Masters Mission accomplished!

Over 13 years ago we had the vision that our then brand new Masters in Marine Mammal Science would train the next generation of marine mammal scientists who would go on to do amazing work all around the world. The second World Marine Mammal Conference (WMMC19) just finished in the beautiful city of Barcelona, Spain. And it has been one of my proudest moments to see our vision take shape in the form of an absolutely stellar turn-out of 60+ Marine Mammal Science alumni and students from all 13 years….. some still studying with us right now, some already academics in their own right, supervising PhD students who completed the same Masters more recently …. Two of our current SMRU PhD students, and Masters alumnae, were recognised at the WMMC for their outstanding presentations – Katey Glennie (Whyte) won best student presentation (Europe) while Pauline Goulet was nominated runner up in the Frederik Fairfield award. So well deserved, and congratulations to both!

Masters Marine Mammal Science gang at the WMMC19 (a few missed the photo….)

But awards aside, all our alumni’s posters and talks stood out for excellence. Not only did our alumni present and talk cool science, mix and mingle, but some also organised and co-led workshops, chaired sessions and even gave one of the plenary talks. Our alumni’s work covers the breadth of topics which make up marine mammal science: from the molecular level to physiology, behaviour and broad-scale ecology, to management, conservation and the development of new tools and techniques. The size of the conference with almost 3,000 attendees, five parallel talk sessions, 1000+ posters was truly overwhelming. But, within that buzz of scientists from around the globe, I kept on spotting those once very familiar faces we (and that’s a big collective WE – all of SMRU and some of CREEM!) taught over the years. Peeps, you’ve done us proud! And colleagues, your support, dedication, and enthusiasm for teaching the next generation of scientists has made it all possible. Thank you all. Mission accomplished but not completed…. Here’s to a bright future in marine mammal science, and new generations of marine mammal scientists in the making….

(posted by S:-)nja)


Study at St Andrews (or Antarctica, or many places inbetween)

Winter is still in full swing in Scotland, yet the days are getting noticeably longer and brighter. Students are back in class for the second semester after a nice long inter-semester break over Christmas and New Year’s. Now, depending on optional module choices, MSc students are busy with biologging, bioacoustics, environmental change or fisheries research, while further down the line population biology and behaviour & cognition modules await. For those taking the optional field courses, even bigger adventures await further afield in March…. one group of students will head south to Antarctica – follow them here on the Antarctic expedition blog– to survey marine mammals and sea birds, while others will head east for scientific diving in Indonesia.

Not to be outdone by the students, some of our core MSc staff are also swapping their desks for the wild outdoors for a little bit – Lars (course director MSc Marine Ecosystem Management) is already in Antarctica on an icebreaker for a major research expedition to the Thwaites Glacier, while Sonja (director postgraduate teaching) will be in southern Chile looking for grey dolphins, and soon Luke (course director MSc Marine Mammal Science) will be heading for warmer climes in the Carribean to search for sperm whales.

So for those of you who have already submitted an application to our Marine Ecosystem Management or Marine Mammal Science Masters, please be a little patient and we’ll be in touch with you in April about your application. Head office in St Andrews is of course open for business as usual (and we should even be able to move into our new sea front building at East Sands soon) – so if you have any questions about our MSc programmes then please contact our wonderful administrative staff at pgtaughtbiology (at), and see all the useful info on our Biology postgradute course pages

..and pssst… if you’re thinking of applying to our brand new MSc in Animal Behaviour, you could also find yourself going diving in Indonesia or watching whales in Antarctica next year – why should the marine Master’s students have all the fun?…..

St Andrews East Sands beach in winter



West Coast adventures: Silurian Group 2

After a short adventure through the breath-taking landscape of Skye, we arrived at Kyle of Lochalsh and received a warm welcome from the crew of the Silurian. We ate dinner and learned the safety procedures we would need for the next few days as we sailed to Raasay. After a quick few games of Bananagrams we were off to bed, excited for the 7:30 morning wake-up music that would signal the start of our first day.


Exploring the beauties of Skye (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

Our day began with cereal, toast, and a scientific briefing on the positions we would occupy throughout the survey day. With the sun shining brightly we began our first day of surveying optimistically; however as we headed into more open waters, the sea became rough and some among us were lost to seasickness. Fortunately, others managed to battle on and were able to spot several harbour porpoises.

Sighting! Harbour porpoise (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

That night we lowered anchor at the beautiful Shiant Islands. We discussed the Selkie legends that are recounted in Scottish folklore as we ate our dinner on deck surrounded by grey seals. We then made an excursion to land and climbed to the summit, hoping to do a bit of minke whale spotting.

A curious grey seal (aka selkie). (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

Alas we were in for a different surprise: upon reaching the summit we saw hundreds of puffins flying around the cliffs preparing to roost for the evening; some even landed not too far away from us!

A pretty puffin circus. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

As night fell, we reluctantly climbed down the cliff and headed back to the ship to watch a beautiful sunset to finish out the evening.

Sunset at the Shiant islands. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

Our second day started similar to the first, though the scientific briefing focused on the birds and boats we would need to identify, in addition to marine mammals. The Shiant Islands are home to many birds, so we held a live bird-identification lesson on deck as we were navigated out to sea.

Counting birds. (photo Annabel Westell)

The sea was like a mirror all day, and under these favourable conditions we were able to spot three foraging juvenile minke whales, three pods of common dolphins – which included a feeding aggregation with diving gannets –  and many seals and harbour porpoises.

Common dolphin in a glassy sea. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

Our day ended at the shores of Eilean Fladdy, where some of us went for a swim (and others watched apprehensively). Then it was dinner, some Bananagrams, and bed (we were all so tired it was impossible to function past 23:00).

Mini mike whale. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

The mirror like sea-state conditions persisted through our final day, resulting in additional sightings of harbour porpoises and seals.

Resting harbour seals. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

Too soon, the bridge to Skye appeared on the horizon and we knew the trip would come to an end. After performing the Silurian deep clean, with heavy hearts and unforgettable memories we disembarked from the Silurian. But our journey was not yet finished, as we travelled to Inverness we discussed our admiration for the crew’s stamina and we are grateful for their hospitality.

Nesting fulmars at the Shiant’s. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

The final day of our adventure found us at Chanonry Point. We stayed true to our marine mammal roots and carefully planned our day around spotting bottlenose dolphins. Our breakfast of scones had just concluded when the first sighting occurred. Breakfast remnants forgotten, we rushed to get a closer look (and about 500 pictures!). Three hours later, we had observed some spectacular leaps, lateral swims, and foraging behaviours. As the dolphins began to disperse so did we because it was finally time to say goodbye and head back to St Andrews…

A bottlenose dolphin giving us a little show. (photo Mikhail Barabanov)

Annabel, Hannah, Mikhail, Nathalie and Sam.

West coast adventures Group 1: Sunshine and Sightings Aboard the Silurian

Day 1 (May 27)

Spirits were high as our team, the first of three groups to go out with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust aboard their research vessel, Silurian, prepared to travel from St Andrews on the East coast to the much-anticipated West coast of Scotland. However, a substantial delay due to a traffic accident on the road we were meant to take to Kyle of Lochalsh meant that for four of our six-person group, our first day on the Silurian didn’t technically begin until the early hours of May 28th. While we were stuck on the winding roads making our way to the boat, our other two group members had boarded, claimed their bunks, and spent the evening chatting with the crew and exploring ashore in Kyle of Lochalsh. When the remaining four students finally arrived, our skipper, Emma, kindly woke up to escort us to our bunks, and then it was lights out in preparation for our first day on the water.

Evening in Kyle of Lochalsh (Photo credit: Amelia Johnson)

Day 2 (May 28)

Our crew briefed us on safety and our rotating roles aboard the Silurian over our first cups of morning tea and coffee. We then set off towards the eastern coast of the Isle of Skye. The weather conditions were just about perfect; blazing sunshine followed us all day and the water was smooth as glass, which made spotting marine mammals much easier. We saw several species including harbour porpoise, common and grey seals, common dolphins, and minke whales.

A solitary minke whale (Photo credit: Diana Pabόn Figueroa)

We also saw hundreds of seabirds including puffins, razorbills, and guillemots. That evening we anchored in a bay on the north of the Isle of Skye with a view of the Duntulm Castle ruins and watched a vibrant sunset from the deck.

Sunset from Duntulm Bay (Photo credit: Fiona McNie)

Day 3 (May 29)

On our second full day on the water we passed the Shiant Isles and recorded over 2,000 puffin sightings in just 20 minutes! We also encountered a pod of bow-riding common dolphins and several minke whales that passed close to our vessel.

A bow-riding common dolphin next to the Silurian (Photo credit: Amelia Johnson)

That evening when we anchored in Red Point bay and took the zodiac to shore, we discovered a less fortunate minke whale on the beach that was fairly decomposed. The term “stinky minke” was very accurate at the time, but it did not deter any of our burgeoning scientist group from inspecting the carcass (at a safe distance, of course).

The Silurian anchored in Red Point Bay (Photo credit: Kate McPherson)

Day 4 (May 30)

When we woke for our final day aboard the Silurian, it was clear that no one was ready to leave the ship or the crew and return to life on land. We had beautiful sunny weather and calm seas for the duration of our trip, and everyone had settled into their roles onboard quite nicely. Passing under the bridge to the Isle of Skye and into the Kyle of Lochalsh harbour was certainly a bittersweet moment. Once docked, we did a thorough clean of the vessel in preparation for the next group of students, and then received a quick recap from the science officer. In our time aboard the Silurian, we had seen 6 minke whales, 73 harbor porpoise, 3 pods of common dolphins, hundreds of seals, and over a thousand marine birds…not too shabby for our first voyage!

Onboard the Silurian with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (Photo credit: Kate McPherson)

The Tale of a Whale

The British Natural History Museum’s exhibition “Whales: Beneath the Surface” opened 14 July, 2017 (and runs till end of February 2018).  Several of our teachers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit had been involved in consulting on the exhibition and some had even written a book about Whales to go with it.  So some students from the MSc Marine Mammal Science benefitted from the connections. Two of us (Lisa and Lucy) weren’t going home for the holidays and were looking for something to do outside of the St Andrews Bubble. Our classmate Amelia graciously invited us to stay in London with her and her aunt, under the condition that they go to see the Whales with us.

While we hit almost every tourist attraction during our trip to London, one of the most anticipated activities was a visit to the Natural History Museum. Let’s be honest, it was a chance to “nerd out” in public and have it be completely acceptable. To kick off our visit, we, of course, spent roughly 30 minutes marveling at the blue whale skeleton hanging in the Main Hall.

A patron overheard us loudly exclaiming about the anatomy of the whale and approached us to ask about the function of the hyoid bone, which we gladly explained, talking over each other in our excitement.

The entrance to the whale exhibition was covered by bowhead whale mandibles, where we stopped to snap a quick picture.  Man, these guys are huge!

This opened up into the first section of the exhibition, which showed the evolutionary history of cetaceans and contained some extraordinary ancestral skeletons.

After passing through the ages, we stepped out into the main hall of the exhibition, and what a main hall it was! It was a large open space that allowed visitors to wander at their own pace through a variety of displays showing all aspects of the life of a whale. The ambience of the space made you feel as though you were part of the ocean, with blue lighting and recordings of whale vocalizations providing a full sensory experience.

There was a range of things on display including a full skeleton of a bottlenose whale, a collection of humpback whale fetuses, and a poster of all species of cetaceans, highlighting those on display in the exhibition. Of them all, Lisa’s favorite was the “fabled” twisted sperm whale lower jawbone, while Lucy favored the more gruesome, fully inflated, sperm whale stomach.

While there were plenty of things to simply look at, there were also quite a few interactive activities and videos to watch. The videos covered topics such as the physiology of deep diving, the search for an earplug in order to age a whale, and detailing some of the work SMRU has conducted with sound-recording instruments (D-Tags) and harbor porpoises. Of all the interactive activities, the most memorable had to be the echolocation game. There we were, four fully grown-up women, chasing flashing lights, while toddlers patiently waited their turn behind us.

Spoiler alert: we won, obviously.

The exhibition closed with an art installation that aimed to draw an emotional connection between humans and whales, before leading directly into the gift shop.

What a wonderful place to buy Christmas gifts for our fellow whale enthusiasts! And buy we did. All four of us walked out of the museum having purchased at least one memento of this wonderful experience.

While we were familiar with most of the material, thanks to our studies at the University of St. Andrews, the exhibition did a wonderful job of providing a glimpse into what we, as marine biologists, find so fascinating about whales. Looking back on this experience, the best thing was how everything was presented in a way that was accessible to a diverse group of people, from toddlers to fledgling scientists.

We are grateful that we got the chance to explore the Whales exhibition. Thank you for the grad-student budget friendly tickets!

Seal-watching on the Isle of May

It was the perfect day for a trip out to sea, and as we waited for the ferry we sampled the culinary delights of Anstruther; some chose fish and chips, whilst others experienced victoria sponge cake with real cream for the first time.

There was a rare moment of hot sun as we gathered at the harbour office along with staff and other students from SMRU. An additional bonus of the trip was meeting Dr Kimberley Bennett from Abertay University, an expert on the physiology and ecology of seals on the Isle of May.

Kimberley explains seal research on the May (photo: Sonja Heinrich)

The trip over to the island on the May Princess was fresh and exhilarating.  Rowan promised to find us all a whale, but alas this was not meant to be.  There were however, numerous sea birds including gannets of all ages, shags, herring and lesser black backed gulls, as well as one kittiwake sighting. Sonja also pointed out the numerous creel crab and lobster pots along the way.

First pup of the season (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

We were awe struck as we approached the towering black cliffs caked in guano, a sign of the guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes that occupied the cliffs during the summer breeding season. Once on the island we saw the multiple burrows, mostly made by rabbits but also puffins which take over the islands in their thousands during the summer months.  Of course, the greatest excitement was from spotting the first seal pup of the season – unmistakable with its white fluffy coat. We watched it from a safe distance from the deck of the May Princess and later from the top of the cliff. Its mother was nearby keeping a watchful eye on us and the pup.

Watching the first pup of the season from the stern of the May Princess (photo: Sonja Heinrich)

Kimberley talked to us about the seal research undertaken on the island to investigate the seals’ breeding success, physiology and numerous other biological questions, and what it is like as a scientist to be living on the island. She survived the interrogation about nearly every aspect of seal science imaginable and despite her best efforts to terrify us with tales of field work horrors and realities such as the 2-month isolation period, fortnightly showers and blood licking mice, we remain undeterred. Lucinda in particular, has placed the challenge that she could easily do three or more months on the island.

Students under the rainbow (photo: Sonja Heinrich)

From the visitor centre we puffed (well some of us) our way up Palpitation Brae to visit the grand historical lighthouse. The views from the top were spectacular, as the passing rain shower presented us with an array of rainbows and contrasting colours in every direction.

Rainbows everywhere… (photos left: Mikhail Barabanov, right: Amelia Johnson)

Following this, we headed over to the north of the island where most of the grey seals will start to congregate during the breeding season in an area of rocky outcrops and pools. Reptilian like nosey seals glided through the clear glassy water subtly eyeballing our every move.

Grey seal submarine (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

Others were far more intent on keeping their flippers dry, hauled out on the rocks in various banana shaped poses.  We could not help but wonder whether the notorious Hannibal was lurking amongst the bathing beauties.  Was he watching us?

Flippers up! (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

After nearly three hours on the island, the time had come to head back to Anstruther. The afternoon had passed quickly, and we all felt inspired, and lucky to see the island before it closed to the public for the winter months.  I thought the day could not have gotten any better, until Annabel announced she had brought some homemade cookies for the journey home! We enjoyed them immensely, and even the locals looked content as the perfect day ended with a picture-perfect sunset.

Luke gazing into the sunset (photo: Mikhail Barabanov)

It’s bigger than you think!

photos & text by Will Brown

With a new semester fast approaching comes a new cohort of eager master’s students. And what better way of encouraging us to make friends, and settle in to the new country we now call home, than with a visit to the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther.

Barely recovering from the rollercoaster like journey between St Andrews and Anstruther we were quickly whisked into the museum. We were then taken through its many winding corridors and doorways to an introductory talk by one of the many knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff members at the museum. Here we were given a whistle stop tour of the local fishing industry, from evidence of the first hunter gatherers at Tentsmuir Nature Reserve, to the 19th century herring boom. This led onto the importance of fishing in the area, and how the museum was created to ensure Anstruther’s, and many other towns in Scotland’s heritage would be remembered.

As the talk came to an end we were then left to our own devices to explore the rest of the museum. This is when we all quickly realised that the tag line at the front of the museum was no lie and it was going to be some task to make it through the museum in time for our journey home. Consequently, the next hour or so has become somewhat of a blur of knots, tackle, model boats and fish.

Some of the new MMS and EMMS students looking over the Research, the last surviving Zulu herring drifter

Despite the swiftness of our visit, many of us still managed to try out the numerous interactive exhibits the museum had to offer. From tying a bowline to wearing a knitted jumper, it felt like some us were really able to connect with the fishing heritage of the area. This perhaps highlights the effectiveness of such displays, or more likely reflects the reluctance to accept that we’re now all postgraduates!

Some of the master’s students getting to know what ‘life on board’ was really like

With the visit coming to an end we came across the room, the MMS students in particular, were waiting for, the small exhibit on whaling. Highlights included examples of scrimshaw on whale teeth to the juxtaposition between the narwhal tusks and the harpoons, mounted alongside each other on the wall. Much like the continuing theme throughout the museum this exhibit really hit home how times have changed, but our past should not be forgotten.

The small section on whaling at the museum


Marine Mammal Masters turned 10!

August was big celebration time for the Masters in Marine Mammal Science. Cohort number 10 finished their intense year at St Andrews with students submitting their dissertations followed by showing off their work to the rest of the department during the poster session. Of course there was also the customary end of course picture…. In deviation from previous traditions this photo was taken at the poster session in the Byre Theatre rather than on East Sands as we’re having construction work for a new state-of-the-art Gatty building at the SOI site.

Masters cohort year 10 & staff at the poster session

And then celebrations got even bigger! It was also the 10th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Science Masters, and Saturday 19th August saw a day of alumni events organised by a hard working alumni committee. It was superb to catch up with alumni from almost all cohorts and find out what everyone had been up to.

The afternoon was spent meeting and greeting, exchanging ideas about career paths and having an inspiring and inspired discussion about the future of marine mammal science. We were very lucky to have several of the main Masters staff contribute to the session – Prof Ian Boyd as founding father of the Marine Mammal Science Masters, Dr Sonja Heinrich as the person who breathed life into the programme and kept it going till now, Prof Ailsa Hall as current SMRU director (and without SMRU support there would be no Marine Mammal Science Masters), and Prof Phil Hammond as long-standing contributor to teaching and project supervision. Phil also kindly lent his voice to deliver the message from Prof Jason Matthiopoulos, the Master’s first course director, who sadly was unable to join the celebrations. Many of those who could not be there had sent words and pictures to share with those who gathered. Davey Poremba, a videographer – contact: flyfilmsuk(at), had skilfully compiled all those alumni contributions into an impressive video to share with us all. Davey also showed off his VJ skills during the alumni party in the evening and kept us dancing and reminiscing when the bands took a break.

Afternoon Alumni session

The evening party at the Rugby Clubhouse was stellar! JazzWorks set a chilled tone with their excellent jazz performance, and Free Reelin’ got everyone up on their feet and swirling around the dance floor ceilidh dancing the night away. In between, alumni and guests showed that the Master’s got talent during the open mic session. The auction of the weird and wonderful items then raised record amounts for a good cause as auctioneer Chris managed to flog an astonishing array of marine mammal memorabilia to sometimes unaware buyers or even the original owners of the donated gimmicks. The official party ended shortly after midnight, but in true Masters style with boundless energy different groups kept going in town until the wee hours of Sunday morning…..!

THANK YOU TO ALL who contributed to this momentous day. We had a whale of a time!


Surveying along the West Coast- part III

And here’s the Silurian trip account from Group 3 (Doris, Filippo, Ilias, Monica)

Day 1

Our journey to the Isle of Mull included two ferry crossings and a lengthy, but scenic, road trip through the Highlands. We were able to stop briefly in Glencoe to take pictures of a waterfall, then quickly continued our journey to Tobermory where we would board the Silurian. Upon arrival to Tobermory, we encountered the previous group and they graciously told us of their sightings and adventures. We could see from the excitement on their faces that we were going to be in for a great trip. Skipper Paul chaperoned us to the Silurian on a Zodiac where we were able to board our home for the next few days. That evening we became acquainted with the crew, including Simon and Frazer as we were served a lovely dinner cooked by them.

Group 3 selfie (photo: Monica Arancibia)

Day 2

We slept very well that evening and awoke to enjoy a lovely breakfast and set sail along the coast of Mull. The weather, sadly, had turned overcast but we were still able spot a few harbour porpoises, thanks to the calm sea. The shy individuals did not come very close to the sailboat, yet swam parallel to us, so we could see their small triangular dorsal fin popping out from water. It was the first time seeing this small, adorable species for all the students on board so we were elated…HOORAY!! More rainy weather came immediately after a few grey and harbour seal sightings, but we were able to observe them bottling as well as actively swimming.

Thanks to Simon’s preparation of hot tea and second breakfast, we were able to survive and work normally under chilly weather conditions. As our journey continued we identified various species of bird and the incredible diving gannets. As we approached our first evening’s anchorage out of port, an otter was spotted leaving the water and crawling onto a rock. However, the person spotting it was so excited that she yelled “SIGHTING” and by the time we all took a look at the rock the otter was gone….probably scared by the sudden, loud noise. Once at anchorage two pair of greylag geese, each with one gosling trailing them, passed by us. We also saw several moon jellies next to the boat with their distinct clover shaped pattern swimming gracefully beneath the surface. That evening we were treated to a delicious Italian meal of pasta with a red sauce with tuna followed by learning several new games we played with the HWDT crew. The forecast for the following day indicated more overcast skies and potential for rough weather.

Observers on Lookout (photo: Doris Woo)

Day 3

As we set sail the rain began and the sea state increased steadily with intermittent bouts of clearing. The sightings decreased with the rough weather, but we still were able to spot a few seals and several birds. By the time we arrived at anchorage the weather had let up a bit, enough for an excursion onto land before dinner. The breath taking scenery around us included several large hills, so we decided to try to reach the top. Half of us made it all the way, while the other half stopped on the way to take in the new view and snap a few pictures. We encountered a common frog on the way up and spotted scat of an unidentified animal. While the view from that height was amazing and the hike provided some much needed leg work, we were getting hungry and needed to make our way back down to the boat. That evening we had a delicious meal of Chinese noodles and stir fry and a cucumber yoghurt salad. Again, we ended the evening with a fun game of cards before snuggling into our bags for the last night aboard the Silurian.

Day 4

Our last day aboard we were graced not only with sunshine and blue skies, but we had minke whale sightings! Our first one was about 1.5 km away and was only seen briefly by two of us.  We had several harbour porpoise and seal sightings after the minke whale tease. We then sailed to a minke whale hotspot to search for the amazing creatures. In our second and third sightings the two different minke whales were very inquisitive, so much so that one of them even swam perpendicular underneath the bow of the sailboat! We were all very excited to see the whales showing their beautiful backs and encountering them so close. The combination of sunshine and blue water even allowed us to see the bits of white on the minke whale flippers. The small whales moved quite fast so it took a lot of effort to photograph them, we had to stop for quite a while to wait for their resurfacings.

Minke whale (photo: HWDT)

Then on the way back into port we encountered a whale again in the area near the lighthouse by Tobermory where we had seen the first one that morning. This time the whale was much closer, but was being actively pursued by some smaller tourist vessels. We were able to see the importance of education and regulations regarding marine mammal protection. We were happy to have field experience hearing snapping shrimp on PAM, working first-hand with the software Logger and adding several new species to our checklists of those observed in the wild. Despite our lack of dolphin sightings we disembarked with new energy and excitement for finishing our projects.


Surveying along the West Coast- part II

Here’s the second Silurian trip account, from Group 2 (Laura, Lauren, Devi, Alex and Naomi) – Written by Naomi Tuhuteru:

Day one (25th May)

We set off from St Andrews with a beautiful drive across the Highlands to the West coast and the town of Oban. From there we enjoyed a sunny crossing with the ferry and a bus trip across the scenic Isle of Mull including views of playful highland coo calves. In Tobermory, we bumped into some of our classmates from group 1 who were sporting the marks of a great sunny day at sea: big smiles and sun burn! They were still riding the endorphin rush of having had an incredible encounter with a minke whale earlier that day, which you can read (and see!) all about in their blog entry. Their stories got us all even more fired up, so we headed to the Silurian where we were greeted by the cheery crew of three (skipper, first mate and science officer) who gave us a detailed introduction to our new floating home and the survey protocols for both visual and passive acoustic data collection. A cooking schedule was made and groceries were loaded before a pasta dinner appeared, and we called it an early night in happy anticipation of our first full day on the water.

Tobermory at sunset (photo: Alex Carroll)

Day two (26th May)

The next day we were cheerfully woken up by the crew with upbeat music and an assortment of cereals and our great friend: coffee! With a sunny and colourful Tobermory behind us we were all exited to start our adventure.

Sunny start to the survey (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

There were plenty of birds around the boat, but we were all scanning the water for the first marine mammal sighting. Devi was the first to spot a single harbour porpoises pop up briefly on the port side of the boat. We did not have to wait long until we heard the words everybody had been waiting for: “SIGHTING! 90 degrees, 300 meters…..MINKE WHALE!!” The crew grabbed cameras to photograph the animal in hope of capturing identifiable marks, whilst the skipper carefully approached the whale. All fell quiet on deck as everybody was concentrating on scanning the water around the boat in the hopes of spotting the whale again. After a few minutes the obligingly whale re-surfaced and was greeted by the frantic clicking of our cameras.

First minke whale sighting (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

After a while the crew noticed a huge container ship approaching fast, so in order to give the minke whale some space and get on a safe course we moved away and went back on our transect. No more marine mammals showed themselves after that but the day remained beautiful and sunny.

Lauren and the Silurian crew (photo: Alex Carroll)

By the early evening we were all really tired. It’s remarkable how tiring it can be to stand in the sun all day long staring at the sea. After a dinner of what-was-supposed-to-be-improvised-paella-turned-improvised-risotto we were all ready for bed. However, before we could call it a night we were briefed on an extra element for tomorrow’s survey. In addition to recording marine mammal, creel and marine debris data like we did today, we would also be collecting data on sea birds and surrounding vessels, giving us more to look at and keep track of.

Day three (27th May)

The next morning we were all a bit sleepy-eyed but soon perked up after a hearty breakfast and our first coffees. We soon geared up in our waterproofs in preparation for a rainy day. From the moment we got out on deck we saw lots of birds: razorbills, guillemots, gulls and gannets were all flying around our boat. As the day progressed the wind calmed down, making it easier for us to spot animals in the water. We saw harbour porpoises again, but this time in small groups of up to 3 individuals at a time. In the afternoon the wind died down completely and we were treated to a mirror-like sea surface with only the occasional light drizzle causing tiny ripples. With such great sighting conditions our anticipation for spotting marine mammals grew, and we started to catch glimpses of the small triangular dorsal fins of harbour porpoises and spotted grey seals ‘bottling’ – where the seal was bobbing vertically in the water with its snout pointing skywards.

Bottling grey seal (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

As time went on we started to question our whale spotting skills but then luckily the first minke whale of the day appeared. We spotted several more minke whales, with one particularly sneaky one only seen for a couple of surfacings. We also saw the less common variety of the bridled guillemot which even the non-birders on the boat found pretty awesome.

Spot the bridled guillimot amongst the normal variety (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

the survey the crew offered to take us ashore on the Isle of Coll to do a bit of exploring – although we were quite tired we decided that this was too good an offer to pass on so soon we headed for shore. Several curious seals escorted us from the anchored Silurian to the beach. On land we walked past sheep to a castle (Breachacha?) and explored the vicinity.

Group 2 in front of the castle on the Isle of Coll

After a day of recording only occasional rubbish during the survey, we were sad to see this beach covered in marine debris, from plastic bags to long pieces of plastic rope that could easily cause an entanglement tragedy for marine life, especially birds and seals. Finding so much litter on a relatively remote beach reaffirmed how important it is to reach out to people, make everyone aware of disposing their rubbish properly and help reduce the amount of plastic waste that finds its way into the sea.

Marine debris on the beach on the Isle of Coll (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

On our way back to the Silurian, we attempted to row instead of using the engine hoping that a quieter boat would attract the seals to come closer. However, even after channelling our best inner-Pocahontas we really weren’t getting anywhere, nor were the seals getting closer, so the outboard engine was fired up to get us back to our floating home. That evening we got to enjoy a very impressive burrito buffet! To end the successful survey day we enjoyed some Scottish whiskey and played some very painful rounds of ‘Irish slap’ – which is a card game where you get to slap each other on the hand – the crew definitely played with an iron fist as Lauren can attest…

 Day four (28th May)

Our last day on the Silurian. We were all pretty much into the routine by now: have breakfast, gear up and get out on deck to scan the water. The rain had stopped but the cloud remained. Soon we encountered the famous three of our trip again: grey seals, harbour porpoises and a minke whale which was still every bit as awesome as it was on the first day. During our breaks from surveying we started to pack our stuff in preparation for disembarking the Silurian in the afternoon. By the time we sailed into Tobermory the sun had broken through the clouds and we got to enjoy a sunny ‘last lunch’ out on deck. Then it was time to say goodbye to the crew and check into Tobermory hostel for the night. We briefly met the next group of students.

Sailing on Silurian (photo: Alex Carroll)

We had a lot of fun together on the boat and really enjoyed learning the ropes of visual and passive acoustic surveys, but we all agreed after 3.5 days that we were now ready to go back home with our fresh tans and great new memories to start tackling our dissertations.

Back in Tobermory (photo: Alex Carroll)


Surveying along the West Coast of Scotland

Each year our MSc students get to spend some time on the West Coast of Scotland to gain practical skills surveying for marine mammals. Three groups of students joined the team from the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin trust aboard their vessel Silurian.

Here are the students’ stories:

Day 1 (Day of arrival)

On Tuesday the 22nd May the first group of MSc Marine Mammal Science students travelled from St Andrews to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull to embark on a short field expedition with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT). At 6pm we were greeted by the crew at the pier of Tobermory and boarded out floating home for the next 3 days: the SV Silurian. After a brief trip to shore for supplies, and an impressive dinner of fajitas with all the trimmings (not an easy task considering the size of the kitchen!) we headed to our bunks in preparation for our early start the next day.

Walking along in Tobermory main street (photo: Lacey Brandt)

Day 2 (First full day at sea)

At 7:30 am the team had toast and coffee and got suited up to leave Tobermory Harbor. The boat crew allowed one of the students to climb (wearing a secure harness) to the top bucket platform on the mast (affording great views from up there). As we set off on our journey, a BBC film team and a Greenpeace boat sailed alongside of us for thirty minutes while taking videos with a drone and cameras for a TV show about the HWDT’s research on cetaceans and Greenpeace’s research on micro plastics.

Greenpeace ship keeping us company for short filming session (photo: Lacey Brandt)

The first day was a little rough with rain, wind and seasickness from shifts working under deck on the computer, but we worked through it as a team. Keen observers spotted a group of three harbour porpoises! The crew anchored the boat off the Isle if Rum and ended the day early.

Kinloch Castle & deer (photo: Lacey Brandt)

The crew took us ashore by dingy and we enjoyed a nice walk past the quaint general store and  the slightly bizarre Kinloch Castle with one of the famous Rum red deer picturesquely grazing in front of it.

It was our turn to cook and we pulled off a yummy vegetarian Indian-inspired dinner with rice. The night ended with a few games….

Dinner…. (photo: Lacey Brandt)

Day 3 (Second day at sea)

This second day we were better prepared for what was coming… after spending the night in a sheltered bay on the Isle of Rum, we headed out into the bad weather and turned northward towards the Isle of Skye, but this time with seasickness pills in our stomach! And again, we spotted a few harbor seals, porpoises, and lots of sea birds, which provided welcome ‘distractions’ during our foggy trip.

Looking for marine mammals…. (photo: Claudia Auladell Q.)

But at the end of the survey our efforts were rewarded by a pod of common dolphins bow-riding the Silurian giving us a chance to enjoy their company for half an hour and to take plenty of pictures (with selfies of Pablo and the dolphins included) and make nice videos. By the end of the day the crew decided to anchor in a bay on the mainland south from the Isle of Skye, with a sandy beach that looked like paradise and lots of terns flying around!

Common dolphin (photo: Sanne Bakkers)

Day 4 (Final day returning to Tobermory)

After wind, fog, drizzle, and quite a choppy sea, finally came the sunshine. The kind of weather we were all hoping for. Heading back to the harbor of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, we surveyed under a blue sky with mostly clam sea conditions. Early on the day we spotted loads of harbor and grey seals, and some harbor porpoise. Our last day was also a whale day, with a total of three minke whales, including one unexpected and startlingly close approach (5m for the Silurian!) by one of the whales. By far the highlight of the day, and one of our favorite encounters of the trip.

Minke whale with white “mitten” on flipper visible underwater (photo: Sanne Bakkers)
Catching a minke whale up close with the camera (photo: Sanne Bakkers)

After returning to Tobermory we enjoyed lunch in the sun before briefly meeting the next MMS student team who were ready to embark on their trip.

Written by MMS Group 1: Pablo, Jules, Claudia, Sanne, and Lacey

May is for minke whale…

Almost a year ago our then MSc Marine Mammal Science students were treated to an impromptu necropsy of a minke whale that washed ashore almost at our door step in St Andrews….. below is what happened this year…This whale arrived a little too early while students were still in the middle of exam preparations but such a great opportunity was not lost on them… Pablo and Lacey report on whale stranding 2.0:

On May 5th, the students of the MSc Marine Mammal Science were able to assist the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS) team with a minke whale necropsy. A juvenile female of almost 6m in length had stranded and died on the sandy beach on the southern edge of Tentsmuir forest, across the river Eden from West Sands and St Andrews.

Minke whale and necropsy team on the beach (photo: Sanne Bakkers)

Getting to the location was a little tricky, with cabs and cars making their way along back country roads to find the location with beach access on foot. There was some thought that the minke whale might be the same one that had live-stranded in the nearby Firth of Forth recently, and had been re-floated successfully by the BDMLR strandings response team. It was understood that the previously rescued whale had a unique hole in its pectoral fin, so it was a matter of flipping this dead whale over to check. Teams of tuggers assisted by diggers set to work and pulled on ropes to try and roll the whale over. It soon became obvious that this whale had its fins intact, so it turned out to be a different whale.

Moving the whale (photo: Laura Palmer)
Minke whale flipper (photo: Lauren Arkoosh)

The near perfect external state of this whale was surprising (and appreciated!). We got the chance to behold external features such as the short baleen plates, the groove for the internally located reproductive organs and the consistency of the fins. After taking external measurements the SMASS team then proceeded to slice open the whale: underneath the dark skin the white blubber layer appeared and was measuerd to be less than 2 inches thick. Next, the layers of dark red muscle below were removed. As the necropsy progressed, samples were stored in containers filled with formalin or ethanol and labelled, their destinations being different labs around the world.

Students getting into the whale – quite literally (photo: Laura Palmer)

As Andrew (the lead vet)’s knives were revealing organs, he was naming them for us. It was fascinating to watch the inner workings of a whale and the important traits for whale diving physiology. The colour of the muscle, rich in myoglobin, was relatively light for a whale but darker than anything we had ever seen before [the intensity of colour in the muscle indicates how much myoglobin there is which relates to how long a species dives –  minke whales don’t dive for that long or deep]. As we moved to the organs in the digestive system, we started to note quite a lot of parasites: anisakis (nematodes) and Bolbosoma sp. (thorny-headed worms) in the digestive tract, and liver flukes (a type of parasitic flat worm).

They look like spaghetti….. nematodes from the whale’s stomach (photo: Sanne Bakkers)

While we were holding surprisingly heavy whale ribs and feeling the –still very warm- insides of the whale, a sneaky grey seal arrived on the beach to check us out from a distance. The seal stole the show for a couple of minutes – a live marine mammal beats a dead one any time…..But soon we were back to the inner workings of the minke whale: the heavily congested lungs (filled with fluid) indicated that the whale had stranded alive (and laboured to breath as its weight squashed its lungs), but the cause for the actual stranding was not easily discernible……. We were curious about what could have caused an apparently healthy looking individual to strand alive (this is particularly relevant to us as we were preparing for exam questions related to potential threats to marine mammals for our MSc conservation and management course). Perhaps opening the head would reveal an inflammation in the brain or other compromising injury. Unfortunately we could not stay until the end of the necropsy to find out, but before having to return to books and exam revisions we got to measure the small intestines: all 30 meters thereof! Apparently that’s short for a baleen whale, but it surely looked impressive to us to see the guts laid out on the beach. We also noticed that the stomach and intestines were empty of food remains but quite full with parasites….. potentially a serious burden for the whale and possibly a contributing factor to its demise.

Tug of war with intestines…. whale guts are long! (photo: Lauren Arkoosh)

This experience was a great chance to bring to life many of the subjects we have studied over the past 9 months, from physiology to causes of death and whale conservation. The good state of the animal, the expertise of the SMASS team and the whale’s proximity to St Andrews all aligned –almost suspiciously- to grant an afternoon of great outdoor learning. We all left feeling more aware of the active role we are called to play in marine mammal research and conservation…..

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