Tag Archives: Marine biology

Over-whale-ming: Life as a PhD Double-Agent

For the last ten weeks, I have been living two lives.

Life 1: Sarah Marley, field biologist. Commences dolphin surveillance at 0500 hours, ceases observations at 1830 hours. Spends spare time managing an ever-increasing network of volunteer dolphin spies (aka “dolphineers”) to conduct regular river monitoring at select top-secret sites. She moves as a shadow, elusive of social situations, needless of sleep, as she begins the task of data hoarding…

Life 2: Sarah Marley, regular PhD student. Comes into the office a few days a week, and spends time reading papers, learning Matlab, teaching undergrads, and tackling a never-ending flow of emails. Existing mostly on caffeine and to-do lists, she has a desk-drawer full of snacks and several types of tea. Collects dolphin-themed desk decor.

Neither sound too strenuous. But recently, co-existence of these roles has become slightly tricky…

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming...

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming…

Life 1 is highly volunteer-dependent. My fieldwork needs at least a team of three (including myself), so my schedule varies each week depending on volunteer availability. I have an amazing team of dedicated, lovely, wonderful volunteers.  But – as I am trying to get out to each site 3 times per week – I inevitably have to spend a few hours trying to sign folk up to fill gaps. I live in constant fear of cancellations, and check my phone compulsively “just in case”.

Life 2 flows around the first; if I’m not in the field, I head to uni. But snatching office hours here and there can make it difficult to focus on larger tasks. As a result, when I make my weekly to-do list each Monday, I find myself re-writing the same few big jobs, along with a wave of new mini-tasks.

To try and combat this, I attended a time-management workshop last Friday. Which I was late for. But as a friend pointed out, I hadn’t attended the workshop yet so that was to be expected!  The presenter quizzed us on our degree courses, study habits, and sleep patterns. She assured me that “you only need four hours sleep to survive, so you’ll finish your PhD in no time“.  Funnily enough, this was not actually very reassuring.

Despite this we did pick up a few useful hints.  This week I have drafted up a timetable of activities based on how long each task takes.  Hopefully this will help me to use my time a bit more efficiently.  My New Years Resolution of getting a minimum of 7hrs sleep was becoming sadly neglected, so I’m also trying to “shut off” when I come home to make sure I’m rested enough to blast through those to-do lists the following morning! The ability to say “no” is something I’m working on improving.

I think the biggest challenge is accepting that there is only a given amount of things I can accomplish during the fieldwork phase.  This should only last a few more months, then there will be a seasonal down period, giving me plenty of time to tackle the desk-based stuff.

But I guess no one ever said being a Science Ninja was easy 😉

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Fieldwork Update: Watch out dolphins, Big Sister is watching (and listening!)

Over the last couple of months I have had a busy whirlwind of deploying noise loggers; learning how to program recording schedules and then process acoustic data; complete health and safety forms; obtain permits for area use; train volunteers for visual surveys; organise fieldwork shifts…  and this is before the fieldwork has even started!  But now it’s all underway and the data is coming in!

Eavesdropping on Dolphins…

Sylvia and Mal from CMST head out into the Swan River to help deploy my first batch of noise loggers

Sylvia and Mal (CMST) head out into the Swan River to help deploy loggers

Back in November 2013, three noise loggers were deployed in the Swan River as part of my PhD project examining the acoustical and behavioural response of coastal dolphins to noisy environments.   I have been lucky enough to have great support from the students and staff at CMST to help me with deployments.  Now the first batch of acoustic data from this first logger deployment is in my office, ready for processing!

These noise loggers record underwater sound produced by ambient (wind, waves), biological (dolphins, fish, crustaceans), and human sources (vessels, traffic, and construction).  For more info on these noise loggers, see my previous post on recording whale sounds in Albany.  Whilst I am examining this first acoustic data batch, the noise loggers have been moved to new locations and are busy recording more underwater sounds.

Over the next year, I will be deploying noise loggers at several spots throughout the river.  I can then use these data to describe the underwater soundscape of the Swan River and examine the vocal behaviour of bottlenose dolphins.

…  Whilst Watching from Above!

Visual observations of dolphin behaviour began in January 2014.  I am conducting visual surveys at various vantage points along the shoreline, using a theodolite to record dolphin movements and behaviours in the river.  This visual information can then be used to understand the context of dolphin sounds and their use of the underwater acoustic environment.

A theodolite is traditionally a surveying instrument, used to create 3D models of the landscape.  It does this by selecting different points, then measuring the horizontal and vertical angles to give an exact bearing and distance to each point; this creates a scale map of the area.  But we can also use this technique to get the position of objects out at sea – such as dolphins!  So we can use a theodolite to map a dolphin’s position each time it surfaces, giving a very fine-scale track of how the animals are using an area.  The added bonus being that the dolphins are not aware of our presence, so we do not have to worry about disturbing the animals and influencing their behaviour.  Although I do often wonder if they have a “feeling of being watched”…

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me (and theo) surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

To run these visual surveys, I require a theodolite team:  one person entering data on the computer, one collecting positions using the theodolite, and some others to find the dolphins!  Thankfully, I have had an overwhelming amount of support from my ex-students (and some marine biologist friends), and currently have around 25 volunteers donating their time to help out in the field.  Many are studying or working full-time, making their contributions all the more amazing and appreciated!

But we have had some particularly awesome dolphin sightings to make it all worthwhile – and even on quiet days, the great team spirit (and masses of life stories to tell) keeps us pretty entertained!

Mapping Unexpected Visitors – sightings of uncommon marine species

The coastal town of Albany, Western Australia had a surprise visitor this week, in the rather large form of a southern elephant seal.  Although still just a juvenile, this 2.5m male is thought to weigh-in at somewhere between 500 and 700 kg – not exactly something you want to find in your front yard!  But when Rhonda Bell looked outside, that’s exactly what she found!

The seal has been basking on Rhonda’s beachside property on-and-off over the last week, occasionally moving up and down the coastal road.  Local residents have been turning up by the dozen to check out the unusual marine mammal.  Southern Elephant Seals breed in colonies on South Georgia, Macquarie Island, Heard Island and the Kerguelen Islands. For most of the year they live in the cold oceans of the sub-Antarctic.  However, at this time of year winter fronts can sweep in various migratory animals to Western Australia.  Since elephant seals are used to travelling long-distances (records of an elephant seal travelling 18,000 miles over a year), no doubt this one will none the worse for wear.

In the meantime, the media are having a field day with seal-related puns as a result (my personal favourite “Sealed road a big hit with locals“).  Although worryingly, not many people seem to know much about the animal.  One local kid was quoted as saying “I wasn’t sure what it was – I thought maybe a remote-controlled hippopotamus” (see the video here).  Oh dear…

The 'sea monk' was a monster from the North Sea - not sure if there's a Redmap category for this!

The ‘sea monk’ was a monster from the North Sea – not sure if there’s a Redmap category for this!

But admittedly, when something strange appears in your local patch of ocean, how are you supposed to figure out what it is?

One new initiative is trying to map the occurrence of ‘uncommon’ marine species sightings using citizen science.  Started by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), the Redmap project invites Australians to share sightings of marine species that are unusual in their local seas.  Over time, Redmap will use this information to map changes in species distribution and ranges and try to determine the cause (e.g. changes in the marine environment).  The added benefit to you, is that once a sighting is logged it goes to a scientist for verification.  This means that you can get an expert opinion to confirm whatever strange species you come across.

Another good reason to go check out the ocean!  You never know what you might find, and it might just help scientific research!