Minke whale necropsy in the Eden estuary

Balaenoptera acutorostrata? That sounds like hakuna matata!”

After an incredible time sailing around the sunny Hebrides on the Silurian, the MSc Marine Mammal Science class was back in St Andrews and ready to get stuck into our research theses for the final 3 months of the Masters course.

I’d just gotten off the bus, after traveling back from the Isle of Mull that afternoon, and was slowly walking home when my phone dinged and I saw a message saying “Minke Whale stranded on West Sands”.

After checking with classmates that it wasn’t a belated April Fools joke, a group of us jumped in the car and made our way to beach. At the very end of West Sands beach, we found a small huddle of people around the stranded whale. We were all sad to see that the Minke whaMinkeWhaleEntanlementMarks_SMASSle was already dead.

The corpse looked relatively fresh, with limited signs of decay or bloating. Initial observations made by the group pointed out signs of possible entanglement – most notably of which was a deep abrasion on the whales’ caudal peduncle (where the tail meets the body) as well as bruising and abrasions on its tail.

The tide was coming in so we all headed back home and waited with anticipation for the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme team to arrive from Inverness the following day to do a necropsy (i.e. an animal autopsy).

The tides moved the Minke Whale into the Eden Estuary overnight. Thus, upon arriving on Thursday morning, we waded out to the Minke whale and Kelly Macleod (Senior Marine Species Advisor at JIMG_0834_ClairEversNCC) tied a rope around its tail. We gently pulled the whale closer to shore in order to secure it in shallow water.

I had expected the whale to be heavy and difficult to maneuver, however the decomposing corpse had started to inflate with gas and thus it floated with surprising ease across the water surface. It was strange to think that it was easier to maneuver the whale than it was to simply stay warm in the nippy North Sea.

The team from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) arrived in the afternoon and set to work on taking the necessary measurements, skin and blubber samples from the Minke Whale.MinkeWhale_SMASS

Staff and students from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) donned blue plastic gloves – ready to help in any way we could – and watched in fascination as the SMASS team investigated the carcass.

Some notable memories of the day –

  • People’s reaction to the rotting gas being released from the whale. Whilst this is not a very jovial thought or memory, it definitely had an immediate effect on the onlookers as the whooshing noise and pungent smell had people quickly shimmying upwind.
  • Seeing the lungs immersed in a substantial amount of seawater within the whale. These observations were consistent with the animal becoming caught in a rope and, being unable to surface and breathe, quickly drowning.
  • Noting that the muscle was not as dark as that of the Pilot Whales (which we had seen during the necropsy in October). We realized that this is due to the fact Minke whales do not generally dive as deep as pilot whales and thus do not need to store as much myoglobin (and thus oxygen) in their body.
  • Cutting into the whale’s eye and exploring the lens held within – which was slightly cloudy (an indication of cataracts).
  • Exploring internal sections of the whale – including the ‘pluck’ (composed of the trachea, heart and lungs), pelvic bones, inner ear bone and goose beak (a modified larynx).

The SMASS team concluded that the sub-adult Minke whale died of recent, acute entanglement and otherwise appeared to be healthy – however they highlighted that it is important to confirm this with additional testing (from the samples they had taken).

For example – looking at the contents within the whale’s stomach can reveal what the Minke whale had recently been eating and eMinkeWhale_0867_ClairEversxamination of the inner ear bone can indicate the extent of underwater noise that the whale had been exposed to.

Additionally, a necropsy can provide insight into the whale’s general health by assessing its body condition, signs of disease and the presence and abundance of parasites.

It was a very surreal and sad event, especially after we all had had such incredible encounters with Minke whales just a few days previously on the West Coast.

Alas, entanglement is the most common cause of death diagnosed in Minke whales, causing around 32% of mortalities for the species and most frequently in creel lines. Whale entanglement is a worldwide problem and it is therefore imperative to examine such cases when possible to better understand how we might be able to help prevent such occurrences in the future.

More news on the great work done by the Scottish MariMinkeWhale_0840_ClairEversne Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS) can be found on their facebook page.

Information on how to report a stranding in the UK can be found at the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation website.

Written by Riona Bray

P.S. And yes, the whale (and we) made the news:

the Daily Mail

the Courier


Surveying marine mammals on the Scottish West Coast

Each year our MSc MMS students get to spend several days aboard the HWDT‘s research vessel Silurian to learn visual and acoustic surveying techniques and contribute to the long-term data set that the HWDT has collated over the last 13+ years. Here are the reports from each of the student groups:

Silurian Group 1

After a fairly arduous day’s travel, we made it to the port in Tobermory where we soon found the Silurian and hopped on board. We met the crew of HWDT science officer Dr Conor Ryan, first mate Mikey, and skipper Edd, and were given a tour of our accommodation for the next 3 days. Conor then gave us a quick talk about our roles during the ship surveys while Mikey served up the first of our many top notch meals aboard the Silurian.

Harbour porpoise ((c) HWDT)

The next day, we were up early and eager to start our surveys. Right off the start, sightings of occasional harbour seals, grey seals and harbour porpoise gave us a hint of what the trip had in store, as did the seemingly endless flow of snacks and sandwiches! Luckily, a lack of any strong winds meant we were able to make our way right up to the Isle of Skye where we spent our second night, passing between the isles of Eigg and Rùm. On approach to Skye and Soay, our first large cetacean, a young minke whale, appeared just off the bows, accompanied by a large number of harbour porpoises. Although usually shy animals, the porpoises did not seem to be affected by the presence of our boat, giving us a rare opportunity to see these animals up close. The minke whale was similarly obliging, giving us plenty of opportunity for some photos – only once we’d come off effort of course. The day ended fittingly as we moored in front of the stunning scenery of Skye.

Common dolphins ((c) HWDT)

The next day, we were again fortunate with the weather, meaning we could pass the Isle of Canna then head back towards Eigg. The day started much like the previous one had ended, with the young minke whale sighted again in much the same area as we had first found it. The day continued in much the same vein as the first, with frequent harbour porpoise, harbour and grey seal sightings along our course. As we began to turn towards Eigg, we came across a small pod of between 5-10 common dolphin, including at least one mother-calf pair, who followed the boat and even started bow-riding.

That evening, we decided to head into Eigg to see what island life was like. Sadly, the shop was closed, but luckily the pub was still open, with around 15 of the island’s 87 inhabitants enjoying the evening sun. After a quick drink and discussion with the locals, we headed back to the Silurian for the customary “plankton party”, an examination of the less visible local marine life under microscope. Another full day of sightings in the bag, we hit our bunks sad in the knowledge that it was our last night aboard.

However, our luck hung around right to the very end. As we returned to Tobermory, greeted by near perfect sighting conditions, we spotted a full grown minke whale, once again accompanied by a cohort of harbour porpoises. This rounded off a truly fantastic trip, a great way to end the taught section of the master’s program. Huge thanks are in order for such a successful trip. Conor imparted a vast amount of knowledge of the local wildlife, Mikey kept us very well fed throughout the trip (including 2 homemade cakes!), and personally I have to thank Edd for vastly expanding my paltry knowledge of knots while aboard. It’s fair to say that our shipmates were a huge part of making this trip special. Many thanks also to our MSc and the University of St Andrews for making the trip possible. Having returned to St Andrews, I’m already missing being out at sea, and of course the second breakfasts. But we’ve all returned refreshed and ready to get our research projects underway!

Group 1 (Sheyka, Clare W., Caroline, Lainie, Marco and Aran)



Silurian & common dolphins ((c) HWDT)

Silurian Group 2
After a long day of travelling, we were welcomed to the Isle of Mull and the Silurian by a delicious homemade dinner on the boat. We then headed to the pub to have a farewell drink with the first group. On the first day at sea we headed around the Isle of Mull and towards the south west of the island. Within an hour of surveying wehad already spotted a minke whale. As we continued our journey we started to see a few dolphins and we soon realised we had a pod of over 300 common dolphins surrounding the boat. They were bow riding and leaping in the air! Amazing!

Risso’s dolphins ((c) HWDT)

Not knowing how we could top our first day, we were off to a good start on day two when a minke whale was spotted as we sailed towards Tiree. It surfaced quite close to the boat, giving everyone a great view of the shiny grey body! It all went quiet for a few hours but then far in the distance tall dorsal fins were sighted. As we approached with fingers crossed that it could be Risso’s dolphins we saw the scarred bodies and blunt faces, and our hopes were confirmed. There were 15 dolphins leaping, tail slapping and swimming close to the boat. It was truly fantastic! But how would that be topped by day 3? Well…..flat, calm, glassy seas and a super pod containing hundreds of common dolphins bow riding and whistling next to the boat did the trick!

Our trip on the Silurian exceeded all expectations: not only were the sightings and sea conditions amazing but the crew wSilurianGr2_0641ere warm, friendly and extremely welcoming! Frazer, Ed and Mikey were brilliant; cups of tea were delivered throughout the day to keep us going, cakes were baked, the second breakfasts were always delicious, and during dinners and evenings we were entertained by some hilarious stories! The trip would not have been the same without them! So thanks HWDT, Silurian and the crew for a lovely trip!

Group 2 (Sarah, Miranda, Raffaela, Janneke and Clare O.)



Minke whale ((c) Clair Evers)

Silurian Group 3

Group three had a memorable trip full of marine mammals, island adventures, swimming, and getting splashed (or soaked) on the bow while surveying. We encountered a really friendly minke whale who swam around the Silurian. We got a great view of its characteristic white pectoral fins and even got a glimpse of its face as it lifted its jaw out of the water. More importantly, we all got great pictures of the dorsal fin which can be used to ID individuals. We were also blessed with a group of over 100 bow-riding common dolphins full of many mother-calf pairs. Other sightings included multiple porpoises. We also saw

Common dolphins ((c) Clair Evers)

many grey seals and one harbour seal. All of us furthered our birding skills by identifying the wide range of birds present around the Scottish Isles. We identified guillemots, fulmars, gannets, razorbills, and terns. To the acoustics students’ delight we got to see porpoise clicks on PAMGuard and heard lots of snapping shrimp.

 We were so exhausted by our intense surveying that we even forgot our fellow classmate up the mast in the crows nest after an eventful day of sightings (ooops!).  We landed on both Canna and Coll islands. Interestingly, Canna has an honesty shop that is open to tourists and islanders which we got to explore. We also stumbled upon a small museum on Canna which displayed many island treasures such as pottery and work by the local school children.

The curious otter ((c) Clair Evers)

 We were all sad to leave the Silurian and its lovely crew but were delighted to discover our hostel in Craignure was surrounded by more wildlife! We were super lucky and spotted an otter who proceeded to gulp down a fish in front of our unblinking eyes. After retiring for the evening in the hostel common room the owner let us know that there was a deer in the ocean! It was a great end to such a wonderful trip.

 Group 3 (Riona, Jo, Pauline, Sam, Alicia and Claire)



It’s all about networking!

Madeira_2631_MarcoCasoliEvery year, at some point during March/April, scientists gather in a European country to take part in the European Cetacean Society (ECS) conference. This year the conference was held on the beautiful island of Madeira and a few of us marine mammal Master’s students decided to go. It was an incredible experience, we got to explore a new place, meet great fellow students from other countries and talk to some of the biggest names in cetacean science.

We wanted to give you all a little practical guide on what to expect and some tips on making the most of the conference experience!

>> First of all, make sure you check the deadlines for early bird (usually around January) and late (usually around February) online registration, as well as student support awards, so you can get your tickets at a discounted price! If you forget however, don’t worry, you can always pay a bit more and register in person at the venue.<<

Before the start of the ECS conference itself, which lasts 3 days, scientists and other people responsible for the event organise 2 days of a wide variety of workshops. The workshops offer everyone the chance to learn about something new they have never heard of/seen before, to learn specialised skills required for many scientists (from using R to how to help disentangle a whale from a net!), to share views and advice on specific delicate topics (such as attending strandings), to learn how to communicate science to the general public (working on whale watching tours), and even some interesting policy and legislation related workshops that help you finally understand how the law in this marine science world actually works in Europe!

>> We recommend that you check the list of workshops as early as possible, so you can choose the one you want to attend and make sure you get a spot, as some of them have limited spaces, especially the free student workshops! <<2016-03-14_AliciaCardona (2)

Each year the conference is focused on a specific theme, this year’s was “Into the deep: Research and Conservation on Oceanic Marine Mammals”. The best talks are accepted to be presented, they are chosen based on their relation to this theme and are split into categories: behaviour, ecology, physiology, conservation, etc. One of the best things about this conferences is that you get to learn about current research advances in different marine science topics (mostly on cetaceans, but they also often include other marine mammals) and learn all about state-of-the-art scientific investigations presenting the latest findings or new techniques to the scientific community.

There are also 5-minute ‘short’ talks and scientific poster sessions. These offer a great opportunity for students to share their work, like their undergraduate/master’s thesis, with other scientists who will often give you advice or even offer to collaborate with you in one way or another!

>> If you’re thinking of presenting your research work either as a talk or a poster, make sure you check the abstracts’ submission deadline well in advance, as this usually falls around October of the previous year to the conference (so keep an eye on the deadline coming this October for the 2017 conference) 😉posters <<

The talks and posters also offer you the chance to learn about new topics or get more specific knowledge on those that you already know you want to specialise in. Whether you have a specific area of interest or are just interested in everything related to marine mammals, all of these events give you the opportunity to learn something new about your species of interest or pique your interest in something you’ve never considered before, you never know what they might surprise you with until you see it!

All of the talks are timetabled and can be found in the programme posted online in advance and that you also get upon registering at the venue. This means you can pick and choose which talks you want to attend. If, like us, you are into all things related to marine mammals, you will find yourself staying for every talk, even the ones you thought you might not be interested in!

>> We recommend that you take a good look at this at least the week before the conference so you can plan your days well in advance and make sure you don’t miss those workshops or talks/posters you are so interested in 😉 <<Madeira_AliciaCardona

In between the long conference days there are always coffee breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. However, these are quite short and give you just enough time to grab a drink and try and find that researcher you really want to meet and ask a million questions: NETWORKING TIME! Make sure you know who you are introducing yourself to, that you clearly let them know what you are interested in and that you ask them the most important questions for you, and never forget to exchange contact details before they disappear (or if you have a business card already, all the better!).

>> Think about who you would like to talk to before going, getting hold of people isn’t as easy as it seems, so make sure you make the most of talking to them! <<Madeira_2634-AliciaCardona

It really is one of the main aspects of these conferences… it is actually soooo important to keep up with everyone in this small cetacean scientific community! You can make important new contacts with students and researchers, who could even possibly end up being your future employers!!! Fellow students or recently graduated students can give you great insight into how they got where they are and give you tips on how to gain more experience (and don’t forget that you may end up working on a research project with these people!). Researchers have experience and knowledge that they enjoy sharing, make the most of it! Sharing information and interests is the best way to get connected with the scientific community, and it will help you find future employments.

Lunch breaks are over an hour, but don’t let that fool you, between talking to colleagues and finding somewhere to eat (and getting the bill!) that time can disappear and you will probably find yourself running back to the venue to try and make it to the next talk.

After the poster sessions in the afternoon of the first conference-day, there’s usually a video night event and contest in which researchers and NGOs will delight you with short videos of their amazing work, the most gorgeous crystalline waters they sailed, the cutest animal encounters, a first account of some astonishing behaviour or an unfortunate find at sea. These will all then compete for the best video prize, which together with the prizes for the best research and student’s talks, as well as the best poster, will be announced at the end of the last day.Madeira2_AliciaCardona

On the last day of the conference, during one of the breaks, NGOs and whale watching companies set up presentations about their research and conservation work and ways in which you can get involved. Lots of volunteering opportunities, some internships and even job openings get mentioned during these presentations, so attending may give you an idea of where to go next. This is a unique chance to hear about these almost ‘secret opportunities’ that you can normally only find out about if you know the right person 😉

>> We recommend making an effort to stay and listen to these last short talks! <<

And last but not least, one of the great things of attending these conferences is that you get to travel around! Professors may remind you it’s not the most important part but let’s be honest, there is a big upside to going to conferences, you get an excuse to go travelling to different countries every year!
>> Our recommendation is to go a few days before or stay a few days after the conference (before or after the 2 workshop days+3 conference programme days) to explore the hosting city and surroundings, that way you can definitively cross it off your list (unlike us, who are dying to go back!) 🙂 <<

Here’s all the information you may need to plan your first conference attendance!

We hope this has given you enough reasons to start saving some money and thinking about what you want to do at the next 31st Annual ECS Conference in Denmark!
Hope to see you there! 🙂

Sam Blakeman and Alicia Cardona

MSc Marine Mammal Science students 2015/16


Science communication – a message from one of our awesome alumni

How many of you break out in sweat at the mere thought of public speaking? It is one of the most common fears, and it used to affect me. But in 2014, I won an international science communication competition. This is my story.

As a student on the Marine Mammal Science Masters (2008-09), public speaking was my worst nightmare. I would dread the regular seminar sessions, during which we had to peruse a research paper and explain it to the rest of the class. The reading was great, the knowledge expansion was great – but the speaking part? Stuttering my way through someone else’s research whilst my cheeks flushed red and my notes trembling in my hands? No thanks!

The regular exposure to presenting must have paid off, though. After the Masters, I moved to Australia with my partner, both of us in pursuit of PhD projects. Whilst applying for scholarships and volunteering on marine mammal research projects, I was searching for casual work when a friend recommended contacting the local science and discovery centre. Outreach Science Presenters were in demand and I decided to take a chance. To my surprise, I was offered the job and soon found myself trekking around the whole of Western Australia to deliver interactive science shows to some of the most remote schools in the outback. Giving talks became my bread and butter. By stepping on stage six or more times a day, my anxiety started fading away, and the nerves of fear were replaced by nerves of excitement.

So when I commenced my PhD a couple of years later and heard about the 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition, I knew I had to get involved.

3MT is the ultimate exercise in communication for graduate students; it was developed by the University of Queensland back in 2008 and has since then expanded to many other institutions around the world (including the University of St Andrews). The concept? An 80,000-word thesis would take roughly 9 hours to present. The challenge? Explaining yours to a generalist audience in 3 minutes or less.

First came heats at individual universities, followed by university finals. I not only made it to the Curtin University top ten, but won my heat, the final and the people’s choice award! “Great start!” I thought, before rushing to the other end of the state for fieldwork. Every day, whilst we bumped over the waves searching for dolphins, I would mutter my speech away to myself. Soon I could do it pretty much on default – scanning the ocean, driving the car, making dinner.

The international final came in the form of a Trans-Tasman Competition where representatives from over 40 universities across Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong competed in a wordy battle. The stakes were extremely high! But I love my research, and the opportunity to talk about it to a bunch of fresh minds is so exciting that my allotted time whooshed by, leaving me with a satisfied happy glow.

See Sarah in action at the competition here. -> youtube video


From a happy glow to a blush of surprise, I was ecstatic to be chosen as winner of the Trans-Tasman 3MT. I did the whole shocked-face, hug people in neighbouring seats, embarrassing acceptance speech thing. But what really got me buzzed was the accomplishment at having enjoyed something that just a few years ago would have terrified me.

So the moral of this story? Face your fears. Little by little, what petrifies you now could become something you love. If nothing else, practice makes perfect!

Remember that next time you’re asked to give a class seminar.

Sarah Marley

Marine Mammal Science – a big world made small

Our Masters alumni rocked marine mammal science! I have just returned from the Society for Marine Mammalogy conference which is the largest biennial gathering of professionals working on, with and around marine mammals. Over 2,500 conference attendees from all over the world gathered in San Francisco (not so sunny all the time California) in the second week of  December, including 40 of our Marine SMMDec2015_P240cMammal Master’s alumni from eight years of St Andrews Marine Mammal Masters. WOW! We managed to get most (sadly not all) together for a quick group photo at the SMRU instrumentation stand – a few showed up later and were added to the crowd :-).

Spot the new faces...
Spot the new faces…

Our amazing alumni (whether at the conference or watching from afar) are all at different stages of their careers with some on post-docs or in leading positions in goverment organisations while the most recent graduates were busy soaking up the vibes of the field and pursuing contacts for possible jobs or PhD positions. It was great to catch up and hear our alumni’s most recent stories (some who could not attend had given me great updates before the conference, more about those in the new year).  Across alumni years new and old contacts were forged. After all, we’re all part of the vibrant St Andrews community. If you add my SMRU colleagues, our PhD students, postdocs and former SMRU folks then I reckon you were never more than 5m away from anyone of the SMRU crowd at the conference, and with our alumni dispersing all over the world we truly have global coverage. I must admit, I was more than a wee bit proud to have been part of our Master’s story since its beginning….

And of course it wasn’t just all social and networking, presenting and discussing science played a very big part too…. our alumni gave talks (11), presented posters (12) and contributed to the pre-conference workshops. Big congrats go to our Master’s alumni Chris McKnight who was runner-up for best PhD-level talk on innovative methods.

It was an action-packed week which ended with a grand finale conference bash in the city hall, and more than one sore head, a crackling voice and serious sleep deprivation…..

Merry Christmas (from Scotland) and may the force be with ya’ll for 2016…..

Sonja (MSc headquarters)


St Andrews Day Graduation – Class of 2015

Master’s pink hoods on show!

Graduation day has finally come. The official end of our MSc (Marine Mammal Science). It’s strange how time flies. One moment you’re still worrying about saying silly things during the interview for the course, the next it’s your first day of class. You stop paying attention for one second and suddenly you’re waiting for your name to be called out and to be officially recognised as an alumna/us of the university. Well… it didn’t always feel like an instant during the year, but that’s always the case when you’re working hard on tough deadlines, right?

I had the chance to be part of the Antarctica field course in my last year of undergrad (also at St Andrews), where I got the chance to meet some of the then masters students. I remember them telling me it was a really tough course, involving a lot of work and not necessarily a lot of sleep, but that it was also incredibly worth it. I didn’t really understand how right they were until semester one started. It’s undeniably been difficult at points, but I have learned so much and met such wonderful people.

Class of 2015 (minus three who could not be there)
Class of 2015 (minus three who could not be there)

In my opinion this is a very special graduation. See, I’ve done it before just over a year ago and in the same exact place. But this time it’s different. There is a bigger sense of achievement, and of having made a journey with all of my classmates, rather than by myself. It is so good to be together once more; sadly not a complete count, but our two missing classmates are with us in spirit. I don’t know about the others, but I also feel a certain amount of nostalgia today. This marks the end of my masters, of course, but also that of five years in this wee Scottish town. I have so many memories here, and it is all I’ve ever known in terms of my university education. At the same time, though, I am excited. I don’t know where I’m going next yet (though I’m working on it), but I can’t wait to see it!

How to recognise the Marine Mammal MSc cohort at graduation? They're the people sniggering at their degree certificates.
How to recognise the Marine Mammal MSc cohort at graduation? They’re the people sniggering at their degree certificates.

Before checking out, I want to thank everyone who’s been part of my life for the last twelve months. My classmates, for being so lovely, inspiring, and a great bunch of friends. Everyone at SMRU who taught us for the knowledge they imparted on us, and my supervisors for supporting and pushing me during the dissertation. And some thanks also need to go to my friends and family for their support and the comfort they brought me when I needed it (if you’re reading this and thinking the course is torture, please don’t!).

GraduationNov2015_PostTo use a highly unoriginal phrase: Class of 2015 – we did it! WOOHOO!


R- reflections and a student’s self-conversation

These are the musings of one of our current MSc students tussling with coursework. Comments (in the form of annotating R-code with a #)  are copy-pasted from Sarah’s second assessed R assignment (these are from the pre-submission version!).

#check with scatterplot

#plotting like a normal person

#you need xs and ys!!!

#ummm…that means no correlation, at least I’m pretty sure that’s what it means

#let’s try relationship to twinning!

#twins should have lower birth weights compared to singletons.

#yes, I was right!

#I’ve already forgotten what the question was asking…

#whoops, that was actually part of the last question

#Gawd, I keep forgetting what the question is!

#Oh look, I’ve written it up there! Doy!

#OK let’s start with a table

#most of these questions seem to start with tables

#OK, what am I working with here?

#hmmm… I don’t think that’s correct, let me try…

#nope, that didn’t work either

#let’s switch variables!

#OK, this looks a bit more… better

#yeah, this whole hist function is useless to me

#OK, I honestly don’t know how to do this at all

#trying out the example for apply functions

#trying example for tapply

#Ah ha! That’s how you do it!

#A thing! I made a thing that looks like it makes sense!!!!

#OMG, I think that worked!!!

I’m sure I’m not the only person who runs that sort hysterical, self-deprecating inner monologue while working on R projects, or any projects for that matter. Maybe you shout insults at yourself aloud in the third person. You could be the type to stringently deny yourself food, tea, bathroom breaks, and/or social contact until you finish just one more thing.

Let’s face it. We are all in a very demanding educational program. Not only that, but this master’s thing, it’s so much more than just a higher degree to us. As you may have already noticed, no matter how confident we seem on the outside, a lot of times it feels like we are standing with our toes hanging off a steep cliff of anxiety with a black hole of despair right below us. It doesn’t take a lot to tip any of us over the edge. Marks have started coming at us thick and fast, weighty and complex projects abound, meanwhile those dreaded exams loom ever closer.

There doesn’t even have to be an actual bad mark that shoves you over your black hole’s event horizon. The dread of a big test could be enough. You might walk out of the lecture theatre thinking, “Ow, my brain hurts…” or be sitting in a lab staring blankly at the computer screen while everyone else types away happily.

Horrible thoughts circle around your head:

I’m going to flunk out.

The jig is up. They’ve all figured out how stupid I am.

Everyone else understands this concept. I must be idiotic since I don’t.

There’s been a mistake, they let me into this program by accident.

And so on…

Well guess what? You’re lying to yourself.

All of us, yes you, and every single one of your classmates are quantitatively amazing people. You’re in this program, aren’t you? That alone is awesome! It means you, yes you, stood out in a highly competitive crowd. Yeah, all right, all right, getting in is one thing, but check it out gals and guys, you’re here! I want you to stop for a moment, like, really stop (that’s right, I’ve thrown in a “like,” and for a Southern Californian that means it’s really getting like totally serious). Think about what you knew about statistics last week. (Pause) Now think about all the stuff you know today. If you don’t believe me, go look at one of the past assignments. I’m telling you. Go into your notes and look at the R practical or the lecture notes from last Monday. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to go do it. (Pause) Did you look? Yeah! That stuff looks way easier now. Don’t stop there! Scale that sort of thinking up. Think about how smart and educated you thought you were walking into St Andrews. Now think about everything you know now about the various behaviours and ways of studying the pinnipeds of Scotland, the pros and cons of using stranding data, making illustrative maps with GIS, using R to show off the statistical significance of a dataset, how great killer whales are… If I were to list even half of what we’ve learned I’d miss Christmas! And you’ve learned all of that since September! Awesome, right?

There are other super stellar amazing people in this course who are riding the same emotional roller coaster. No matter who you are in the class, you are surrounded by genuinely decent people who would be more than happy to lend an ear or a shoulder or helping hand when you need it. After all, you and I and all of us would do the same if someone came to us. Nifty how that works out isn’t it?

BlogSarah            So you see, after all that, how great you are, how great your classmates are, all that awful stuff isn’t really that worrisome really. I mean exams… phhhish! You’ve learned the material, you know how to prepare, you’ve done the mock exam, been to the tutorials, you’ve got a strong support network… you’ve got this!

Geronimo! Tally Ho! Bonsai! Once more unto the breach! Don’t stop believing!

I think you get the picture. 🙂


Whale Watching on Land: Pilot Whale Necropsy

Pre-necropsy excitement at SRUC
Pre-necropsy excitement at SRUC

Though everyone already looks forward to Friday as the best reward for a week of hard work, we students from the MMSc program hit the jackpot with our Friday adventure to Inverness, where we witnessed a necropsy performed by Dr Andrew Brownlow and his team of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.

Bus ride to Inverness
Bus ride to Inverness

After driving for 3 hours across the Highlands, we finally arrived at the Scottish Rural College and were decked out in lab coats, aprons, and goggles before being ushered into the post-mortem room. I was so excited by my new get-up that it took me a moment to notice the 1.8 meter-long long-finned pilot whale hanging from a pulley. Immediately, the students went into CSI-mode as we examined the whale’s exterior, looking for signs that would point to cause of death. We noted rake marks and scratches, and, most notably, foetal folds, indicating that the animal had just been born a few days before.

Our initial examination of the whale
Our initial examination of the whale



















As Dr Brownlow and his colleagues heaved the whale on to the workspace, all 17 students Copy of PilotWhaleNecropsy_P30861ccrowded eagerly around, pushing and shoving with no sense of decorum to get a spot up front. The necropsy commenced with the inaugural cut into the whale’s side, and we all leaned forward to see the layers of blubber and muscle hiding beneath the surface.

Atwitter with excitement, we couldn’t keep from haranguing the team with questions, some intelligent and others less so (“Could that scalpel cut through me that easily?”). Over the course of 3 hours, we watched as every part of the animal was thoroughly examined for oddities that could point to cause of death. With each dissection, the students were treated to holding and touching the tissue, and there was no shortage of comparisons to food. For instance, did you know that congealed blood looks like black currant jam?

The team was incredibly patient with us, explaining every detail, repeating what they just said to the next person to ask, and allowing us to pass organs around the table so everyone had a chance to look. They were a bit disgruntled, perhaps, that we all managed to get blood on our lab coats, meaning that they couldn’t be reused. We must have been a more engaged group than they usually have, or perhaps just more childlike in our inability to contain ourselves.

Copy of PilotWhaleNecropsy_P30870c


Prepped in our gear and ready to go!
Prepped in our gear and ready to go!












In the end, Dr Brownlow concluded that the whale forayed into shallow waters and members of its pod tried to pull it back to the safety of the deep. He also decided that the whale died on shore, as one lung was more congested than the other, indicating that it had been lying on its side. Perhaps our most interesting discovery was that of nematodes in the lungs, suggesting that the whale was closer to a week old rather than days, like we thought.

In the end, none of us wanted to leave, but the bus waits for no one. We unceremoniously stripped off our borrowed gear and transformed once again into ordinary passerby. We loaded onto the bus, and just like children after a day of excitement, were out for the night.

*** written by Lainie Brice, photos Sarah Johnson/ Sonja Heinrich***





Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside!

St Andrews’ idyllic location by the sea provides us with a refreshing breeze, undeniably beautiful scenery and the exciting rare glimpse of marine mammals as we arrive at the SOI for our lectures each weekday. Having the sea on our doorstep also presents us with the perfect chance to prepare and practice useful skills that might be needed in order to further study the marine environment.

Scottish Oceans Institute seen from the boat
Scottish Oceans Institute seen from the boat

So, before the deadlines became too hectic and the weather became too wet and windy, we were offered the opportunity to complete a powerboat course at the St Andrews Sailing Club. The two-day course covered both the theory and hands on experience of driving a powerboat and it was a great way of getting out in the sunshine and on the water.

Powerboat Group One
Powerboat Group One


The first day of the course was spent almost entirely on the practical side of things, as we had a brief introduction then clambered into heavy-duty (but very much needed and appreciated) dry suits and got the boats out into the water. Our instructors, father-daughter duo John & Carol, were superb at explaining and showing us everything we needed to know – particularly so that it did not matter what amount of previous boating experience we had.

We learnt and performed various manoeuvres in the boats, ranging from the slow and steady parking alongside another boat in the harbour to doing high-speed turns in the open water (great fun for the driver and sometimes less fun for the passengers who had to hold on tight).

Powerboat Group 2
Powerboat Group 2

We were additionally thankful to our instructors when it came to learning how to deal with a man overboard situation. As, fortunately for us, we practiced the technique by picking up an inflatable lifejacket that was thrown overboard – rather than one of us jumping in the water and hoping that we would be quickly and successfully saved from the nippy North Sea.

The second day was theory based and we were introduced to the makeup of a powerboat (including the different types of anchors and engines we could use), the basics of navigation using nautical charts and practiced valuable knots on the back of our chairs.

Learning about charts and navigation
Learning about charts and navigation

We all had a brilliant weekend and are looking forward to further developing our newfound skills next year (once the wet winter has passed) and are able to get back out on the water and behind the wheel of a powerboat!

*** text & photos by Riona Bray ***


EMMS 2015 Trip to Oban (SAMS)

We all left St Andrews in glorious sunshine on Monday to head to the west coast of Scotland, where the EMMS students spend their second semester of the MSc programme. The windy roads got more and more mountainous (and arguably more and more beautiful) as we approached the other side of Scotland. After being told that the west coast is usually quite a rainy place, some of us I think were expecting the worst. I certainly came armed with a waterproof despite the sunny weather of St Andrews. However the sun kept shining as we drove past Lochearnhead, which really was spectacular with reflections of the bright blue sky – the perfect picture postcard view!20151013_162913

On arriving at SAMS near to Oban, we all gathered in the foyer and absorbed our surroundings, which would be our home in a couple of months. After everyone had arrived we started the grand tour. The view from one of the labs was so amazing that everyone ran straight to the window…let’s hope that it isn’t too much of a distraction! However the café view is pretty comparable so we can already picture the tea and cake breaks on a tough day. Cake Tuesdays sounds like a day not to miss!


Sheila, Clive and Tom introduced us to some of our optional modules for Semester 2 – Advanced Ecosystem Modelling and Planning & Policy whilst we tucked into some soup and sandwiches. We also got to meet some potential supervisors and  discuss project ideas for our dissertation in the third semester. It was nice to put faces to email addresses from previous discussions of projects and research. Faces (featuring a ‘Blue Steel’ pout from Gareth) also got put to camera for our upcoming SAMS ID cards.

After a little explore of Oban and a well-deserved pint, we ate a delicious curry at the Taj Mahal restaurant with Sophie, Sheila and Clive. We were staying in the backpackers’ hostel in Oban and so after another little visit to the pub, we headed back to the hostel in dribs and drabs, to practise our presentations for the next day.


Presentation day arrived (which I think was one of our main concerns about the trip) and we headed back to SAMS for the morning. The presentations were based on our group projects on specific chosen ecosystems and their management for the EMMS module but we had adapted these for a short 5 minute presentation. They covered ecosystems from coast to deep sea and everyone did an excellent job, especially with the tricky questions from the interested audience. I think we all gave a little sigh of relief though that the nerves could be set aside and we could relax and enjoy our last bit of time (and lunch) in Oban.

Skyfall (by Jacob Bentley)

Waving goodbye to our future home-town, a few of us set off further north to explore the highlands near Glencoe, visiting Skyfall for a re-created movie scene (minus the atmospheric mist), before heading back to the east – See you in 2016!

*** text & photos by Emma Novak ***


A fresh start – Welcoming all new MSc students!

Boat impressions

The end of summer is near here on the East coast of Scotland which means it’s time for a new beginning…… as if on cue sunshine and warm temperatures returned with the new students at the start of Orientation week in St Andrews. Thirty new students on our Marine Biology MSc programmes – the MSc in Marine Mammal Science and MSc in Ecosystem-based Management of Marine Systems – joined the S-Team (Sonja, Sophie and Sheila) of MSc course-coordinators for a week full of meetings, making new friends and exploring the wealth of content that the new academic year has in store. Monday was course-welcome with a series of specific introductory events. On Tuesday students & staff visited the Scottish Fisheries Museum in nearby Anstruther to learn about the history of fishing in the East Neuk and how fishing has shaped communities and the local North Sea ecosystem over hundreds of years. Wednesday and Thursday were busy days with advising and IT preprations, and on Friday the new students got a chance to meet with many more staff and PhD students at the Scottish Oceans Institute during a social meet & greet aided by refreshments.

Origami boats
Origami boats
Studying the small whaling exhibition
Studying the small whaling exhibition

MSc Grand Finale

Wednesday 19th August was D-Day – Dissertation Day. The MSc in Marine Mammal Science  students (as well as those from the sister MSc iMScPosterSession-Sep2015_P30826cn Ecosystem-based Management of Marine Systems) submitted their research projects, each thesis being the fruit of many months of intensive work. The thesis topics were as diverse as ever ranging from cortisol variation in harbour porpoise blubber to identifying caller identity in killer whales to modelling harbour seal habitat in the past (last ice age) and in the future (under climate change scenarios).Phinn_P30816c

The grand Master’s finale then took place on Friday 21st where the students presented their research to a wider audience at SOI in a very welll attended poster conference. Given the strong poster entries and after lengthy debate by the poster markers the prize for the best poster finally went to Phinn, with runner up prize to James.  After finishing off the cheese & wine it was time for some final class photos, a few more good byes and a few more toasts in the nMScMarMamSci-Sep2015_P30842cearby pub (amazingly the weather was warm and kind enough to sit outside in the beer garden). As the high tide lapped the famous pier of St Andrews the crazy class did a collective pier jump into the chilly North Sea off East Sands. Not baptising by fire but aptly for marine mammal scientists by cold water. The rest of the evening and subsequent weekend activities remain student secrets….. 🙂

Thanks class of 2014-15 for an intense, fair and fun year of cutting your teeth as fledging marine mammal scientists….and good luck for your new endeavours!!!MScMarMamSci-Sep2015_P30846c

Polar explorers

Summer is usually quiet news time and a break from teaching. Not so for Biology staff at St Andrews and the good folks of the Cupar Churches Holiday Club. The latter organised a polar explorer week for kids, and Dr Sonja Heinrich, one of St Andrews’ regular polar explorers stepped up to the mark to share some stories of the Great White and its amazing inhabitants with around 40 well-behaved and very enthusiastic 9 to 12 year olds.











The Cupar Old Church was a beautiful and serene venue: it’s not every day that a biologist gets to speak in church about identifying whales by their tails to help understand their migration patterns and about seals helping scientists to study the Southern Ocean and climate change. Brandishing baleen plates, a leopard seal skull and all sorts of whale and seal tag gadgets (courtesy of the SMRU) in front of the pulpit was a little bit surreal. One of the higlights no doubt was the appearance of a life-sized minke whale brought to “life” (well unfolded) by dozens of helping hands.W-DSC_0084-WM-50PCT_small









An extra session was needed to answer the future explorers’ diverse and well-informed questions, and both older and younger participants seemed to very much enjoy the stories from the frozen South, and the insights that polar explorers come in all shapes and sizes, and many are flippered, with blubber or fur…..For more stories about seal explorers and how to get a whale to wear a data logger or getting your hands on life-sized creatures click the embedded links or email us.

(photos courtesy of MacJ photography)

Surveying marine mammals on the Scottish West coast

Colourful Tobermory
Colourful Tobermory

Summer has finally arrived to Scotland with the beach in front of SMRU resembling a Balearic holiday retreat and people even embracing the still rather chilly waters of the North Sea. We all feel that summer is long overdue and weather like now would have been really appreciated by the current MSc MMS students a month earlier when they were out surveying aboard the SV Silurian in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. As part of the MSc programme our students get the chance to travel to Tobermory on Mull and spend three days aboard the Silurian with staff from the HWDT to practice visual and acoustic surveying techniques for marine mammals. There’s a recent video feature by the BBC showing the Silurian HWDT team in action (not filmed during our trips but shortly before).

Fearless swimmers

MSc group one (which I joined) got to sail around the Small Isles visiting Rhum and Canna. Izzy and Diego repepeated their daring feat from the recent Antarctic expedition and jumped into the sea while the Silurian was at anchor off Canna. Their comment was that it felt almost as cold as in the Antarctic except there were no penguins this time blocking the exit from the water….

Mastering binoculars and cup of soup… note: the horizon is level, the Silurian is not.

Groups 2 and 3 learned to appreciate the windy West Coast in all its tempestuous glory and moody weather and explored some of the Small Isles but also more protected channels and mainland sealochs. Despite the uncooperative weather fun was had aplenty (so I’ve been told), also helped by the lovely Silurian crew who made everyone feel very comfortable and kept up a constant supply of food and hot drinks. We all learned to balance binoculars and cups with soup at the same time, some with more success than others ….. ;-). If you want to read up on the students’ experience scroll back to their entries (24th May, 27th May, 30th May) on the Silurian blog.

Is it a whale?

Plenty of marine creatures were spotted or heard over the towed hydrophones. Harbour porpoises, common dolphins, a surprise minke whale (not sure who was more surprised by the encounter, observer or whale), grey and common seals and plenty of beautiful sea birds featured during the surveys in varying numbers. All in all a great experience for the MSc gang, and a nice breath of fresh air before heads have now gone down over laptops to work on dissertation projects over the summer.

(posted by Sonja, MSc MMS course director)