A dose of vitamin sea

Updated: May 10

Written by Claire Lacey

In the early days of the pandemic, I wrote a blog entry for the UK Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management in which I compared lockdown (as Stay-at Home orders are called back home) to being on a ship. My tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that it was similar – only with pets, better internet access and a reduced risk of seasickness. I wrote that blog in early April 2020, back when we thought restrictions would only be for a few weeks, long before we fully understood what a devastating impact the pandemic would have for so many people worldwide, or how much it would profoundly change how the world operated. 11 months later, like many places, Scotland is still under pretty strict lockdown. Winter there is long, dark and cold. Sometimes the rain comes at you sideways, and I had spent a very long time in my apartment. And until a few days ago, I would have very happily swapped that “better internet access” for a long stint on a ship, no matter how bad the potential for seasickness! I had been offshore every year since 2002, and I don’t mind admitting, I was desperate for a fix of Vitamin Sea.

It’s now approaching the end of February 20201, and I am delighted to say that I have at last been able to join the rest of the team at MMRP as a visiting researcher. I am writing this blog whilst fulfilling my mandatory post-travel quarantine, having arrived on Oahu a few days ago. This move has taken a long while. I first came out here to meet the team in March 2020, just before the world closed down. The original plan was to move over to start this project a few months later. Little did we know how much longer it would take. Compared to what some people have suffered, a delayed start is a minor inconvenience, but I couldn’t be happier to be here at last.

My project is focused on getting reliable information on the distribution and abundance of spinner dolphins around the coast of Oahu, and later the other main Hawaiian islands. Good abundance estimates are vital for conservation and management work – it’s impossible to effectively conserve a species if you don’t have an estimate of how many there are or whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing. The spinner dolphins of Hawaii are subject to some of the highest exposure to human activities in the world (see here) and the outputs from this project will help inform conservation and management actions for this species here in Hawaii.

To get our abundance estimate for Oahu, we’ll be conducting distance sampling surveys round the complete coastline. These surveys will be running year round, and as well as the abundance estimates, we’re hoping they may also yield some useful information on where (if at all) dolphins occur away from the well-known Waianae coast locations. As well as distance sampling, we will also be collecting photo id data on spinner dolphins to feed in to Liah’s work (see here), and also information on any other species we encounter along the way – although spinners are our main focus. Distance sampling is a great technique for surveying for cetaceans, as it provides a way during the analysis stage to estimate how many animals you may have missed when out in the field. Whilst dolphins are large animals, they don’t spend all of their time at the surface and can be difficult to see if the weather isn’t on your side. Things are also, of course, much easier to see when they are close to you. So, the likelihood of seeing an animal that is further away from the boat may be lower. This means animals can be easily missed, which leads to estimates that are artificially low. So having a way to estimate this is important!

When I was a child, and people asked the inevitable “what do you want to do when you grow up” question, I always used to tell them that I wanted to go on boats and count dolphins. I grew up in the middle of a large city in the south of the UK. It was coastal, but not an area where there are dolphins. I’m also not from a family where University attendance is the norm -I was the first. As you can probably imagine, my response to the future career question got a variety of reactions. Some were encouraging, a few humored me and said it was a “nice idea”. Most just pointed out that I’d need to get a “real job”. But it turns out that dolphin counting is a real job, and I have been lucky enough to spend many years doing exactly what 7-year-old-me wanted, namely going on boats and counting dolphins.

I come to MMRP from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) in St Andrews, Scotland, where I was the project coordinator on the SCANS surveys. These are large, international surveys which take place approximately every 11 years, using a combination of aircraft and ships to survey for cetaceans - whales and dolphins - concurrently throughout much of the European waters of the Northeast Atlantic. During my time at SMRU, I also worked on a variety of other projects, including using ecological modelling to investigate the environmental factors that drive large scale cetacean distribution, whether man-made structures in the sea influence cetacean distribution, conducting photo ID surveys for bottlenose dolphins off the east coast of Scotland, carrying out whale surveys for British Antarctic Survey in the Southern Ocean, and doing surveys of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone in the mid-Atlantic as part of a large multi-disciplinary project.

Before going back to academia, I spent 4 years working with an environmental consultancy, looking at the impacts of human activities on marine mammals. Prior to that, I spent 7 years working with an environmental NGO conducting surveys for marine mammals throughout the North Atlantic. I think in total, I’ve chalked up over 40,000 nautical miles of survey time. All this experience will help enormously in setting up this new project here, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back on the water and getting the project started!

MMRP would like to thank NOAA for funding this work.


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