Raptor Filmz Facebook page for more information on location, schedule, and tickets.

For those of you who are unable to view attend, don’t worry – you can still find Lisa on Twitter and Vimeo to follow her work.

Watch This Space film magazine

http://www.watchthisspacefilmmagazine.co.uk/2015/10/28/red-sky-on-the-black-isle-2015/

Press and Journal newspaper

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/highlands/732865/black-isle-raptor-deaths-back-in-the-spotlight-in-new-short-film/

Evening Express newspaper

http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-press-and-journal-aberdeenshire/20151026

Red Kite II International Symposium 2015

http://redkitesymposium2015.com/program/

Raptor Persecution Scotland website

https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/red-sky-on-the-black-isle-new-film-on-the-ross-shire-massacre/

Raptor Politics website

http://raptorpolitics.org.uk/2015/10/23/the-red-sky-on-the-black-isle-new-film-about-the-poisoning-of-16-red-kites-and-several-buzzards-in-2014/

 

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

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.

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?

 

 

Is it a plane? A duck? A police car? No, it’s a fish…

For the last few weeks I have been working on the first chapter of my PhD describing the underwater soundscape of the Swan River.  Overall, this has been a really good way of becoming more familiar with identifying underwater sounds.  By far the most baffling of which have come from fish.

Hard-core headphones are becoming my default fashion accessory at the moment...

All about that bass: Hard-core headphones are becoming my default fashion accessory at the moment…

It turns out that many fish species produce a whole variety of ridiculous sounds, including quacks, knocks, grunts, sirens, trumpets and even Rolf Harris impersonations (sounds like his infamous wobble-board).  These sounds are all produced in different ways:  some are made using sonic muscles located on or near the swim bladder; others sounds are the result of the fish rubbing together or striking its skeletal components; and sometimes even changes in swim speed or direction can result in noise production.

But, like many animal sounds, the purpose of many fish noises is still to be determined.  Sound production might be intentional, in the form of vocalisations or calls, in which case noises are most likely signals to other animals (e.g. to attract mates, warn off competitors, co-ordinate with conspecifics, or raise the alarm about predators).  However, sounds can also be produced unintentionally as the result of feeding or swimming.  And when your subjects are mostly occurring in the cold, dark oceanic depths it can be pretty tricky to figure out the behavioural context of recorded sounds!

The majority of sounds produced by fishes are of low frequency, typically less than 1000 Hz.  By themselves they can be pretty hard to pull out of a large dataset, thus requiring a systematic search through potentially months of data.  But a really cool characteristic of some fishes is that they call in choruses.  This is when multiple (dozens or even hundreds) of individual fish within the same area produce the same call.

These choruses occur all over the Australian continental shelf, in both tropical and temperate waters and were first discovered in the late 1960s.  Many show significant seasonal trends in chorus levels and differences between years, potentially indicating that chorus activity reflects secondary productivity (see “Continental shelf fish choruses in Australian Waters” by Robert McCauley and Douglas Cato).  Others are reliably produced at specific times of year, and are believed to be associated with reproduction (see “Fish choruses from the Kimberley, seasonal and lunar links as determined by long term sea noise monitoring” by Robert McCauley), although the nature and intensity of some reproductive choruses can change in association with physical and environmental cues (see “An investigation into active and passive acoustic techniques to study aggregating fish species” by Miles Parsons).  Thus, these calls can play significant roles in the life function of many species.

Great to know that, in all these long hours you spend sitting at the computer, you are probably listening to fish sex!

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!

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.