Marine mammal survey 2020

Discover what it was like for the marine biology students who took part in a four-day marine mammal survey in 2020

5 min read

Captain's log 

These four days were an exciting opportunity for University students to bring lecture material to life and contribute towards a growing database about marine mammals in our local waters.

Join Nadia, Emmanuelle, Laurie, Connor and Sam on a research adventure above the waves in the South West.

<p>All aboard Take the helm, the University yacht</p>

What did we discover?

Day 1: A dolphin delight

– log entry by Nadia Frontier, BSc Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology (third year)

The second round of summer 2019 surveys aboard Take the Helm was launched on a very sunny day in Plymouth. 

With blue skies overhead and zero per cent cloud cover, a team of smiling faces climbed on board to commence a survey of the South West coastal waters for marine mammals. Our goal was to conduct a series of line transect surveys to gather baseline data about species abundances, distributions and their behaviour.

Within two hours we saw our first sighting – erupting through the water was a group of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis). We could not take our eyes off them as they swam to the stern of the boat. To our delight, we witnessed the group doing full leaps out of the water and 'fluke up' behaviour, which is indicative of socialising.

Later on, through the roll of a wave, two porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) were sighted – their small bodies and blunt tip dorsal fin unmistakably characteristic.

Over the next two hours we were blessed with further dolphin sightings. One group was particularly attracted to our boat, which became a perfect opportunity to appreciate their speed and agility and to photograph their sleek streamlined bodies breaking the water.

In the moment, I realised how lucky I am to have a digital camera to capture these events, remembering my lecturers recounting the pain of developing film camera roll to yield only photos of the sea.

<p>On watch, recording any animals seen (marine mammals, birds, jellyfish...), boats, and litter<br></p>
<p>Bow-riding common dolphins<br></p>
<p>Sail trimming</p>
<p>On watch: Laurie (BSc Marine Biology and Oceanography: dissertation creating habitat models of seabirds from these surveys), Connor (BSc Marine Biology, dissertation was habitat models of harbour porpoises from the previous 2 years surveys), and Nadia (BSc Marine Biology &amp; Coastal Ecology).</p>

Day 2: We saw a shark

– log entry by Emmanuelle Farrington, BSc Marine Biology and Oceanography (second year)

An early start. We rolled out from our bunks to begin our long haul to the Scilly Isles. 

The morning greeted us with a clear sky and the brightest sun we’ve seen all year. Our skipper, Alastair, used nearly an entire bottle of sunscreen up, in an attempt to save his ears from burning during our passage.

Out on the glassy sea we were excited to see so many incredible creatures – Mediterranean gulls, a lone seal relaxing and bobbing around, and even the dorsal and tail fins of a small, but unidentifiable, shark. 

You could probably have heard our squeals of excitement all the way from the Cornish coast when common dolphins joined us to ride on our bow. 

When the wind finally came our way mid-afternoon, Nadia literally jumped for joy to get the sails up, as we appreciated the extra shade on deck to help reduce sunburn.

After 12 hours of scanning the horizon for sea life, we finally anchored up at St Agnes island. We all applauded Connor, for he was especially happy to have had made it through the day without being seasick.

<p>A gannet in the sea</p>
<p>Common dolphins</p>
<p>All aboard Take the Helm</p>
<p>One of the many seals we spotted<br></p>

Day 3: Seals of approval

– log entry by Laurie Tallis, BSc Marine Biology and Oceanography (second year)

Mirrored seas and sunny skies combined to make some very rosy cheeks aboard Take the Helm, as we continued our journey around the Isles of Scilly.

Our next route took us from the St Agnes anchorage to our next home for the night by Great Ganilly island. 

We were welcomed throughout the day by seals, puffins, porpoise, dolphins, sunfish – all things nice!

A certain 'looniness' did begin to take its toll though after being on a boat for so long, but nothing a fantastic vegetarian chilli from the galley at sunset could not fix.

<p>First mate Emmanuelle<br></p>
<p>Take the Helm, home for the survey<br></p>
<p>Ghost fishing net retrieved from the sea – it was abandoned and floating at the surface causing an entanglement risk for many marine animals.<br></p>
<p>Beautiful sunset in Falmouth harbour<br></p>

Day 4: A floating ghost net

– log entry by Connor Joesbury, BSc Marine Biology (third year)

From our anchorage at Great Ganilly we ventured due east towards our penultimate location, Falmouth. 

For the first two hours we were gifted with occasional sightings, and the sound of Nadia shouting 'gannet' for anything with wings.

However, our luck soon changed and we were surprised with a cacophony of dolphins which caused the boat to go into a mad sighting frenzy. Al rushed from side-to-side, attempting to catch a star photo for National Geographic. While everyone else scanned the ocean for sightings for Laurie to log. 

Once the pod had displaced, we returned to our normal activities. The sun though decided it was going to try and cook us alive – it was only 23 degrees but with no wind it felt like 35!

We were then subjected to the first negative of the trip, a floating ghost net. But fear not, we sprang into action, with all hands on deck, to retrieve this from the water and save any marine life from being caught.

The Great British weather then showed its true colours. Before you know it everyone had changed from shorts and tees to coats and hats, as temperatures plummeted and the wind picked up. But alas, we are a hardy bunch and this did not deter us, with many a seabird and porpoise, even a lowly shark, sighted, while we streamed back towards Falmouth Harbour.

With our twelve-hour shift finally over, we rested our weary heads ready to be up bright and early for the final day of fun.


Marine vertebrate research at the University of Plymouth

Data collected by students at the University of Plymouth contributes to long-term monitoring and conservation of marine mammal and seabird populations in the southwest UK. 

We know very little about the populations here off the south coast of the UK, yet it is has a high level of bycatch (where marine mammals are caught or entangled in fishing nets) resulting in the injury and deaths of many animals. It is therefore critical to understand where and when marine mammals are found so we can best conserve them. 

The Take the Helm surveys contribute to this knowledge and also form the basis of a range of dissertation and masters projects (e.g. Figure 1) – Students can analyse the data they collect and contribute to their local conservation.

<p>Figure 1 – Harbour porpoise sightings from the first Take the Helm survey data in August 2017, analysed by dissertation student Wendy Edwards (BSc Marine Biology &amp; Oceanography)<br></p>

Figure 1 – Harbour porpoise sightings from the first survey data in August 2017, analysed by dissertation student Wendy Edwards (BSc Marine Biology and Oceanography)

Fancy being on board a future voyage?

We offer three marine biology undergraduate courses, which are closely integrated and have the same entry requirements. In addition, we offer a Foundation year, which (upon successful completion) allows access to all three of our programmes. We also offer a degree in ocean science and marine conservation.