NERC training course helps Newcastle PhD students develop valuable marine fieldwork skills

The Natural Environment Research Council supports postgraduate training to provide UK science, business and government with a skilled workforce able to tackle urgent problems in a changing environment. Their Focused training portfolio aims to fill a critical skills gap identified by the environmental sciences sector[1].

‘In Situ Marine Field Identification and Survey Skills (Scientific Diving)’ is a week-long course developed by Heriot-Watt University under this scheme. It addresses a need for fieldwork skills, notably survey skills including species identification, sampling techniques, collection and recording protocols and methodologies.[2]  These skills are currently rare in the marine research community despite increasing statutory demand for marine surveillance and monitoring.nerc-diver-training-paul-lighfoot

Two of our MAST PhD students, Fabrice Stephenson and Paula Lightfoot, gained places on this course in 2015. Here they talk about their experiences:

Fabrice Stephenson said “My PhD at Newcastle University was funded by Natural England and focussed on investigating direct impacts of crustacean potting on common reef habitats, which involved using SCUBA and underwater photography to collect data. Before attending this course, I had some experience of survey diving both in the UK and in tropical seas, but the training I received in this short but intensive course gave me a much broader and widely applicable insight into the work of a scientific dive team. The skills and experience I developed through the course will certainly help me embark on a career involving scientific diving for Government agencies, consultancies or universities, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to pass my learning on to others in the Newcastle University dive team.

The course is designed to build up all the necessary skills for a high standard underwater scientific survey. It was very well constructed and offered the perfect mix of theory and practice, so that each dive consolidated what we had learnt in the classroom, until we were ready to work as a team to plan, conduct and present the results of our own ‘Marine Nature Conservation Review (MNCR) Phase 2’ survey.  My personal highlight was being appointed the survey team leader! The training we had received enabled the team to work together safely and efficiently and ensured that the data collection was a success.

The six course participants all had some prior experience of carrying out survey dives in a professional, academic or voluntary capacity, and some of us might have thought we already had good buoyancy skills, but we all had a lot to learn! Kieran Hatton, the chief dive instructor, always had constructive suggestions on how to improve various aspects of our diving technique. Kieran filmed us underwater on his GoPro and we would watch the footage together after each dive. Although slightly embarrassing to watch – Kieran had a knack of filming us at the worst times! – this was incredibly useful and all the students came away from the course more aware of the importance of equipment configuration and body position for scientific diving.

Capturing high quality video footage and still images is a crucial skill for underwater surveys. At the start of the course I was intimidated by using big digital SLR cameras underwater – the cameras seem complicated enough on the surface, and as soon as you add a bulky housing and strobes it gets even harder! To my amazement, under the expert supervision and tutelage of professional photographer Richard Shucksmith and researcher Rob Cook, we were all producing high quality images within the first few days of the course. We would review our images as a group and receive advice on how to improve our technique. Our worries about using these top-of-the-range cameras quickly gave way to eagerness to get back in the water and put Richard’s and Rob’s advice into practice!

The course was mainly run aboard the comfortable 70ft liveaboard MV Halton – a converted and refurbished former Danish trawler. Having all the necessary facilities of a classroom, dive platform and accommodation in one place meant that we experienced ‘real life’ survey conditions, as well as being incredibly efficient with no time wasted travelling or moving equipment.

Diving in Orkney was a great experience! Regularly voted as among the top ten dive sites in the UK, Scapa Flow, which is sheltered from the often rough conditions of the Atlantic Ocean, has a diverse range of habitats and clear water which provided a safe and beautiful setting for diving.”

Paula Lightfoot added: “With places limited to six participants per week to maximise learning opportunities and one-to-one support, I knew there would be stiff competition for this course and was delighted to hear I had been successful! This opportunity to develop key fieldwork skills came at just the right time for me as I entered the second year of my PhD.

My research is funded by NERC and Natural England, and involves developing and testing new methods of mapping marine habitats in the North Sea using remote sensing data, e.g. sonar, aerial and satellite imagery. The collection of ground truth data on species and habitats, including by SCUBA diving, is essential to my research, both for interpreting remote sensing data and for evaluating the accuracy of the maps I produce.

The training on identifying and recording marine species and habitats provided by this course was therefore directly relevant to my research. Dr Joanne Porter, senior lecturer at Heriot-Watt’s School of Life Sciences and marine life ID guide author, provided expert tuition on species identification, including sampling techniques, use of ID resources and specimen curation. Jo’s passion for UK marine life was inspiring! With help from Jo and the rest of the team we developed skills in identifying species both during our dives and afterwards from our high resolution macro photographs and specimens.

Dr Bill Sanderson, who has a wealth of experience in designing and conducting habitat surveys for Government agencies and academic research, taught us about the MNCR Phase 2 survey methodology, including how to record species abundance consistently and how to record environmental and biological data to classify habitats according to a national standard system.

This has been an amazing opportunity. Personal tuition and advice from expert instructors, access to top quality equipment and facilities aboard the MV Halton and in the laboratories at Heriot-Watt’s Orkney campus, the opportunity to study and work with participants from different professional and academic branches of marine science, all in the beautiful setting of Orkney made this a thoroughly rewarding experience. It has already benefitted my research and I think it will be an asset in my future career.

The highlight of the week for me was the discovery of a flame shell (Limaria hians) bed during a dive. These beautiful bivalve molluscs, which are a priority marine feature in Scotland, get their name from the fringe of bright orange tentacles extending from their shells. However, they are not easy to find unless you know what you are looking for, because they conceal themselves by building ‘nests’ out of debris on the seabed. As we finished our survey task on one dive, Bill beckoned me away from the transect to an unremarkable-looking area of seabed. My puzzlement turned to delight as he lifted a mat of dead seaweed to reveal the bright orange flame shells – a species I have never seen before and a sight I will never forget!”

This course provided our postgraduate students with a unique opportunity to learn marine species identification and habitat survey skills through one-to-one tuition from experts with a wealth of experience in the field.  Newcastle University is extremely grateful to NERC and Heriot-Watt University for this opportunity and hopes that others have the chance to benefit in future.


Stingray research in the Bahamas

This week in Newcastle MSc and MRes students are designing research and consultancy projects. One of last years’ students Daniel Montgomery worked in collaboration with Dr. Owen O’Shea and Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas ( Dan led members of the stingray research team from the Shark Research and Conservation Programme (SRCP) on a new piece of work to investigate the thermal ecology of southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana).

The team take measurements of a stingray prior to fitting an iButton

As part of the research for this new study the stingray team, assisted by gap year students and interns, fitted southern stingrays with temperature recorders. These recorders monitor seawater temperatures experienced by stingrays every 15 minutes for 3 weeks.

Surgical needles are used to make holes in the stingrays tail in order to attach the iButton

All sharks and rays are ectotherms, meaning their internal body temperature is controlled by the temperature of the environment around them. As such changes in seawater temperature can impact on physiological processes of the animals, which may mean that temperature differences among the coastal waters of Eleuthera influence the areas which rays use.

Southern Stingray fitted with iButton

Over the next 4 months the study aimed to tag 50 rays at both Marker Bar and the Schooner Cays as well as Laboratory experiments with rays to identify thermal preferences as well as temperature tags fitted to wild individuals which aided understanding whether temperature is a driver of habitat selection in this ray species. Quantifying the drivers for habitat use of these ecologically important species is vital to effectively manage coastal marine habitats.

4th March 2015 – Starfish Sperm, Skua’s and Snowboarding, by Anthony Crook

Brrrrr, its getting cold down here now as we approach winter! It was -5°C and blowing 30 knots yesterday. It definitely feels like I’m in Antarctica, as if the icebergs and penguins were not enough!1. Feeding ham to OdontasterThe starfish and clams are still happily feeding away at there respective new diets. However, one starfish has taken a fancy to the air stones in the tank. Resulting in one very gassy starfish, as its’ body cavity fills up with oxygen and it floats to the surface. A gentle squeeze removes the excess air; hopefully the starfish will learn its lesson and stop this flatulence.

Sperm survival

2. Odontaster egg cellsAn interesting observation I have made during the gender determination of the starfish is the resilience of their sperm. During every dissection I make a gonad smear on a microscope slide to identify whether egg or sperm cells are present. This not only indicates the sex of the specimen is, but also shows whether the individual is sexually mature or not, an important consideration when investigating specific cell metabolism. On one particular smear I forgot about a slide I had made, only to remember about 15 minutes later. Microscopic inspection showed un-motile sperm cells, which I assumed to be dried out and dead. However with a little drop of seawater under the coverslip and the sperm cells burst into life! Indicating that the sperm are not only resistant to 15 minutes of drying out, but also, as they were left at room temperature, they can cope with being warmed up well above there natural limits. The picture below shows a microscopic image of the gonad tissue from a female starfish, with the large yolky egg cells obvious.

Photo of the day award

3. pic of the day AdelieEveryday there is a ‘photo of the day award’, which gets the privilege of being displayed on the information screens in the dining room for the day. So far I have been given this honour twice for some expert wildlife photography. The first was an Adélie penguin I captured wondering across the brash ice on a very cold morning.

The second was a snoozing Weddell seal in a deep sleep displaying perfectly curled whiskers, probably dreaming about catching a nice big Antarctic cod. These placid seals are amazing divers, capable of reaching depths of 750m during which their heart-rate reduces by 75%! They are also incredibly cute when asleep, often twitching and stretching their flippers.

Other research at Rothera

5. Fish photograpgyIn between my dissection days I’ve been helping some of the other scientists with their projects. This has included monitoring the local south polar skua population; there are around 25 pairs of skua which breed at Rothera. However this year it seems that very few of their chicks have survived. The nests are checked once a week and during the last survey no chicks were present. During tough times, these opportunistic feeders will eat the chicks of neighbouring pairs. At one nest we visited, the parent skuas were being very protective even though no chicks were present, indicating that the chick must have only recently died. Not all the research is doom and gloom, I’ve also been helping with the “Antarctic fish photo shoot”! Fish species from around the area are hand collected by divers and photographed in the lab. Making a fish pose is no mean feat and basically involved tickling it with cable tie until it stays still for long enough to snap a picture! A fin clip is also taken for DNA barcoding then the fish are released back to the dive site from where they were found. I was amazed by the diversity of the fish species down here. The picture below shows the beautiful colours of the striped-eye notothen (Lepidonotothen kempi), it looks more like something you would find in the tropics, not Antarctica!

Antarctic ski resort…….with added crevasse risk!

6. SnowboardingFinally last weekend I had the opportunity to go snowboarding! No ski lifts in Antarctica obviously, so you really do earn your runs. Being a snowboarder I was not afforded the luxury of skinning up with large skis to displace my weight evenly so had to trek up though waist deep snow which soon takes it out of you. The experience was made all the more exciting by the field assistants warning you of the risk of falling down crevasses, as such for the first few treks up the hill we wore harnesses and roped up in pairs just in case! The field assistants are incredibly knowledgeable of the mountains and snow conditions, one is known as “the Bear Grylls of Antarctic”, so I felt I was in safe hands!4. pic of the day WeddellAnt(arctica) Crook


Contact info; Twitter: @AtCrooky




20th February 2015 – Life in the Frozen Empire, by Anthony Crook

What a fantastic week I’ve had! Antarctica is just like you see in the David Attenborough documentaries but 88,000 times more glorious!   2. Me on Seal watch

Diet switch experiment progress

The diet switch experiment is going smoothly, with both the clams and the starfish feeding on their new diets. I feel the starfish are being rather spoilt on their new diet of “Princes tinned ham”; they seem to be enjoying it! Since the last blog I have completed both the ‘day 0’ and ‘day 5’ dissections. The clam, Laternula elliptica, dissection is relatively simple, although they do tend to squirt you with water from their! I remove their gills and mantle tissue and determine their sex by microscopic inspection of their gonads. The starfish, Odontaster validus, are slightly more difficult, especially as I am removing their tiny delicate tube feet, which they retract into a (ambulacral) groove and are protected by a row of spines. I don’t remember such difficulty when carrying out Asterias rubens dissections back in first year. These hardy Antarctic starfish seem to me to be more robust than there northern relatives in general! I’ll have to remember this when getting into ‘northerner’ vs ‘southerner’ debates!

1. Laternula dissection, mantle and gills removed

Daily routine

My daily routine involves getting up at 7.30, breakfast at 8.00, followed by the boat meeting at 8.30, during which all the days dives and boat activity are discussed. There are about 12 designated dive sites in the surrounding area and each day the scientists, dive officer and boatman discuss where they need to survey and collect samples. I am not diving during my time here, but boat meetings are when I can sign myself up to either help out on the boats with CTD monitoring or volunteer for “seal watch’. ‘Seal watch’ is a 30 minute lookout for leopard seals (or Orcas!) prior to any diving activity. I personally am still yet to see either of these top Antarctic predators, but a pod of 12 Orca were seen in the bay the other day so fingers crossed! Other whales that frequent this area of the Peninsula include Sei, Minke and Humpback whales, but apparently it has been a particularly bad year for these sightings. The rest of my day involves tending to every need of my beloved starfish and clams. When I am not pampering them I get involved with other research in the lab, so far this has included sediment sorting, DNA extractions and thermo-tolerance experiments of various benthic species.

3. Seal-fie

In my free time, one of my favourite things to do is walk around ‘the Point’, about a 45 minute walk around the headland of the island which takes you away from all the hustle and bustle of the base. On a calm afternoon, all you can hear is the odd Elephant seal sneeze (or snore), Adelie penguin squawk and the occasional bone-chilling crunch of icebergs colliding. The wildlife is incredible, with Weddell and Crabeater seals often hauled out snoozing on the ice. South polar skuas dive-bomb you if you approach their nests too closely. A few Antarctic fur seals have started to arrive too; they like the Elephant seals are adolescents who have come here to moult before moving north for winter. They always seem to be angry, as they roar and growl at me as I walk past, but they are getting more comfortable with my presence recently.

4. On the way to a dive site

The icebergs that surround the headland are so beautiful. They contain so many different shades of blue and when the sunlight catches them in a certain way they appear to glow (see photo for evidence)! I’ve been here only a week and I must have taken around 200 photos of these colossal ice goliaths, and even the best photos don’t do them justice!

5.Evidence of glowing iceberg

The Antarctic people

The diverse range of people down here is amazing; every one of the 60 or so people down here has a purpose to keep the station functioning. Most of them have been here for the last 6 months, some for the last 12 months. There are electricians, mechanics, plumbers, pilots, a carpenter, a boatman, two doctors, and most importantly for the moral of the station: two excellent chefs (fresh bread is baked on station)! Then of course there are the scientists, or ‘beakers’ as we are referred to, and all the field assistants! A strong sense of community exists between all Rothera’s inhabitants, and almost everyone down here has beards (apart from the women obviously). I am trying to join this trend, but my ginger whiskers and neck fluff cannot currently be classed as a beard! I’ll keep you updated none the less with beard growth progress!

6. Me on Gash duty

BAS traditions

There are a number of BAS traditions that seem to have stemmed from Naval roots. Everyday one person gets put on ‘Gash’; this is basically cleaning duty and also involves helping the chefs with cooking. The person who is on ‘Gash’ then gets the privilege to choose the film that gets played on the projector, last night’s film was Disney’s ‘Frozen’ ironically, and yes the scientists did sing along!

Then every Friday at 5pm is ‘Scrub-out’, where everyone gets given a task and the whole base is given a big clean up! Every Saturday a formal evening meal takes place, often with a theme. Last Saturday was ‘folk night’ and we had live music from the various bands that get put together during the long dark months of winter.

I’ll give you another update in a week or so (providing the internet still works!).

Ant(arctica) Crook

Twitter: @AtCrooky

A Journey South! by Anthony Crook

13th February 2015


My name is Anthony Crook, I am an ex Newcastle University student having studied BSc Marine Zoology and then MSc Ecological Consultancy in the fine city of Newcastle Upon Tyne. During my time at Newcastle I have been fortunate enough to study marine biology in many different countries and in a range of ecosystems including such delights as the rocky intertidal in Millport, Scotland and Monte Clerigo, Portugal and coral reefs in the Wakatobi National Park, Indonesia.  Now I find myself, a ‘southerner’ by nature, having journeyed further south than most! I am studying benthic marine invertebrates in the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent on Earth….Antarctica!

photo 1

I have just arrived in Rothera, at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Research Station, located on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula (67° 34.5’ S, 68° 07.0’ W). I started my adventure in my hometown of Eastbourne, where on the morning of my departure I visited the house of the great Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. As I walked down the path from his house, I was literally walking in his footsteps! My journey here took 38 hours of continuous travel on 5 different airplanes! Still slightly quicker than Shackletons’ voyage I imagine!

photo 2

After an incredible final flight over the Antarctic Peninsula from Chile, the first thing that struck me on arrival to the station, besides the stunning views of icebergs and snowy mountains, was the smell of the elephant seals!  Around 6 adolescent males were piled up seeking shelter next to the sewage treatment plant ironically. Immediately the resident plumber blamed the smell on the seals, but I’m not sure as the sewage system was apparently experiencing some technical difficulties!

photo 3

My purpose

I am working as a research assistant for my previous tutor (Ben Wigham) who has an on-going research project with BAS. The research will go towards the Rothera Oceanographic and Biological Time-Series (RaTS) which is a key component of the BAS Ecosystems Programme and has been collecting data on seasonal and interannual variability in reproductive biology and feeding activity of selected marine invertebrates since 1997.

Whilst there has been a lot of research related to food-web structure in Antarctic shallow-water benthic communities there has been less research focused on the trophic relationships and linkages within these benthic communities especially with regard to specific isotopic turnover rates for these often endemic organisms. Understanding carbon flow and trophic linkages in the context of a food-web is a fundamental requisite in determining future ecosystem-wide changes to community structure and function.

The Science-y bit!

I am in charge of running a 45 day long diet-switch laboratory experiment to determine the isotopic turnover rate in the tissues of two functionally different taxa, Laternula elliptica (Clam – suspension feeder) and Odontaster validus (Starfish – predator/scavenger). I have 72 individuals of each species in aquarium tanks in the state of the art marine laboratory down here in Rothera. I am feeding the Odontaster on a diet of tinned ham and the Laternula on a diet of phytoplankton. At specific time intervals (5d, 10d, 15d, 20d, 30d, 40d, 45d) 6 animals of each species will be sacrificed, specific tissues will be dissected and frozen. These frozen tissues samples will then be shipped back to the UK where they will undergo stable isotope analysis. By knowing the isotopic signature of the diets it is possible to infer the isotopic turnover rates of the different tissues in the organisms.

photo 4

The dive team have already hand-selected my specimens from the local dive sites and the marine assistant has set up my experiment layout in the aquarium, so the 2-day acclimatisation process is well underway! I will be dissecting my control (day 0) specimens later on today!

photo 5

Next update will be about what it is like to live in Antarctica on a scientific research station and reports of my progress with the experiment!

Hope all is well up North!

Ant(arctica) Crook

Blog 3- Seals seals seals


With the pup count on the Islands already over 1600 this year with just a few weeks left, we are already above last year’s total of 1575. Pups have been arriving at some rate, peaking around mid-November and beginning to tail off now. However once the pups leave their mothers at around 3 weeks of age they begin to moult.

Pups at this stage are known as moleys, they become inquisitive, playful and highly entertaining to watch. With newly stored fat layers, weighing an average of 45kg and looking like mini seal Michelin men, they also find it difficult to move and even groom themselves.

Bob-hunt3-01 With more pups weaning, more moleys start to appear and congregate in moley groups or crèches around the outskirts of haul outs. They stay away from the aggressive nature of bulls and protective mothers. They stick together and appear to just relax and take in new aspects of life including the taste of grass…… (No they don’t eat grass)

Bob-hunt3-02They stay together sometimes in groups of more than 20 at times, for an estimated 2 weeks before venturing off into the water and the big wide world.

What am I doing out here and why?

I am here researching and observing behavioural data between mothers and pups. I’m looking into multiple parameters surrounding this behaviour which will be crucial in understanding the population dynamics.

Behavioural work hasn’t actually been conducted on the Islands since the 1950’s so the work on this grey seal colony will be important not only for the U.K, but for the worldwide population.

Behaviours such as, grooming, nursing, aggression, playing, resting and bathing are being recorded for individual mother pup pairs throughout the whole lactation period.

Pups across the Islands are sprayed dyed with non-harmful paint. This allows accurate counts as new colours are used each pup count so after a couple weeks we have a rainbow pup filled Island. The pups I am following are specially marked with double colours or patterns to be able to re sight individual pups each day in a non-intrusive manner.

Bob-hunt3-03Observations are carried out at a safe and appropriate distance so no disturbance or disruption is caused to any of the seals. This is not only important for the bonding process of the pups but also to get accurate behavioural research.

You may think that substrate or shore exposure may play the biggest role in site selection for mothers before giving birth. However, water sources such as ponds, pools and the sea shore actually have the largest influence on site choice. Multiple sites are being compared to measure the differences in behaviour and the reasons surrounding it between different water sources and timing in the season.

A lot more research is being carried out within the study period, such as the amount of parental separation time where mothers will go off to bathe, not feed. Mortality measurements and time lapse camera footage of whole populations as well as energy transfer between mother and pups through nursing times will also be recorded.


The findings of this project will provide better understanding of the factors affecting the population dynamics and behaviour of m/p relations on the Farne Islands and how this compares with the research currently around other populations. The project will also give advice on management and future projections for this population and further study needed to understand and maintain this population. Bob-hunt3-05For more information please contact:
Robert (Bob) Hunt
Marine Science MPhil Student







Farne Blog #2 – 28/10/1

Blown Away!

Huge winds arrived last week, with the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo hitting on Tuesday.  We were ready and waiting. The island embraced the weather and so did the seals, some better than others.

Female seals have been gathering on and around the Islands all week, with our FIRST pups being born. 124 pups were counted across the outer group on 24th October with 5 on Brownsman; sadly 2 were stillborn, a common occurrence throughout the season.  Another 10 pups have since been born on Brownsman and pilot behavioral studies have been carried out over the last few days. The main study of the new pups will begin Wednesday 29th October.

Bob-hunt2-01  Where are the Farne Islands?

The Farnes are situated in Northumberland off the coast of Seahouses (south of Berwick upon Tweed). The islands are spread out across 3 miles of the North Sea with the Inner Farnes closest to shore at 2 miles from Seahouses harbour.  A further 1 mile seaward you will reach the outer group.

These islands are home to the majority of pups (94% in the 2013 season being born North and South Wamses, Staple and Brownsman Island). I am situated on Brownsman Island, living in an old decommissioned lighthouse, once occupied by Grace Darling, with 3 National Trust rangers.

Bob-hunt2-02 Bob-hunt2-03

The Grey Seals

The seals come ashore once a year to breed and mate in large fairly dense colonies. The two species of seals found round the coast of Britain are harbour (common) seals and grey seals. The distribution of grey seals in the U.K is mainly concentrated in Scotland, the Scottish Isles and the East coast of England.

Grey seals come ashore October to late December to give birth, nurse and mate. The breeding season is very short, lasting only three weeks, compared to other species. Mothers feed throughout the summer and then fast during the whole nursing time while still providing incredibly fatty milk.


This short period means every interaction between mother and pups is incredibly important in the survival of the pups. Throughout this research I will be looking into this in considerable depth.

The Farne island grey seals are an extremely important population not only for the U.K. but for the worldwide population of this species. Averaging an estimate of 5000 seals and in 2013 a pup count of 1575 was recorded. The 2013 mortality rate was 26%, although in bad storm years the rate can exceed 50%. I will be monitoring the mortality closely and hoping for a good year. Bob-hunt2-05

Both Dr Per Berggren, School of Marine Science & Technology and Dr Richard Bevan, School of Biology, supervise my research and assist with ideas and guidance throughout my time on the islands.

The next blog will focus on my research, methods and aims as well as more updates on seal numbers and pup births.

For more information please contact:
Robert (Bob) Hunt
Marine Science MPhil Student


Farne Blog #1 – 18/10/14

Lots of wind, not many pups

I arrived on the island late Friday afternoon. This is my second time researching on the Farnes as I researched mother pup behavior briefly for my undergraduate degree in 2012. The research and experience from this has left me wanting more from seal research and when asked to come back to Newcastle University to study for my Masters I just had to take the opportunity to work out here again.

Bob-Hunt02 After a year researching in America the grey seal pupping seasons is here and so am I!

I was scheduled to come over a week ago but the weather has been against us. High winds and swells have meant the boat hasn’t been able to get to shore but a small weather window has allowed me to get here. Now I’m ready to research for the next 2 months.

A little background.

My initial love for nature came from my family in England and the States and especially my Dad always being so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about it.

I graduated from Newcastle University in 2013 majoring in Marine Zoology and have since lived in America for the last 9 months studying Northern fur seals during pupping season in Alaska. I also spent a month tagging killer whales along the Pacific North West coast with NOAA.

I have an avid interest in Marine Mammals and focusing my research in this area. My supervisor Dr Per Berggren has been instrumental in helping me explore and delve into my passion with marine mammals and will also be supporting me with this research.Bob-hunt01

So what will I be writing about, studying and doing out here?

I will be writing about life on the islands, accommodation, conditions, the positives and the negatives, and all the things I will be doing here with as many pictures of pups, mothers, bulls and other wildlife.  Updates on the seal population, weather, interesting animals that visit and of course the pups. I will write pieces on Grey seals themselves, their behaviour and most importantly the breeding season, but also on my research and methods.

My main focus while out here will be to see the differences in mother/ pup pair behaviour between different shore and inland exposures and substrates and also temporally, how they differ throughout the breeding season.

I will also look at population dynamics across the islands with the help of time lapse photography and use non-invasive methods of determining energy transfer from mother to pup throughout the breeding season here on the Farnes.

The Farne Island grey seal pups often have an annual high mortality rate, so specific measurements and locations will be recorded and age and sex of deceased pups to see if any conclusions can be drawn to further understand this mortality.Bob-Hunt03

High winds are expected throughout this weekend and early next week, no pups are currently on Brownsman (where I am living) but a few are already scattered across other islands. I will focus these next few days on setting up equipment and trailing methods to perfect the study once we get pups.

The next blog will give background on the island and the current seal population as well as any updates.

For more information please contact:
Robert (Bob) Hunt
Marine Science MPhil Student

Whitebeaked dolphin stranding at Newbiggin, Northumberland

Another dead white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) was reported found on the beach by Lynemouth powerstation on Sunday 27 October. Pictures indicated that the animal had likely been on the beach for about 10 days. I went to the site on Wednesday to investigate the dolphin. It was male, 2.65m long, but unfortunately too decomposed for collection and to allow a useful post mortem analysis. However, samples of skin, blubber and muscle were taken for genetic and pollution analyses, and teeth for aging. It had 26 pairs of teeth in each jaw which is consistent with the 22-28 pairs normally found in the species. The animal had significant tooth wear indicating that is was an older animal. By preparing teeth and reading growth layers it is possible to age the animal and a white-beaked dolphin may live for 40-45 years.

Why do cetaceans (porpoises, dolphins and whales) strand? There are different reasons, most likely a combination of factors, and it may differ depending on whether the animal was alive or dead when stranded. Live animals may strand due to navigational errors especially in areas with large tidal range and gently sloping beaches where the water may disappear quickly on the ebbing tide. Stormy weather and possibly magnetic anomalies may also contribute. However, it is more likely that the animal was sick or had been injured after interaction with fishing gear or a boat. If the animal is unwell and weak it may seek shelter in a shallow bay and beach itself to help keep the blow hole above water to allow it to breath. Animals found dead on beaches may have suffocated in fishing gear and then been dumped by the fisher at sea when the gear was hauled. In such cases there is usually evidence in the form of netmarks on the dorsal and/or pectoral fins, tail flukes or the snout. If the animal had been hit by a boat there is usually some form of physical trauma, an impact wound and/or bleeding.

There are also cases of mass strandings when whole groups of up to several hundred dolphins or whales strand together. Again there may be different factors responsible such as those mentioned above and others e.g. biotoxins (toxic algae blooms) that may make a whole group of animals sick and lead to stranding. Military sonar has been linked to strandings and deaths of several beaked whale species where the sonar has affected the whales’ diving behaviour and caused decompression-related problems (similar to the “bends” that can affect human divers) when they return to the surface after deep dives. In some other species e.g. pilot and sperm whales it may also be the social bonds that may contribute where perhaps one sick animal strand and several other come to the aid the sick animal and also strand in the process. In most cases it is likely a combination of factors that are the cause for the stranding.

For information on how to report strandings in England see:

Information from the strandings provides a picture of what species are found in UK waters and show geographic and seasonal distribution. The animals that that undergo post-mortem analyses provide information on causes of death, disease, contaminants, reproductive patterns and diet of the cetaceans living around the UK.

We collaborate with the UK Cetaceans Strandings Investigation Programme ( and acts as regional contact that can respond to strandings. Depending on the size of the animal and degree of decomposition, the dead animals are either collected, stored in the freezer room at the Dove Marine Laboratory and later post mortem analysed, or post mortem sampled on the beach.

On a more positive note, there was a live stranding of a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) on Whitley Bay Beach in on Tuesday morning 29 October. This report came from Marcus Jackson, North Tyneside council coastal warden. The stranding was reported to the  British Divers Marine Life Rescue ( who are trained in dealing live stranded cetaceans. When BDMLR came to the beach members of the public had already refloated the animal. This may have had a successful outcome for the animal but unless correct procedures are followed it is possible to cause more harm than help. So unless you have been trained as a marine mammal medic, please call for expert help if you find a live stranded cetacean.

For more information please contact: Dr Per Berggren (

Many thanks to Martin Kitching ( for reporting the white-beaked dolphin stranding.

Whitebeaked dolphin stranding by Alnmouth

On Tuesday morning 22 October we received a message about a dead white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) found on a beach by Alnmouth, Northumberland. The message came from the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme ( that monitors the UK hotline for stranded cetaceans. We participate in this work by responding to strandings that occur locally in Northumberland. After checking the exact location with those that had reported the stranding we (myself, Simon Laing, Dove Marine Lab intern and Paul Dees, Stage 3 Marine Biology student) set off in the school van with a stretcher, wheelbarrow and basic sampling kit with the intention of retrieving the whole animal. The plan was to bring the dolphin and store it in the freezer room at the Dove Marine Laboratory for a full dissection at a later date. We reached the site after an hour drive and found the animal on the beach just below the high tide mark. It was not as fresh as we had hoped and interviews with locals at the nearby caravan park told us that the animal had stranded on Saturday.

The dolphin was a 2.6m female and we soon realised that we would not be able to move her from the beach along the narrow steep access path to the van. In fact the three of us were barely able to move her at all and struggled to drag her up above the high tide mark. We were not able to weigh her but she was likely weighing 200+ kg. The size and tooth wear told us that this was a mature older female. We extracted teeth for aging and cut out skin, blubber and muscle samples for genetic, stable isotope and contaminant analyses. We also photographed the animal including pictures of the dorsal fin that we will use to match against existing catalogues of known white-beaked dolphins in the North Sea. It was by now late afternoon and we decided to leave the animal and return the next day for more comprehensive sampling.

We returned on Wednesday equipped with scalpels, knives, saw and various sampling bags. We took samples from kidney and liver (for heavy metal analysis), blood (for blood chemistry) and we also took uterus and ovaries (for reproductive biology – she was not obviously pregnant) and stomach (for diet analysis). We then took the whole head for studies of the sound production organs and one of the flippers that we will clean and eventually have on display together with the skull.

The white-beaked dolphin is endemic to the Atlantic Ocean and regarded as a continental shelf species with an abundance of about 10,000 in the North Sea. It is one of the larger dolphins (1.1-1.2m at birth growing to around 2.5-3m and 200-300kg). It is characterized by its short thick white coloured beak, white or pale grey markings on the flanks, counter-shading and curved dorsal fin. They become sexually mature around 10 years of age and the lifespan is about 40 years. They feed on fish and cephalopods. There is little information about the species social structure and group size is 1-20. For more information about the abundance and distribution of white-beaked dolphins and other cetaceans in European waters please see the following recent publication: Hammond PS, Macleod K, Berggren P, et al. 2013. Cetacean abundance and distribution in European Atlantic shelf waters to inform conservation and management. Biological Conservation. 164, 107-122. Read abstract and download paper here:

You can also watch white-beaked dolphin swimming underwater filmed by Ben Burville off the Northumberland coast here:

For more information please contact: Dr Per Berggren (