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)gmail.com, 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…..so 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)

 

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SilurianGr2_1002
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!

SilurianGr2_0547
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.)

 

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SilurianGr3_0538
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

SilurianGr3_0301
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.

SilurianGr3_0746
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)

SilurianGr3_0700

 

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

MarcoSamAlicia_CharlesMcGibney

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

SarahsTalk

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

GraduationClass2015_Zicos
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!

Maria

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. 🙂

Sarah