In search of all cetaceans great and small

Back in September, as a treat to myself for making it through my Master’s degree, I went back to the Moray Firth where I  saw my very first dolphin at 10 years old. However this time I was lucky enough to join the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit (CRRU) and help with their research programme.

This trip was, all clichés unashamedly intended, a childhood dream come true. I think it’s taken me so long to write about it because I wish I was still there! However as I’m about to embark on my next cetacean quest I thought it was finally time to put this experience down in writing.

Who are the CRRU?

Initially formed in 1997 the CRRU is a non-profit organisation comprised of a team of marine researchers and environmentalists. They study the transient population of bottlenose dolphins in the area, and any other cetaceans they come across. As well as collecting scientific data in collaboration with Universities and research institutions, the CRRU team provide 24 hour veterinary support for injured or stranded marine mammals. Part of the induction of volunteers into the team involves learning marine mammal rescue techniques so that you can assist should the team be called out to a live-stranding. They also have a large outreach and community education programme, giving  talks and training courses as well as providing work experience placements and projects for students at University.

Arrival

The drive up from Leeds to the home of CRRU in Gardenstown was beautiful, if long and a little lonely. Therefore I was incredibly happy to pick up two of the other volunteers from the train station in Aberdeen to join me for the last hour of my journey. Kev, the CRRU Director, had warned me about the steep sea wall but that still didn’t prepare me for the vertigo inducing drop I had to inch the car along! Car safely parked we made our way inside a gorgeous little cottage to a flurry of hugs, a crackling fire and a cuppa. Kev greeted us like family and informed us that most of the staff (all incredibly qualified volunteers) unfortunately had been called away on other business, and that we would be the CRRU team for the last weeks of the season, which meant learning the ropes quickly! We got to know each other over a few competitive games of UNO and chattered excitedly about what we might see on our first day out on the boat tomorrow.

First day on the boat

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t quite what we had hoped for, however this didn’t deter us. We WERE the CRRU team, we had boat skills to practice, observation techniques to learn and seasickness to overcome. So we ventured out onto the choppy North Sea, cameras in hand. The CRRU boat is amazing, an 8 meter RHIB with twin engines and an awesome sound system – plus everyone got a chance to drive it!

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Team X (photo: Kev Robinson)

We weren’t hoping for much as the weather conditions were worsening. However there were no feelings of disappointment as everyone was just having a enjoying the time spent out on the sea. Unexpectedly a call of “Dolphin!” had us all screeching “What, where?” and frantically positioning ourselves around the boat. Three sub adult bottlenose dolphins appeared right beside us, playing and rubbing up against each other. Kev recognised them instantly, calling out there names as each surfaced and pointing out notches and scrapes on their dorsal fins to identify them. Despite being overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of dolphins it was straight to work, recording the encounter and the different behaviours the dolphins were displaying. Working as a team some of us took notes about the encounter whilst others tried to photograph the dorsal fins so that we could confirm their identities later. The trio stayed with us for about 10 minutes before disappearing as quickly and silently as they had first appeared.

Dolphins weren’t the only surprise on our first day at sea. We got to the end of our transect and turned heading away from shore, and much to our surprise spotted a harbour porpoise. Not just one or two, as we had first thought. We counted around 35 of these tiny cetaceans. Harbour porpoises tend to be spotted alone, or in small groups of up to about 8 individuals. So to have more than 30 surrounding the boat was quite extroardinary. The encounter was short but sweet, much like the animals themselves. As we made our way back to Gardenstown we were followed by curious grey seals, watched black guillemots and gannets swooping through the sky and even spotted a baby puffin, which are called pufflings!

Day 1 on the boat had set the bar rather high.

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Two of the sub adult bottlenose dolphins (photo: Kev Robinson)

Stinky minkes

Our next outing on the boat involved a couple of mystery encounters. The first was a possible basking shark, we spotted the telltale silhouette of the tip of the tail, dorsal fin and the snout of the nose. However it was so far away it could quite possibly have been a group of seals, and unfortunately it disappeared when we began to approach. The second was a large blow off in the distance, Kev tried to convince us it was a submarine disappearing back into the depths, however later that evening we heard that another boat had spotted a fin whale! Quite a rare thing to sight in the Moray Firth.

Up to this point we hadn’t really seen much that we could positively identify. Just one tiny harbour porpoise that most of us missed. Therefore when two rather large minke whales appeared, it’s safe to say we were all rather surprised! Not only is it unusual to see more than one whale travelling together, but they appeared to be feeding together, lunging out of the water their mouths agape sending sand eels leaping from the water in an attempt to escape. They came so close to us that we caught the scent of their blows, which have the distinctive smell of old cabbage! Incredibly the two minke whales stayed with us for around 40 minutes, allowing us to conduct a ‘focal follow’ in which we recorded the larger whales pattern of breaches, length of dive, direction of travel and associated behaviour. Minke whales tend to breach 3 times before they arch their backs and descend on a deep dive for several minutes. The whale we had chosen to track however clearly wasn’t interested in helping to progress our understanding of their diving behaviour, they were more interested in our boat. We kept spotting it around 6 metres directly beneath the boat on our fishfinder.

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Two minke whales feeding 

Over the course of the time I spent with the CRRU I learned a lot about cetaceans and other marine mammals, but I also gained valuable practical skills in photo identification, marine mammal rescue, boat handling and maintenance and cooking to feed a large group of hungry people! Every minute was filled with something to learn, jokes to be shared or games to be played. I met some wonderful people during my time there and I really hope I get to go back in the future. I’m not sure I’ve done the experience justice in this post so if you get the chance, go visit them and see for yourself.

 

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If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a blue surprise

Spring has sprung and with it a flower like no other is appearing in our woodlands as a blanket of blue and violet. However, do you know how to spot the difference between our native British bluebells and the non-native hybrids which resulted from cross breeding with Spanish bluebells?

How to identify native bluebells

British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

  • Flowers are a darker violet-blue colour however you may come across the occasional white or pink flower
  • Pollen is cream or white
  • Almost all flowers are on one side of the stem and the stem usually droops to one side
  • Flowers are narrow with straight sides, bell-shaped and have reflexed (curved back) petal tips
  • Sweet scent

Hybrid bluebells (Hyacinthoides massartiana)

  • Flowers are paler blue and often pink or white
  • Pollen is green or blue (but can also be cream or white!)
  • Stem is normally stiff and upright but occasionally may droop
  • Flowers are wider and more cone-shaped. Can also be bell-shaped
  • May be scented or unscented

As you can see from the descriptions above, it is often difficult to accurately identify a hybrid bluebell as it may carry several characteristics of native bluebells. This is one of the biggest challenges conservationists face in trying to protect our native species. If you have Spanish bluebells in your garden, only remove them once they have finished flowering, allow the plant to dry out and make sure the bulb is dead before you compost or bin it.

Why are non-native species a threat to the British bluebell?

The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is a garden-escapee first brought to the UK in the 17th century as an ornamental garden plant. However it readily breeds with the British bluebell forming a fertile hybrid which dilutes the genetic pool of British bluebells. The loss of woodland habitat and climate change are already threatening British bluebells and as the hybrids grow faster and spread quicker, they make a serious competitor.

You can help protect our British Bluebells by letting the Woodland Trust know of any bluebells you see whilst out and about as part of the Big Bluebell Watch

Let’s go Seasearching

Do you, like me, wonder what on earth all of the wonderful creatures and plants you see are whilst diving around the UK coast? The Marine Conservation Society’s Seasearch course is a fantastic way to gain identification skills, learn about the different marine communities in UK waters and also allows you to contribute to the protection and understanding of these amazing habitats.

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It would surprise you to learn that some of the ‘plants’ you see on dives are in fact animals!

The Course

Earlier in the year I organised the Seasearch Observer course for my dive club with the wonderful Paula, Wendy and Kerry. This is the first level of training and once you have completed it you will be qualified to record the flora and fauna you see on dives and contribute to the Seasearch database. The data you collect will help to provide a picture of the diversity and health of our coast. The information collected by Seasearch volunteers has previously helped with the identification of sites as Marine Conservation Zones! Once you have completed the Observer course you then have the option of progressing to become a Seasearch Surveyor or taking part in one of the specialty courses.

The Dives

Over the summer myself and my partner Ian participated in a day of Seasearch diving. And they were quite probably some of the best dives I have ever done in the UK.

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Scuba selfie in the blue on our safety stop

Unfortunately my extremely amateur photography skills have not done these dives justice. Every single one of the three dives we did off the coast of South Shields were packed full of life. I’m not sure if it’s because the dive sites were new to me or that my newfound Seasearch skills meant that I was just taking more notice of the animals and plants around me, but each dive was breathtakingly beautiful.

We saw animals we’d never seen before such as Tompot blenny’s, Flounder and even a sea spider! There were more nudibranch’s on one dive than I have seen in my four years of diving and a beautiful adult Small-spotted catshark who was too quick for me to get a photo.

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Blue jellyfish

So if you want to learn a bit more about the life in our waters, enhance your diving and contribute to the conservation of the UK coastline I thoroughly recommend this course. Get in touch with your regional coordinator for more information and start Seasearching!

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Let’s go Seasearching!

Fieldwork in Kenya

When I chose my course at the University of Leeds I had the option of paying extra to go on a field course to Kenya and undertake a short research project. The new postgraduate loan meant that I could afford to go, so how could I say no? I may never have the opportunity, or money to visit Kenya again.

If you find a course that gives you the option of conducting fieldwork somewhere other than your native country go.

It’s one thing to learn about conservation in your home country and how we go about protecting the places and creatures that are important to us. But conservation is a global issue. Go and experience the struggles and triumphs of conservation within other countries. Some aspects may be hard to deal with, but this is the reality of the field we have chosen to go into. You can never truly understand an issue until you experience it for yourself.

So just go!

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Me trying to look nonchalant at the top of Mukenya

Mpala Research Centre

The Mpala Research Centre was our home for the two weeks we spent in Kenya. The centre lies within the Laikipia plateau just to the Northwest of Mt Kenya. It has the fourth largest African Wild Dog population and scores of endangered Grevy’s Zebra. We stayed in small groups in houses across the Mpala campsite which we also shared with Dik-dik, Kudu, lizards and the occasional spider.

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Heathrow House was home to six of us during our stay at Mpala

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One of the beautiful Kudu that we frequently watched from our veranda

The centre has a library, equipped with articles published at the centre and every book you could possibly need for the research you might be conducting there. It also has a classroom, laboratory and kitchen (which serves the best chapati and lentil curry you will ever taste). The campsite is surrounded by fences which mostly keep out Elephants and larger animals such as Wild Dogs and Leopards. However smaller animals can get in, we were often joined for breakfast by Vervet monkeys and Hornbills. Just outside of the camp is hippo pool, which is self explanatory, and you can watch it live here! I could spend all day describing the parts of the 48,000 acres of the research centre that I got to see. However I feel like pictures will describe it much better than my rambling words, so I’ve put a short slideshow at the end of this post.

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A Hornbill joining us for breakfast

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The Vervet monkeys were very confident. Sneaking into the vans if the roofs were accidentally left open. They would even steal snacks right from your backpack!

My research project

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Team Thorn feat. James

Our group of six (Abi, Katherine, Aggeliki, Megan and Rosie) were looking at the relationship between four ant species and the whistling thorn acacia (Acacia drepanolobium). The acacias provide their own defense in the form of stipular thorns, and produce extrafloral nectaries and domatia to encourage ants to colonise and protect them. Nectaries are sites at the bottom of leaves which produce nectar for the ants and domatia are swollen pseudogalls at the base of the thorns which the ants hollow out and colonise.

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Myself and Abi with an A. drepanolobium on our last day. When we realised we might miss the prickly so and so’s a little

In return the ants remove insect herbivores and swarm to attack mammalian herbivores when they feed on the tree, protecting it from overgrazing. They can even defend against Elephants! In fact we saw an Elephant kick one over in disgust – I don’t think they’re fans. Within these four ant species (Tetraponera penzigi, Crematogaster nigriceps, Crematogaster mimosae and Crematogaster sjostedti) there is a dominance hierarchy, with more dominant species displacing the initial colonising species T. penzigi. Some of these ants are more useful to the Acacia than others however. C. nigriceps is even known to castrate the trees so that they cannot bear fruit!

 

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This Elephant did not appreciate the ants making it difficult to get a meal!

Black cotton soil is a unique habitat as it is almost entirely a monoculture of whistling thorn acacia. Many studies have been conducted into the relationships between the acacias and these ant species within black cotton soils. However it is unclear if the nature of these relationships are the same in marginal, nutrient depleted soil. Our study found that ant species had a greater impact on the allocation of resources for anti-herbivore defense than soil type. And also that thorn length was greater in transitional soils. We found that there was a correlation between investment in the size of both ant and thorn defenses in transitional soils. However, whether a trade-off between ant and thorn defense investment exists due to reduced nutrient availability still remains unclear.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more about ant-acacia mutualisms some key papers are  Young et al 1997, Stanton et al 2002 and Stanton et al 2011.

Unforgettable moments

A chameleon fell out of an acacia tree onto Ben’s head. There’s not really much else to that one. Just imagine it. It was hilarious. (N.B. both the chameleon and Ben were unharmed).

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Not said chameleon but another we met on our climb up Mt Kenya

We found the most adorable frog on an acacia tree. Frogs in the Savannah. Who knew?

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If anyone can identify this species please get in touch!

The gentle Dik-dik and Kudu that were nearly always present at our house. One evening we were sitting reading outside and the Kudu walked right past us.

Getting the call on the radio that Wild Dogs had been spotted. They had just made a kill and we were lucky enough to glimpse a pair through the scrub and long grass. My first wild dog. Ever. I was beyond elated and close to tears. Seeing Jackal puppies at the end of the trip nearly sent me over the edge! (For those of you that haven’t seen my first blog post I am obsessed with Wolves and dogs in general, so this was a huge event for me).

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The African Wild Dogs stuck around for over 10 minutes

Hyenas singing me to sleep each night.

And a moment I honestly believe I will carry in my memory forever. Up on Baboon Cliff we were looking out across the landscape spotting Elephants and Giraffes in the distance. Steve suddenly shouts out. It becomes quickly apparent that just below us is a Hyena den. We looked on as six Hyena lope out from the den and bound across the Savannah. A few seconds after the Hyenas disappeared the sky darkened and rain fell like I’ve never seen. Breaking the terrible drought that the region had been experiencing. We pelted back to the van singing Toto’s “Africa” and laughing our heads off.

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Steve, Team Thorns project supervisor, was the first to spot the Hyenas (credit: Abi Harrison captured the moment perfectly)

Photos

Please note: whilst we visited a reserve where White and Black Rhinos were present I cannot post pictures of them due to risk of poaching. Unfortunately the reserve we visited has lost many rhinos to poaching.

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Students for sustainability

It makes me incredibly happy that my first post since I started this blog is one of very good news. Today I presented two ideas at Leeds University Union’s ‘Better Union’ forum alongside Plastic-Free Me’s Suzie Hall. I’m pleased to say both of the ideas were accepted!

Our first idea was for the Union to make the change from disposable plastics to biodegradable materials. Most of their disposable goods such as coffee cups and salad containers are already made from biodegradable material, however there are still a few items they haven’t made the switch with yet. Part of this idea was also that non-essential items such as straws and cocktail stirrers would not be given out unless asked for.

Photo from Sian Steel

Take that straws!

The second idea was to have a package-free food aisle in our Union supermarket. This would help to reduce the amount of waste produced both as individuals and as a Union. It would work by having weigh stations at which you can bring your own containers to – or you can buy one if you forget! Therefore you can just buy the amount of a product that you need so that less is wasted. I know I’m guilty of buying the larger boxes of things like mushrooms because they’re cheaper. However I never end up getting through them in time and have to compost those last three mouldy ones that I forgot about.

Disposable plastic and excessive waste production are monstrous environmental issues. They are things we often don’t think about as they don’t immediately affect us. And unless you live near the sea or a landfill site, it’s something we don’t see the physical effects of. Here are some quick facts for you

  • Over 50% of the plastic we use is single use, but can take up to 1000 years to break down1
  • Plastic can break down into toxic chemicals such as PCB’s and micro-particles which can accumulate in the bodies of animals. And us2
  • A recent study found that seafood eaters consume up to 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic per year3
  • By 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish4
  • UK households throw away around 30 million tonnes of waste each year5
  • Around 16% of the money you spend on a product is for the packaging6

These two ideas aren’t rocket science, and they are policies that are being implemented more and more around the globe. Biodegradable cups are becoming more common and we’ve had our first waste-free supermarket open in the UK this year. Our Union is already taking those important steps toward being more sustainable, and some of the ideas discussed were already being considered. It feels good to walk away from a forum where so many of the ideas were environmentally focused, and everyone had constructive, positive ideas for how we can work together to make sure these ideas are a success.

Hello world.

Hi, my name is Sian.

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Hanging out with one happy husky on a frozen lake in Beitostølen, Norway

I am a Biodiversity and Conservation master’s student and I am about to step out into the big, wide world to start my career in conservation science.

Being outside, exploring places that border on wilderness excites me. Becoming lost in a dense forest where only the tunes of songbirds and the patter of deer’s feet keep you company, or taking solace a few metres below the powerful breaking waves of the North Sea. These are the places I love and want to protect. And I know there are thousands of you out there who feel this way too. So hello to you.

Outside of my studies I am an avid scuba diver. Four years ago I was a weak swimmer and preferred to observe the beauty of the ocean from the shallows or the safety of a boat (would you believe!). However after going a ‘Try Dive’ in the Uni swimming pool, 20 minutes later I knew I couldn’t bear to never dive again. And now I have a wonderful scuba family and have been able to experience in breath-taking detail an ecosystem so unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

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Diving in the Red Sea, Egypt

Learning to dive invoked an intense urge to protect these environments that I was dipping into. It was a stark reminder that our carelessness can have a significant impact on marine communities. There’s nothing quite like the first time you see a beautiful sea fan hopelessly entangled with fishing line or the sea bed littered with beer cans.

My other love is wolves. I cannot explain it. Although I have never seen one in the wild (and will undoubtedly be a complete mess if I ever do), looking at wolves gives me that weak in the gut, overwhelming feeling – like when you fell head over heels in love for the first time. And if I am ever fortunate enough to be involved in the conservation of wolves, I will count myself as one incredibly lucky human.

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Hudson Bay wolves (Canis lupus hudsonicus) native to Canada

This is my first blog. I am writing because I want to share my experiences and lessons learned with others who are trying to do the same. I also hope to inspire and share my passion with those of you adore the natural world around you, and to make it easier for you to make sustainable choices.

Conservation science is a difficult career path to take, as there are so many intelligent, impassioned people around the world that want to protect our planet. This may seem a little disheartening for someone just starting out, as the competition is so fierce. However it makes me incredibly happy that there are just so many of us that are willing to fight for conservation, and to have a career doing what we care about most. My wish is to share my experiences as I venture into this field of work, in the hope to create a network of like-minded people and share our collective experiences, which will enable us to strengthen each other.

So please, leave comments and feedback, send me an email with a question or suggest ways I can improve. Social media has allowed us to broadcast to the world that nature needs our help. Let’s keep using it to educate and inspire those around us.