Tag Archives: Nature

SMM 2017 Conference Presentation

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!

I’m currently preparing a detailed conference report for the Journal of Animal Ecology’s blog, but in the meantime I wanted to make my conference presentation available online.  To download a PDF version, click here.  The full abstract is provided below.  Feedback welcome!

SMM 2017 - Sarah Marley

Acoustic habitats and behavioural responses of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia

Marley, S.A., Salgado Kent, C.P., Erbe, C., Parnum, I.M. and Parsons, M.J.G.

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.

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New Paper: A Tale of Two Soundscapes

I am a little bit behind in posting about my various PhD publications.  But a pretty cool one that came out in the August edition of Acoustics Australia focused on comparing the acoustic characteristics of urban versus pristine coastal dolphin habitats.

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 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 find out more, check the paper out online or contact me!

Snubbies are happy little dolphins – hopefully they stay that way! (Photo: Sarah Marley)

 

New paper: Behavioural and acoustical responses of dolphins to vessel traffic and noise

Last night, my sixth (and final) PhD paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports!

In earlier papers, I established that the Swan River is a pretty noisy place.  One of the noisiest sites from an anthropogenic perspective is the Fremantle Inner Harbour, which experiences high levels of vessel traffic.  However, during my initial visual observations I discovered that dolphins continued using the harbour, even though it was a busy noisy environment.  So in this latest paper, I searched for evidence of dolphins responding to boats and noise at a subtler scale.

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!

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!

New Paper: Fish Choruses in Darwin Harbour

ICES Journal ArticleAs well as working on my PhD, I’m also lucky enough to be involved in other projects at the Centre for Marine Science and Technology (CMST) from time-to-time.  Now the results from one of these projects have been published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to review acoustic data from Darwin Harbour, in the Northern Territory of Australia.  I’ve written before about the variety of sounds produced by fish, and in the Darwin data we found oodles of different fish choruses.  Fish sounds can be species and size specific, and such en masse sound production often has behavioural associations, for example by corresponding with feeding or reproduction.

So there is a lot of information to be gained by listening in on fish!

In this paper, we recorded nine different types of fish choruses and investigate their patterns of occurrence.  Environmental conditions such as lunar patterns, time of sunset, temperature, tidal information and salinity levels all contributed to the context of when particular choruses were heard.  These results are useful not only to scientists but also to fisheries managers, as it provides improved knowledge regarding species distribution, fish habitat-use, identifies spawning seasons, and monitors behaviour.  Which, when you can’t see fish below the surface, is often difficult data to collect!

The full paper (doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsw037) is available here.

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/

 

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

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?