Whale song, The South West, South Africa & Autonomous ships

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

My adoration and fascination for Cetaceans and the sea began when I was very young, I was gifted a Baleen Whale book by a very wonderful, very eccentric uncle when I was probably about 4 years old. I read it cover to cover hundreds of times; I couldn’t understand most of the words, nor did I really understand the profound effect this book had on me until years later...

I went through school, knowing I loved the sea, sailing and swimming and not really understanding what I wanted to do, or the significance my local city (Plymouth) had to the Marine Biology world. As soon as I could, I applied for the Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology course at Plymouth University, really not expecting to get onto it.

The University being based where it is (in the South West), gives it really special qualities you don’t have anywhere else. We have Dartmoor to the North of us, which is amazing for freshwater studies, walking, climbing, camping and wild swimming. To the south of us, we have the magnificent South Coast of the UK, (where I live in Cornwall). We have done rocky shore excursions to Cornish beaches by the pedestrian ferry, we’ve walked from the University to Mount Batten rocky shore and just hopped on a bus up to Dartmoor for the morning, to look for freshwater invertebrates in the streams, (my absolute favourite).

The most notable was our big second year trip to South Africa. We flew out a couple of weeks early to do some sightseeing, and some exciting trips we had planned. It really is a once in a blue moon sort of trip, so we had all saved up our pennies and were so excited.

After spending roughly 20 hours in transit, we got to Simonstown, a really lovely town slightly more out of the way, but perfect for travelling to other places by car. We rented a car, had some amazing food and went on lots of day trips. Including 2 days of diving in kelp forests, with so many beautiful organisms that we hadn’t seen before.

One morning we dived from Windmill beach, just next door to the famous penguin hot-spot, Boulder beach. We were all geared up and walked through the sand and across a few boulders, and what we plunged into was just out of this world. Any underwater nuts/divers/swimmers and lovers of the sea will understand me when I say about the feeling of calm and plunging into somewhere new to swim or explore. This was on another level, the beauty of the whole environment was just immense.

The kelp forest really was a forest, it was so lush and thick with stunning stipes of up to 50 metres long. The big variety of kelp we were seeing is called Ecklonia maxima and a part of the order Laminariales just like our kelps here. I’m a huge Mollusc fan too, and so the many new species of Limpet was blowing my mind a little bit.

They have these incredible Kelp limpets (Cymbula compressa) that live on the stipe and eat epiphytes living on the kelp, they defend the whole organism and they’re curved to fit the long slim shape of the stipe.

I could talk about shells forever, honestly, I think I’ve got a bit of a problem...

There are so many amazing days I could write about, but this would be a seriously long blog post if I did. So in the end, we did eventually finish travelling around and exploring, we had to meet back at the airport to travel to our research site. We met the rest of the University gang and travelled up to the West Coast National Park. We all stayed there together for a week, exploring with our lecturers and learning about the local invertebrates, birds, reptiles and ungulates.

Not all fun and adventures though, as we had to do two projects in 2 days that week. We had to plan the study, conduct the research and do the write up all in one day. So we got up at 4 am one day to watch the Cape Weaver birds building their nests and whipping in and out of the trees on site. We did another study on the habitat complexity in a freshwater area called Abrahamskraal and looked at inverts all day (and got bitten to pieces by massive horseflies).

The week was very hard work, but such a valuable experience to put towards all our other studies, and ultimately to give us an experience of writing for our dissertation projects.

Before my dissertation year starts in September, I’ve been on Placement for a year. I’ve been working with the University, within the bioacoustics research unit. I was given the opportunity to work with The Mayflower Autonomous Ship Project, it’s an innovative project built around trying to cross the Atlantic in an unmanned vessel. The aim is that the unmanned, 30 foot-long trimaran will cross the Atlantic on the same route as the original Mayflower ship did. It will be completely unmanned, with cameras, sensors and AIS positioning systems onboard to track it.

My role in all of this was to work with the onboard hydrophone, collecting data to train the onboard software. I have been listening to hours of whale and dolphin sound, all from existing data, to make hundreds of sound bites.

Hours of continuous Sperm whale clicking, or snapping pistol shrimp, or the occasional dolphin shriek if I was very lucky. Amazingly, these sounds are then being used to train a computer model to listen out for these sounds, as it hears them when the ship is moving along somewhere.

So the idea is hopefully when the MAS400 leaves the safe shores of the UK, it can help us to record bioacoustics data whilst also completing a huge transatlantic mission.

I would like to hope that part of the future of ocean-going research vessels, is to be innovative, unmanned and go to places that are difficult, or even impossible for humans.

Maybe the edge of what is possible is where progress is made?


Written by Bryony Pearton

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