The abundance and distribution of cetaceans in the western English Channel and their exposure to ship noise


A collaboration between the University of Plymouth and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture (CEFAS), this project will survey the distribution and abundance of cetaceans in the western English Channel and model impacts of shipping noise on cetaceans. 
The project outputs will provide a valuable resource for conservation management and planning decisions and will contribute to positive conservation outcomes for coastal cetaceans in noisy environments. The English Channel is the most heavily impacted coastal region in the UK with one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and industries including, fisheries, offshore wind, and recreational boating. These waters are also habitat for multiple cetacean species including harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), common (Delphinus delphis) bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus), Risso’s (Grampus griseus) and white-beaked (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) dolphins. Recently, anthropogenic noise has become a recognised pollutant and shipping noise has a widespread yet poorly measured impact on marine mammals adding to habitat degradation, by-catch and boat disturbance in coastal waters. Despite this, there have been few scientific surveys and as a result there is limited conservation management for cetaceans in the region. The University of Plymouth has been running dedicated cetacean surveys using visual and passive acoustic data collection aboard the University’s 13m sailing vessel Take the Helm since 2017 (see Fig 1.a). In addition to towed passive acoustic surveys, since 2019 we have been collaborating with CEFAS to maintain a passive acoustic hydrophone mooring collecting data on ship noise and cetacean vocalisations at the mouth of Plymouth Sound (Fig. 1b).
These on-going monitoring campaigns will provide the data for the PhD project which will be analysed together with oceanographic and environmental data. 
<p>Common dolphins bow riding Take the Helm off the coast of Cornwall</p>
Figure 1. a) common dolphins bow riding ‘Take the Helm’ off the coast of Cornwall.
<p>A spectrogram of delphinid whistles recorded at
the mouth of Plymouth Sound.

Figure 1. b) a spectrogram of delphinid whistles recorded at the mouth of Plymouth Sound.


This PhD project will map the diversity, distribution and abundance of cetaceans in the western English Channel using boat-based survey data and estimate their exposure to anthropogenic noise. 
The project will have five main objectives:
1. Continue and expand boat-based visual and passive acoustic surveys in the western English Channel.
2. Model the habitat preferences and distribution of cetaceans in SW waters. 
3. Estimate the abundance of key coastal cetacean species found in the region.  
4. Analyse broad-band acoustic recordings from a static hydrophone on a long-term mooring at the mouth of Plymouth Sound.
5. Integrate localised sound levels with habitat models and ship tracking data (AIS) to develop noise exposure models across the study area.

Eligibility and candidate requirements

  • We invite highly motivated candidates interested in cetacean ecology and conservation. 
  • Applicants should have a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate biological or marine science and preferably a relevant MSc.
  • Quantitative skills such as R, Matlab, GIS are essential. 
  • Acoustic analysis skills and modelling expertise are desirable.
  • Boat-based field experience in marine mammal science would be an advantage.

Student training

This project will encompass several key analytical approaches for measuring animal distribution and abundance including the following techniques: Soundscape analysis, in-person training at CEFAS with the noise and bioacoustics team, how to process long term acoustic datasets and identify temporal trends in biological and anthropogenic sources; Passive Acoustic monitoring (PAM) how to detect, collect and analyse cetacean echolocation click trains and use these data to estimate animal distribution density and distribution; Visual survey techniques, Distance sampling methods for analysing line transect visual surveys and land based visual surveys for cetaceans; Abundance estimation, how to conduct model based and photo-id based estimates of abundance using visual and acoustic dedicated survey data; Habitat modelling: training in density-surface modelling, and other relevant modelling techniques in R. The training will include transferable scientific skills including remote sensed data acquisition, and training in the use of analytical packages including; ArcGIS/QGIS, R, Python, PAMguard, Raven, MATLAB, MARK, U-Care, MaxEnt, Distance.

Key recent papers by the supervisory team

  • Cox, S.L. Embling, CB, Hosegood, PJ, and Votier, SC, Ingram, SN. 2018. Oceanographic drivers of marine mammal and seabird habitat-use across shelf-seas: A guide to key features and recommendations for future research and conservation management. Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science. 212: 294-310. 
  • Nielsen KA, Robbins JR & Embling CB 2021. Spatio-temporal patterns in harbour porpoise density: citizen science and conservation in UK seas. Marine Ecology Progress Series 675, 165-180
  • Putland, R.L., Merchant, N.D., Farcas, A., Radford, C.A., 2018, “Vessel noise cuts down communication space of vocalizing fish and marine mammals”, Global Change Biology, 24, 1708 – 1721
Should you have any questions regarding the position, please contact Simon Ingram -

Supervisory team