Hearing the calls of the wild
BSc (Hons) Marine Biology graduate Emma Longden is working on a pioneering project using acoustic technology to monitor mammals
8 min read
8 min read
I’ve wanted to study dolphins since I was a child and my parents adopted one for me in the Moray Firth for Christmas. After a lot of pleading, they took me to see my adopted dolphin off the Scottish coast and, since then, I’ve been so enthralled by whales and dolphins, particularly the mysteries of their lives that we still know so little about.
It seems a strange career choice having grown up in Buxton, more than 50 miles from the coast, but I love the travel and adventure that comes with the job. I’ve also been surrounded by people that have encouraged me to chase my dream, in particular my family and my science teachers who encouraged my passion.
As soon as I started searching for a degree in marine biology, Plymouth stood out as one of the best in the country. It had an amazing reputation, exciting opportunities such as the field trips and HSE scuba diving qualification, and the marine biology department produce world-leading research.
Whenever I’ve met other marine biologists while working on projects or visiting conferences, they all know of the fantastic reputation of the marine biology courses at Plymouth. The location – a friendly welcoming city so close to great beaches and Dartmoor – also helped make the choice.
My time at Plymouth gave me a great grounding in so many aspects of marine biology, preparing me for a career in research. It was a good mix of lectures and practicals, both in the field and the lab. The diverse interests of the teaching staff is also really great as you can find someone to supervise a project on pretty much anything.
The staff also have amazing links outside of the University and if you are interested in travelling to get field experience or gather data for a project, someone will know the right person and connect you with them. A lot of my course mates travelled to really cool places around the world working on everything from seaweed to whales.
The behaviour of whales and dolphins is the area I am interested in most and I have always been inspired by the incredible work on the dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, and the amazing discoveries they’ve made on bottlenose dolphin behaviour after studying them for decades. Dolphins are so intelligent but we know so little about why they do what they do. Their brain size in relation to body size is second to only humans and ranks higher than apes, yet we know so much more about ape behaviour than we do dolphins.
That’s mostly due to how much harder it is to study dolphins – they spend so much of their lives underwater and in locations that are hard to access.
But for me, that just makes the challenge of studying them more appealing as I love being able to travel and have really enjoyed the time I’ve spent in remote field locations.
It’s also an exciting time as technology is advancing so rapidly and it’s becoming a lot easier to track animals over large distances and around the clock.
My degree ran from September 2015 to July 2018, and in the summer of 2017 I interned at the Namibian Dolphin Project to gain some field experience and knowledge in cetacean acoustics.
When I returned to Plymouth for my final year, I carried out a project co-supervised by Dr Tess Gridley and Dr Clare Embling (University of Plymouth). I loved every moment working on it, even the long days sat behind a computer processing nine months of acoustic data – the less exciting side of research.
I came out with a grade of 90% and the University award for the Best Project in Issues Relating to Marine Conservation.
What first got me really hooked on the project was a fascination with acoustics. Before first interning in Namibia I had little knowledge of cetacean acoustics but the group were – and still are – collecting a lot of acoustic data in Walvis Bay and that’s where I learnt the basics.
I think it’s easy to try and study animals visually, in the way that comes most naturally to us. But dolphins are an acoustic species and they have a whole repertoire of sounds that we barely even know or understand.
I was particularly interested in the mark-recapture project because it’s really new and, to our knowledge, applying mark-recapture methods to individually unique calls hasn’t been attempted successfully yet. It has helped me develop a real interest in non-invasive and novel research methods.
One of the great things about acoustics is that you can leave a hydrophone in the water for weeks at a time and collect so much data, without barely interfering with the lives of the animals you’re studying.
There is so much to cover in a marine biology degree that the large, charismatic animals that people usually think of – such a whales, dolphins and sharks – make up a tiny amount of the course. My research project was therefore one of the few chances I had to fully immerse myself in marine mammals.
I got really into my project and I also knew that I’d actually managed to do something really novel that hadn’t been attempted before, so I was eager to put a bit more time in to get it out in the research world. It took a lot of time and energy but feels incredible to know that I’ve led a piece of work that’s now published and I can’t wait for the next one.
Read our news release about Emma's study, published in the Journal of Mammalogy in August 2020
As well as working on the dolphin signature whistle project, I spent time in the field collecting data on many other projects. The group are currently doing a lot of work on Cape fur seals and I spent time camping at Cape Cross, home to one of the world’s largest Cape fur seal colonies to gather visual and acoustic data on mother-pup interactions. I also spent time kayaking amongst the colony at Pelican Point to assess for plastic entanglement, an increasingly big issue on the Namibian coastline, despite such a sparse human population.
The Namibian Dolphin Project has also recently started studying bird acoustics. Luckily there are large populations of greater flamingos, lesser flamingos and white pelicans right outside the staff cottage in the lagoon.
Another interesting project involves photo-ID of jackals – each identifiable by the unique markings of their fur – helping to estimate population characteristics such as range and abundance.
A less glamorous job is attending to standings, everything from mola mola (or, sunfish), to large baleen whales.
The Namibian coastline is vast and largely uninhabited, it forms the habitat of many resident and migratory cetacean species and often these can end up stranded. The team are always kept on their toes whether it be helping to re-float live animals or performing an autopsy on dead ones.
As well as working, I managed to spend some time exploring the beautiful landscape of Namibia. I managed to visit the Spitzkoppe mountains, red dunes of Sossusvlei and historic Sandwich harbour.
We also took a road trip from Cape Town, South Africa (where most of the team are based year-round) to Walvis Bay, Namibia, to get all the equipment up ready for the field season which was an amazing chance to see so much of both countries.
Since graduating from Plymouth in 2018 I’ve spent time between home in Buxton and working on different research projects. This has included monitoring marine mammals (mainly humpback and killer whales) off the north-east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, using non-invasive, land-based survey methods.
I’ve also worked on the Whales from Space project at the British Antarctic Survey, helping create a time series of baleen whale occurrence off the Western Antarctica Peninsula using satellite images. And I returned to Namibia last summer to finish up the acoustic mark-recapture project I had started during my undergraduate degree.
I am now helping another student to match signature whistle IDs to photo IDs of dolphins’ fins as he continues with the project.
Alongside that I am also currently doing my masters at the University of St Andrews, and after that I’m hoping to find a PhD researching either whales or dolphins. I would love to find a project that involves field work in a remote location, getting to spend time in the environment of the animals I’m studying.
Working with the Namibian Dolphin Project has inspired me to work for an NGO (non-governmental organisation) as you get to work on some really interesting projects and every day is different. Their work involves so much more than just science, I really enjoyed getting to know the local people and spreading awareness of the marine environment.
For more information about studying marine biology, please visit our BSc (Hons) Marine Biology page. For more information about our range of courses within the School of Biological and Marine Sciences, please visit the school page.
If you would like to find out what other relevant alumni are currently doing, please visit the marine, earth, geography and environment interest area.
Through an ongoing partnership facilitated by the Ocean Giants Trust, the University is working with Sea Search to enable students to get hands-on experience of ocean conservation. A series of scholarships are available to those enrolled on marine biology and conservation undergraduate courses at the University, and two students are currently working on three-year associations with Sea Search.
Have you ever wondered why animals live where they do, why coral reefs are so diverse, or how to conserve our increasingly threatened marine life? This world-leading degree challenges you to ask these questions and more