MSc Graduate in Focus: Lucia Yllan

In our Graduate in Focus series we look at the achievements of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine science around the world since studying with us. Today we meet Lucia Yllan, MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology & Conservation graduate (2021) and now a PhD student at Newcastle University working on the role of acoustic cues in anemonefish hierarchies. 


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What have you been doing since leaving Exeter?  And what do you enjoy most about your work?

Since finishing the Msc Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation, I have participated in two research projects on anemonefish social hierarchies in Papua New Guinea and started my PhD at Newcastle University working on the role of acoustic cues in anemonefish hierarchies. The thing I enjoy the most about my work is travelling to other parts of the word to dive and enjoy the beauty of the marine life.

What did you enjoy most about your programme and what was the biggest highlight?

What I enjoyed the most about the programme was the seminars where researchers form other universities, NGOs or other research groups would come to talk to us about their work which I found very inspiring. It also was a great opportunity to network and, nowadays, one of the researchers that came to give us a talk is one of the collaborators of my PhD project.

Why did you choose to study at the University of Exeter and what did you enjoy most about studying here?

The first thing that caught my attention from Exeter University was the master course that they were offering which perfectly aligned with what I wanted for my career and also included fieldwork opportunities. Also, as an international student and non-native English speaker, the fact that the university offered so many courses and one-on-one meetings to support non-English speakers and help them improve their skills in English was also something that help me decide to enrol in this university.

The thing I enjoyed the most about studying at Exeter, was the opportunity to learn from experienced researchers who were always keen on helping you out if you needed it, and how the modules and assignments were always oriented towards preparing us for an actual work setting.

What skills and experiences from your course have been most useful for your career?

The skills that have help me the most in my career have been my skills in statistical analysis which I believe are key for any researcher, and also my English writing skills which greatly improved in my time studying at Exeter University thanks to all the feedback I received from the language team and the lecturers from my modules.

What advice would you give to a current student who wishes to pursue a similar career?

My main advice is to try to get in contact with as many people as you can when you are studying. Let senior researcher know that you are interested in their research topics and volunteer to help as much as you can. This helps you create a network and also build your skills, which will bring you a lot of opportunities in the future.

What are your plans for the future?

My plan for the future, after I finish my PhD, is to do a Post-doc and keep on working on fish behaviour which is a topic that fascinates me. I also have an interest on teaching and outreach and I would like to continue doing so in the future.

Interested in studying with us? Our world-leading marine research underpins a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes: Research-led teaching | Exeter Marine | University of Exeter

Nurse shark and bait cannister

Research Insights: Kristian Parton – ‘Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discreet foraging behaviours in nurse sharks’

University of Exeter research associate Kristian Parton recently published a paper investigating the variety of foraging behaviours exhibited by nurse sharks in The Turks and Caicos Islands. Read on as we hear from him about this exciting research:

Kristian Parton – Research Associate, University of Exeter


Hi Kristian, thank you for joining me. Why don’t we start with a little about yourself and your work?

Hi, my name is Kristian, and I am a research associate at the University of Exeter. I studied my undergraduate degree here back in 2014 in Zoology and then went on to study my Masters by Research, looking at the impact of plastic pollution on sharks. Since then, I’ve been doing bits of research on sharks with various companies, which leads on to this current research with a company called Beneath the Waves, a shark NGO over in the United States.

Brilliant. So tell us, what led to your new paper “Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discrete foraging behaviours in nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum).”?

Over the lockdown in 2020, whilst like most of us I couldn’t get out anywhere, Beneath the Waves were in the Turks and Caicos Islands dropping baited remote underwater video systems in an attempt to look at the biodiversity of sharks around the islands. There’s not that much research that’s been done in the Turks and Caicos on sharks and rays, so Beneath the Waves were using these BRUVS to see what species were out there. For those of you who are new to BRUVS, they stand for Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems, and essentially, they are rigs which are dropped to the seafloor with a camera attached, plus a pole with a bait cannister on it. That bait will then lure in any marine predators like sharks and rays, which are viewed on the camera. Usually, they are used to study abundance and distribution of different species in an area.

As part of my work for Beneath the Waves, I was analysing the BRUVS footage. This involved going through and identifying the various shark and ray species which were coming onto the cameras. As I was looking through the footage, I started to notice the nurse sharks were doing something slightly strange and were behaving differently around the bait cannister to the other sharks that were featuring on the BRUVS, like the Caribbean reef sharks.

Whilst most of the other shark species would just hit the bait cage quite hard and pull it around, the nurse sharks would spend far longer, approaching the bait from different angles and positions. I started posing a few questions and went back to the team at Beneath the Waves. They’d also seen a clip of a nurse shark that looked like it was using its pectoral fins, bending them and arching them, to almost ‘walk’ on the seafloor around this BRUV. So, I started looking at more of the videos back-to-back, and we saw some patterns developing. These nurse sharks were all doing similar behaviours on the BRUVs. And so this paper was an attempt to classify those different behaviours.

Nurse shark and bait cannister

Nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) interacting with bait cannister


And what did you go on to find?

We found that nurse sharks have a variety of different foraging behaviours they can use. We went through and classified four foraging behaviours and one non-foraging behaviour. The first behaviour is vertical feeding, where the shark has positioned its body above the bait cage, with their head down and a vertical posture in the water. Then we’ve got the pectoral positioning behaviour, which we said looked like walking, where the sharks are arching and bending one or both of their pectoral fins, touching them against the sea floor and then using them to propel and move themselves around the bait. Then we’ve got the stationary horizontal feeding behaviour, so this is where a shark is horizontally positioned with its head close to the bait cage. It can be performed at different angles but generally the shark is flat, lying motionless on the seafloor and just sucking at the bait cage. Then we’ve got the ventral feed, where the shark is almost flipped upside down onto it’s back, with its belly facing upwards towards the surface and is trying to get underneath the bait cage. The final behaviour is the swim pass with the shark just swimming past the BRUV and not interacting with the bait cage.

BRUV footage of nurse shark foraging behaviours.


So, after classifying those different behaviours, we wanted to see what the purpose of these behaviours was and if there were any trends. Was depth affecting those behaviours? Was habitat type affecting those behaviours? We found that depth did affect one of the behaviours, which was the swim pass behaviour. In deeper water the sharks were swimming past less than they were in shallower water. This is potentially because nurse sharks could be feeding at deeper depths. However, this was not directly related to the foraging behaviours. We also wanted to compare the different foraging behaviours and whether they differed in sandy bank habitats, compared to reef habitats. Putting all the stats together we did find that the stationary horizontal feeding behaviour was more common on the bank habitats, the behaviour where they’re lying almost motionless on the seafloor. That’s probably because that behaviour is an easy behaviour to perform, it doesn’t require a lot of energy. They can simply lie there on a sandy bank habitat because there’s nothing obstructing them like there would be on a reef habitat, where corals might be getting in the way.

We didn’t find any trends between the other foraging behaviours based on habitat type, but we do think, even though we couldn’t prove it with the stats, that those more complex behaviours, like the vertical feed, are probably more common on the reef habitats. They could be used by the nurse shark to traverse their way around rocks and corals, and that might make it easier for them to get to that bait.

We also looked at the pectoral positioning behaviour, which we loosely termed as ‘walking’, although that’s a very human way of looking at it. We had another scientist come on board who knows a lot about the inner muscle workings of nurse shark pectoral fins. Unlike many other shark species, nurse sharks have specific skeletal and muscular adaptations of their pectoral fins that allow them to bend them in that way. This is similarly seen in the epaulette shark, a relative of the nurse shark, which we know is a species which can truly walk across rocks using its pectoral fins. We think that potentially nurse sharks and epaulette sharks have similar adaptations in their pectoral fins that allow them to exhibit this behaviour.

And so why is this research important?

When we look at this in real world terms, if we remove the bait, in a complex reef habitat a nurse shark might be trying to get to prey that could be hiding under rocks and corals. The range of different foraging behaviours they can use helps them capture that prey when they might be in tricky habitats. They can use the different behaviours in their repertoire.

This research therefore illustrates the behavioural adaptability of nurse sharks across a variety of habitats and provides further understanding of their ecological role, as we know quite little about them.

Summary of Kristian’s paper: Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discrete foraging behaviours in nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum).


Have BRUVS been used to look at behaviours like this before?

BRUVS really haven’t been used to analyse behaviour that much in the way that we’ve used it in this paper. It has been done in the literature but its not the normal way that scientists use BRUVS. Generally, they’re used to look at relative abundance and species diversity across space and time and so this was an interesting way to look at behaviour.

Obviously, there are limitations to using BRUVS in this way. We have to think about the fact that we are using bait, a simulated food offering, to attract sharks and observe their behaviour. The behaviours we observe are influenced by the fact that we’ve lured the sharks in. We posed however that the alternative is too difficult. The number of hours in the water it would take for people to observe these behaviours naturally, we just wouldn’t collect enough data. We also have to consider other challenges, for example not being able to differentiate between individuals on the BRUVS. So, it could be only one or two sharks that are performing these behaviours. We did counter for that by spacing these BRUVS around the islands, in many different areas, so we would obviously hope its not just one shark moving from one to the next. But overall, it was a really interesting piece of work and it was great to work with Beneath the Waves on this, alongside scientists at the University of Exeter.

Check out Kristian’s Youtube Channel “Shark Bytes” below: CRAZY Nurse Shark Feeding Behaviours (My Research!) – YouTube

Follow this link to read the full paper: Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discrete foraging behaviours in nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) | SpringerLink

Research Insights: Dr Phil Doherty on “SharkGuard” – A Novel Bycatch Mitigation Device

Oceanic sharks & ray populations have declined >70% in the last 50 yrs. ExeterMarine lecturer Dr Phil Doherty recently published an exciting paper using a novel device, “SharkGuard”, which uses electric pulses to deter sharks from fishing hooks in an effort to reduce bycatch. This may provide hope for the future of sharks and rays – read on as we chat with him about this work.

Dr Phil Doherty, Lecturer in Marine Conservation Science, University of Exeter


Hi Phil, thank you for joining us. To start with, can you give us a bit of background about yourself and your research?

Hi, thanks for inviting me – my research largely focuses on the presence and movement of large vertebrates, particularly sharks. For example, my PhD focused on tracking basking sharks in UK waters. I tend to use different technologies and methods to try and look at where things are, when they’re there, and what they might be doing there. I also try to inform on implementing some sort of management or policy strategy to try and make sure that times when these species of conservation concern are vulnerable, or are in places in high numbers, that they have some level of protection, whether that’s an MPA or another form of mitigation.

This has developed more recently into using fisheries data to look into catch composition and seasonality of fisheries landings to try to look at ways to prevent certain species being caught, certain sizes being caught, and more recently looking at bycatch (unwanted or unintentionally caught species) specifically. We are trying to get a grip on species that are being caught when they shouldn’t be, or aren’t wanted, and what we can do about that. Are there ways that we can prevent things being caught in the first place?

Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) catch onboard a longline vessel in southern France.

Photo Credit: Fishtek Marine.


Focusing on shark bycatch, which is the subject of your recent paper, what is the issue there?

Sharks and rays are groups of species that span most trophic levels, provide many ecosystem services, and are found in every ocean; so, talking about sharks and rays in general is quite difficult. However, in terms of larger bodied sharks and rays, and especially oceanic and pelagic species, their populations are under massive strain and most of that is from fishing pressure. Some of this is intentional capture, where sharks and rays are caught as the target species, but more often sharks and rays are caught as bycatch, as these species are often found in similar areas, exploiting similar resources as the target species.

This is having a massive impact on populations and these oceanic species that show more broad-ranging movements get caught a lot, due to high overlap with the big fisheries – the big purse seine and longline fisheries. This can cause a problematic scenario, which is often is a two-way thing, the fisheries quite often don’t want the sharks and obviously the sharks don’t want to be caught, but the numbers currently caught is really detrimental.

And so, what research have you been undertaking recently?

We have been working with Fishtek Marine, a conservation engineering company based in Devon. They develop all sorts of devices and mitigation strategies to try and prevent lots of different bycatch, from seabirds to turtles to cetaceans; and now for sharks and rays. They’ve developed a device called SharkGuard, which is a small device that you can fix just above a fishing hook on a longline, and it emits a pulsed electrical field around the baited hook.

Sharks and rays possess an extra sensory capability that bony fish and mammals largely lack. Sharks and rays have organs called ampullae of Lorenzini that are made up of small pores around their nose and mouth that can detect faint electrical impulses. It’s often how sharks and rays find prey, whether they’re buried in the sand or moving at the surface. The aim of SharkGuard is to overstimulate these electrosensory organs to deter the sharks and rays from engaging with the hook. It is quite effective in the sense that it’s a very short-range pulse, localised around the hook. Sharks have what’s known as a hierarchy of senses; switching between senses as they approach their prey ending with electrosensory capabilities very late on, just before biting the bait, only centimetres from their prey. Therefore, we have this short pulse, where we’re hoping that the shark might come close to the hook, but it won’t actually attempt to take the bait and therefore will swim away unharmed.

We trialled SharkGuard in a longline bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) fishery in southern France, where they target bluefin tuna, a very prized resource, but the fishery is has a large bycatch component comprised mostly of blue sharks (Prionace glauca) and pelagic stingrays (Pteroplatytrygon violacea).

Schematic diagram depicting the effect of the SharkGuard electrical pulse.

Photo Credit: Fishtek Marine.


And you’ve had some very exciting results?

Yes, we tried this out with an experimental design where we aimed to have fishing operations exactly as it would be normally for the fishers. We alternated a control hook (normal fishing set-up) with a SharkGuard device attached to it. So, we had normal hook, SharkGuard hook, normal hook going all the way out. Two boats set longlines of 1000 hooks, 500 of each hook type, and they fished all summer like they would normally. We compared the catch rates for blue sharks, pelagic stingrays, and the target species, bluefin tuna to see if there was any difference between the hook types.

We found that the SharkGuard hooks significantly decreased the catch of both blue sharks and pelagic stingrays by huge amounts – a 91% reduction for blue sharks and a 71% reduction for pelagic stingrays.

Whilst we’re not trying to claim that we’ve solved bycatch for sharks and rays, this is a really important step to showing that this kind of device is effective for this sort of scenario. We’re now trying to look at other opportunities to try it in different fisheries to see how well it works, or how we might tweak the design to make sure that it can work for different species and in different environments.

We also want to make sure it is suitable for different target catch, because obviously fisheries aren’t going to uptake this kind of device if they don’t catch the things they do want to catch. So, it’s finding that balance, but we’re really impressed with the first trial results as we know it does work, it can work, and it’s important to try and start reducing this kind of bycatch.

SharkGuard devices attached to longline hooks in setting bins ready for deployment.

Photo Credit: Fishtek Marine.


Have there been any other kind of mitigation efforts like this before for shark bycatch?

Not quite like this. Researchers have tried all sorts of stuff, lights on hooks, sound, different smells to try and deter sharks, fishing at different depths, different times of the day – lots, and lots of different approaches. There was quite a push a while ago of trialling rare-Earth metals and magnets to try and almost create the same kind of effect that we were just talking about with a magnetic field. However, these effects don’t last very long in saltwater, so can be quite laborious as you have to change them quite often and their effectiveness reduces over time. The electrical deterrent side of things has focused more on development for personal use, so for people surfing or out on kayaks with wristband type designs, having mixed results. The development from this side of things is quite novel in terms of putting electronic devices on the hook. The technology and the idea have been around for a while, but this kind of application is new.

Do you think that the devices will be well accepted by fisheries?

Yes, I really hope so – we’ve had some pretty positive feedback so far. I think it’s because we’re not trying to tell people to not fish, we’re trying to just say if you fish, can you maybe put these devices out and maybe give the sharks and rays a chance. The fishers that we worked with in France liked it because it didn’t change how they set up their gear or approached fishing activities. They still had their same way of putting the hooks on the line and bringing the catch back to the boat. It didn’t get in their way, and it wasn’t extra work.

Normally, when they do have bycatch, they just cut the line, so, potentially the shark or ray is cut loose with a hook in its mouth and trailing fishing line with the thought that it swims away and survives, but this may not be the case. The fishers then have to spend time fixing the line and attaching replacement gear. Also, catching a stingray that’s not very happy or a shark is dangerous for the fishers and as such don’t want them on the line. Plus, any hook that doesn’t have a shark on it could have a tuna on it instead, so the benefit could be huge.

Fishtek are in the process of developing induction charging bins, so when the hooks are placed back in the bins after hauling a set, it automatically charges the SharkGuard devices reducing effort for the fishers and removing need to replace batteries. We’re trying to make it as bulletproof as possible. Yes, there’s a large financial outlay in the beginning, but once setup you’re good to go.

Take a look at the video below to see the story so far…

SharkGuard (the story so far…) – YouTube

Read the full paper: PD Doherty, R Enever, LCM Omeyer, L Tivenan, G Course, G Pasco, D Thomas, B Sullivan, B Kibel, P Kibel, BJ Godley (2022). Efficacy of a novel shark bycatch mitigation device in a tuna longline fishery. Current Biology:

Visualising Loss interactive documentary

Marine Exeter Blog, Tanya Venture

My name is Tanya Venture and I’m a collaborative doctoral partnership (CDP) PhD student with the University of Exeter and Historic England.

My PhD is focusing on understanding and communicating what heritage loss on the coast means to the people who live, work and visit and care for these important places. The loss of coastal heritage is a highly emotive and difficult process to manage, but unfortunately one that will become more and more necessary as the effects of climate change become more acute.

My work looks at understanding and communicating what that loss actually means including what opportunity may come about from a change coast which can include new discoveries and ways to engage with the past.

To do this I’ve created an interactive documentary (i-doc) called Visualising Loss to help open dialogues between heritage professionals and the wider public through engaging with the conversations around loss in a different way. The interactive documentary (i-doc) is like a chose your own adventure novel where you – the audience – can navigate your way around fragments of conversations filmed with 39  participants around four key case study sites in the south west all undergoing some form of loss or change.

It may be confusing at first, the i-doc is meant to challenge you to create a narrative base on the stories that you’ve heard and the people you’ve managed to interact with. The aim is to help create a dialogue between heritage professionals and the wider public about what loss really means to them personally and the places that they love.

Information about the project as well as a link to engage with the i-doc and optional questionnaire can be found at

Feedback via the questionnaire will feed directly into my research and will give you the chance to win one of 3 amazon vouchers.

If you would be interested in getting in contact with me directly to hear more about my research or to organise a workshop please email me at

A Placement Year at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML)

On some University of Exeter courses there is the option to take a professional placement, where students can gain valuable experience with an organisation relevant to their degree. Below we hear from Sophie Armitage, now in her final year of her BSc Zoology course, who decided to undertake a professional placement with Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). Sophie discusses her experiences working on a plastics and machine learning project, which was recently published.

Author: Sophie Armitage

Data collection of plastics whilst out at sea in Cawsand Bay, Cornwall on the PML Explorer.

After spending my first two years of university in and out of lockdowns, I decided to take a placement year to try and gain some more practical experience. A placement year is a brilliant opportunity to obtain skills and learn more about your industry of interest, with both the financial support of being a student and the protection of being part of a university.

I spent my placement year at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), a marine research organisation based in the South-West. Whilst at PML I worked on a project which aimed to create a standardized, automated approach to collecting in-situ data of floating marine macroplastics. These observations are very limited in current literature and often involve costly and labour-intensive methods. Our approach used a trained Artificial Intelligence (AI) model which was able to recognise and classify the different types of marine plastic captured in images shot by a boat-mounted video camera. The overall aim of this project is to increase the number of in-situ floating macroplastic observations to support the validation and development of remote sensing methods. These methods could subsequently be used to further our understanding of the global abundance and distribution of marine plastic debris.

Whilst searching for possible placements I was firstly interested in working abroad, however most of the opportunities I found at the time were limited due to COVID-19 and were very costly. To avoid this, I contacted PhD students and researchers in my area of interest which led to me finding work experience. This involved a significant amount of perseverance as a large proportion of my emails weren’t answered. Despite this, I would highly recommend using this approach to find work experience as it can lead to some amazing opportunities. I found the Plymouth Marine Laboratory when looking at marine research industries in the South-West. Having seen the wide variety of exciting and influential research at PML, I was eager to get involved. After sending out numerous emails to scientists at PML I received an offer to work on this project.

During my time at PML I had the amazing opportunity to work on every step of the project, starting in the planning stages all the way through to writing the scientific paper. I spent my first month at PML researching and learning more about machine learning and remote sensing. Both topics were very new to me, so I had a lot to learn. To aid this process PML sent me on a week-long NEODAAS Earth Observation and Machine Learning training course. This was an incredible opportunity to meet scientists from around the world who had a similar interest and to understand my project further.

I was also sent on a sea survival course so that I could go out to sea on PML’s vessels: the Quest and the Explorer RIB. Next, I worked on developing and testing methods to collect footage which we would use for training and testing our machine learning model. To achieve this, I worked in collaboration with a local software engineering firm called Marine AI. The team has developed and created the impressive Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), which recently crossed the Atlantic. We hoped our algorithm could be used on that crossing, so most of our data used to train our model was collected on the MAS prior to its departure and whilst it was moored. Data was also collected on the PML’s RIB, which allowed us to go out to sea and record macroplastics. After all our footage was collected and labelled, I spent the next few months converting our data into the right format for training the machine learning model using Python. This stage of the project was the most challenging for me as I had no previous Python experience. Therefore, I had a huge learning curve to overcome, which was sometimes very overwhelming. However, I had a great team who were very patient and always went above and beyond to teach me as much as possible and support me throughout the project.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship, used for collecting footage of plastics using their vessel-mounted camera.

Once our data was in the right format we could then train and test our machine learning model. Our model was able to successfully detect the presence of plastics with an accuracy of 95% and could differentiate between plastic object types with an accuracy of 68%. This was a great achievement and meant we could publish our results. Writing my first scientific paper felt very exciting and also very challenging. On reflection, this process was made so much easier because I had deliberately ensured I had a record of the details of the methods I was using throughout the project. This, alongside the training I received from Exeter University in my first and second year, helped me overcome this demanding task. The final version of our paper was published by the journal Remote Sensing, which can be found here: Remote Sensing | Free Full-Text | Detection and Classification of Floating Plastic Litter Using a Vessel-Mounted Video Camera and Deep Learning | HTML ( I responded to my supervisor’s encouragement to be involved with the whole process of publishing a paper, from picking a journal, submitting it and replying to peer reviewers’ comments. This was an amazing opportunity, which led to me learning a huge amount which will hopefully benefit me in my final year.

Example labelled image used for training our machine learning algorithm.

Once our paper was published, we received some media attention. This meant I had the incredible opportunity to be interviewed by BBC Devon and Times Radio, as well as have our project featured on BBC Spotlight.

Photos from the BBC Spotlight piece, where we demonstrated the process of collecting training footage and running the footage through our machine learning algorithm.

During my placement year, I learnt a huge number of not only academic skills but also life skills. For instance, I learnt the value of seizing as many opportunities as possible. This allowed me to work within other departments such as the microplastic department, where I gained vital lab experience and in the ecology department where I was able to gain some more fieldwork experience during benthic surveys. By doing this I was not only gaining a wider variety of new skills and experiences, but also expanding my network. During my placement year I also massively improved my communication skills and confidence from having to communicate my work with other scientists and to the general public during the media coverage. This experience allowed me to learn new skills which go beyond what can be learnt in a classroom and I am very grateful and proud of what I achieved.

Advice I would give to other students:

• When looking for placements try emailing students/researchers in your area of interest. To do this you can create a general email in the style of a cover letter explaining who you are, what you are hoping to gain from your placement year, why you want to work for that specific company/industry and what skills and experience you can bring to the company. You can always speak to Career Zone, tutors and placement leads for advice on how to do this.

• Try not to be too disheartened by rejections. It is very hard to find work experience and sometimes it takes a lot of time and rejections until you find the right fit, especially in such a competitive industry like marine biology. For example, I didn’t find my placement until the end of August and I had been looking for one since December.

• Once on your placement volunteer for as much as possible; this will not only impress your employer but can lead to some invaluable learning and experiences. For instance, originally it was not planned for me to have such an involvement in the whole process of my project, to be doing any Python or writing the paper. However, I volunteered for as much as I could while at PML, which led to me having an amazing experience.




MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation Fieldwork Week 2022

As part of the MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation Skills module, students undertake a series of fieldwork sessions within the region of Cornwall, providing them a working knowledge of key practical fieldwork skills and the ability for them to apply the developed skills in future professional settings. Below we hear from MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology & Conservation student, Lorraine Aldridge, where she discusses her experience throughout the duration of the fieldwork and what it entailed.

Author – Lorraine Aldridge

On-board Marine Discovery, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge


Boat trips – AK Wildlife, Atlantic Diving and Marine Discovery

As part of our fieldwork boat trips, we were split into groups and timetabled for a range of boat trips, ranging from 4 hours to 7 hours, across the course of the two weeks. The trips left from Falmouth with local wildlife watching and scuba diving companies, AK Wildlife Cruises, Atlantic Diving and a third trip from Penzance with Marine Discovery. These boat trips provided us with the opportunity to develop and improve upon our species identification skills, and practice distance sampling strategy, a widely used and powerful method to systematically assess the density and abundance of cetaceans and marine vertebrates at sea.

Common Dolphin sighted near Falmouth, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

I started the first day of the week with AK Wildlife Cruises, meeting at Falmouth Marina, prepared with waterproofs, snacks, binoculars, a camera, notebook, clipboard, pencil, and sea sickness tablets, ready to spot some marine vertebrates! Upon boarding the boats each day, we were split into groups and given a GPS to track a running log for our distance sampling. We recorded effort every 15 minutes and any sightings on a separate recording sheet.

Each boat trip brought something new, a sighting, a location, or a breakthrough in identification ability (for me at least). Some of my highlights of these half-day or full-day boat trips around the Cornish coastline were spotting a puffin, a juvenile porpoise, a huge barrel jellyfish, bow riding common dolphins and improving my seabird identification skills. Every boat trip felt magical, it was a gentle reminder to me about how lucky we are to be studying in such an amazing place for marine life.

Herring Gull sighted near Falmouth, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Juvenile Common Dolphin near Penzance, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Common Dolphins sighted near Penzance, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Another highlight was spotting a minke whale near Penzance, along with a few grey seals making a surprise appearance.

When the weather was less than ideal, we took a detour from the open sea and headed down the Fal River and up the estuary, which brought a new plethora of wildlife to enjoy and explore. Sightings ranged from a peregrine falcon, great northern diver, deer, shelduck, cormorants, terns and seals.


Cornish Seal sanctuary

As part of our field week, we visited the Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, where we were given a guided tour and a private Q&A session. We gained an insight into the process of the rehabilitation of over 70 grey seal pups found within local coastal waters annually.

We learned the journey that rescued seals go through, starting with the specialist seal hospital, then onto rehabilitation in the main sanctuary, alongside how they go about caring for their resident grey and common seals.

Common Seals, Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Seal Pup Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Isles of Scilly

On the 6thApril 2022, we embarked on our journey on the Scillonian, from Penzance across to the Isles of Scilly. The crossing over consisted of group distance sampling, (whilst concentrating on not feeling seasick), and took just under 3 hours. With binoculars and range sticks at the ready, we saw lots of manx shearwaters, cormorants, shags, gannets, gulls, auks and fulmar. Once we reached St Marys, the largest island of the archipelago, we boarded a smaller boat across to St Anges, where we would be camping for the following two nights.

Campsite St Agnes, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Once we arrived at the campsite, we had a guided wildlife walk tour of St. Agnes and Gugh by Will Wagstaff, a leading ornithologist and naturalist in the Isles of Scilly. Will showed us the resident lesser black-backed gull nesting colony and we explored the island before setting up our tents. In the evening, Dr Alice Trevail provided a talk on her research on British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) Marine Protected Areas for habitat use of non-breeding seabirds in the Western Indian Ocean.

Wildlife guided walk Gugh, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Lesser black-backed gull nesting colony, Gugh, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

The few days following on the Isles of Scilly consisted of a boat trip around the islands, where we tested our sea bird identification skills and saw a range of species such as fulmar, puffins, razorbills, guillemots, grey seals, gannets, a talk from Jaclyn Pearson, biosecurity officer for the RSPB. Community volunteers also joined and we learned about biosecurity on St Agnes (the world’s largest community-led rat removal project) and the community effort to keep St Agnes rat-free.

Brown rats arrived on the islands in the 18th century and as the population of rats grew, they became harmful to the burrow-nesting seabirds, such as the European storm petrels and manx shearwaters. Jaclyn told us how since removing rats, storm petrels have returned to breed on St Agnes and Gugh and manx shearwater fledged chicks for the first time in living memory (back in 2013). 2015 saw the return of breeding European storm petrels, with numbers of both increasing ever since. We then had a tour of the island, meeting community volunteers, whilst also carrying out a section of the rat trap wax checks as we went.

Plastic-free lobster pot fishing, Jof Hicks Isles of Scilly, Photos: Lorraine Aldridge

We were also treated to manx playback from the burrows, which was one of my highlights of the trip.

Lundy Island 12th April 2022

The week following our trip to the Isles of Scilly, and in between a week of boat trips with AK Wildlife, Atlantic Diver and Marine Discovery, we split into two groups across two-day trips to visit Lundy Island, the first designated Marine Conservation Area in the UK.

MS Oldenburg, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Lundy lies off the coast of North Devon, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Bristol Channel, and is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Landmark Trust. The two charities have worked together since 1969 to restore and protect all that is cherished and special about Lundy departing from Ilfracombe Harbour on the MS Oldenburg, which took approximately 2 hours each way. The boat trip over was a great way to start homing in our identification skills, spotting a range of sea birds already mentioned in this blog, as well as enjoying some bow-riding dolphins and grey seals.

Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Once we arrived on the island, we were taken on a guided tour up and across the island to the nesting bird colony where we were lucky enough to see some puffins, lots of gulls, and even a grey phalarope.

Wheatear, Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Highland cattle, Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Grey Seal, Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Field week

These two weeks of fieldwork allowed us to bond as a course and spend time with each other outside of a lecture setting, network and develop as marine scientists, in an organic fieldwork setting. From carrying out distance sampling, experiencing long days out at sea, sharpening sea bird and marine mammal identification, and developing teamwork/field group communication skills. The two weeks allowed us to develop as marine conservationists and in practical fieldwork environments, which has been a highlight of the degree!

MSc Graduate In Focus: Fletcher Noble

We are looking at the achievements of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine science around the world since studying with us. Today we meet Fletcher Noble, MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology & Conservation graduate (2021) and now a Marine Science Officer at Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (Eastern IFCA). 

What did you enjoy most about studying at the University of Exeter?  

It’s hard to narrow down, but I would say the lecturers were excellent! They have the ability to engage you and grow your interests in topics that you may not have given much thought to previously. Their ability to engage you and draw your attention for an entire lecture really motivates you to go and do that extra work to learn more about the subject in your own time. It made learning the course easy and enjoyable. 

What were the best aspects of studying your course?  

As I mentioned previously the lecturers were excellent, but the field courses and the experiences they provided were absolutely top tier. From local trips on the waters and lands around Falmouth and then big trips further afield.  

Having also studied my undergraduate degree here at Exeter, the undergraduate trips to Wales and the Azores gave me great practical experience and the chance to see wildlife I would never have seen – like 40 sperm whales in a single day! During my masters they had provided additional qualifications too, such as becoming a WiSe Accredited Wildlife Safe Operator, BDMLR Mammal Medic, and JNCC Marine Mammal Observer. 

What skills and experiences did you gain that will/have been useful for job/internship applications? 

I think the research projects I undertook during my studies provided a whole range of skills that have become relevant in my current job. Being able to take part in active research within the conservation field, tackling the challenges which come with it, and overcoming them by developing a greater understanding of the statistical analysis software RStudio, statistics as a subject and managing databases, along with planning and executing it within a project were critical in securing my role.  


Why did you choose to study at the University of Exeter?  

I chose the University of Exeter because it was a top-tier Russell Group University, with a particular focus on conservation and the marine realm, and as an added bonus, I could study at the Cornwall campus! Having visited the Duchy many times throughout my childhood, I jumped at the chance to live and study in such a beautiful and fun part of the country. 

Do you think there are any factors that make the University of Exeter a unique place to study?  

I would say the lifestyle and experiences that come from living in Cornwall certainly make it unique. Living within a stone’s throw away from multiple gorgeous beaches and being able to go for a quick afternoon swim after studying really revitalises you. Then going to one of the many excellent pubs for a pint with friends to warm up and relax after drying off. There aren’t many places where you can do all of that in the UK, especially not under the Cornish sunshine!  

What skills and experience have been most useful for your career? And how do you think your programme prepared you for your career/current role? 

I think my ability to manage both my time and work while being involved in big projects has really helped. In my current role, I am participating in (and now leading!) multiple projects at the same time, from new research to the constant environmental and stock monitoring that comes with fisheries management. My master’s thesis really helped prepare me for this, it was a large database project which had two big tasks within it. Being able to balance multiple sets of information, of equal importance, and be able to complete both to a high standard has likely been one of the most important, (if slightly less flashy) skills I have gained from my studies.  

Why did you choose this career?  

Since graduating I wanted to follow a career that would give me the opportunity to partake in active research and practical conservation. This has been a tricky mix to find, especially as a graduate! But the IFCAs provide exactly that! Eastern IFCA gives me the opportunity to do that in spades and more! Since joining I have undertaken cockle surveys in The Wash aboard R.V. Three Counties, performed monthly environmental health observations, and started my own research project examining the economic benefits of the unique chalk reef at Cromer. I am especially happy with this last one, as the area is currently at the heart of practical conservation and fisheries management. It’s a prime example of the work that can be done through co-management of fishers, conservationists, with IFCA at the core, to protect both the unique habitat and those who earn their lifestyles by fishing those grounds.  

What advice would you give to a current student who wishes to pursue your career?  

I would say be open to unexpected opportunities and then chase them with full enthusiasm! I was teaching scuba diving in Sri Lanka when I saw my role advertised, I applied on a bit of a hopeful whim and am now loving my new job! By having enthusiasm for your studies, you will gain a wide range of knowledge and experience, but you must make sure not to put the blinders on afterwards. You will be capable of almost anything when you carry that enthusiasm forwards to your career and welcome new opportunities with open arms! 

What are your plans for the future?  

In the immediate future, I plan to stick with my role at Eastern IFCA, but I would eventually love to complete a PhD! Either here in the UK, or back in Australia where I took my study abroad year. In the meantime, I plan to keep learning and experiencing new things in my role, like using side-scan sonar and flying an underwater remotely operated vehicle!  

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying to the University of Exeter?  

Do it! You won’t regret it! The only bit you will have trouble with is deciding what you love more, studying in Penryn or the Duchy itself! One thing I am 100% confident of is that you won’t regret it! 

World Turtle Day 2022 with ExeterMarine

World Turtle Day was created as a yearly observance to help people celebrate and protect turtles and their habitats across the world. Today, ExeterMarine is celebrating World Turtle Day, by showcasing 8 turtle publications from the last year, from some of our lead academics in the marine science field.  

Publication 1 of 8: Plastic pollution and small juvenile marine turtles: a potential evolutionary trap’ 

Lead author: Dr Emily Duncan 

Photography: Eleanor Church

Plastic pollution could create an “evolutionary trap” for juvenile sea turtles. Stranded turtles (five of the world´s species) found on the east (Pacific) and west (Indian Ocean) coasts of Australia had ingested plastic pieces, mostly hard fragments and fibres. Juvenile turtles travel in currents and develop in the open ocean, but the same currents now accumulate vast quantities of plastic. These turtles show surface and non-selective feeding, therefore are at high risk of ingestion. The next stage of research is to find out if and how plastic ingestion affects the health and survival of these turtles.

Link to paper:  

Publication 2 of 8:Climate Change and Marine Turtles: Recent Advances and Future Directions’ 

Lead author: Dr Ana Patricio

“Climate change can impact sea turtles at all life stages, being one of the major challenges for conservation managers in the near future. For decades, research was focused on the nesting beach, where turtles are more easily accessible, with recent years seeing more studies extending to the marine realm, using novel approaches and technologies. In the latest literature review on this topic, we summarise main findings, highlight knowledge gains and research gaps, and make a list of research priorities for an improved understanding of how climate change may impact marine turtles, to guide future works.”

Link to paper:  

Publication 3 of 8:  Green Turtles Highlight Connectivity Across a Regional Marine Protected Area Network in West Africa

Lead author: Dr Ana Patricio

“We investigate the movements of green turtles from the largest Eastern Atlantic population with satellite tracking, to assess the level of protection afforded by the Regional Network of Marine Protected Areas in West Africa. We found that nesting females of this population connect at least five West African nations through their migrations, from Guinea to Mauritania, reinforcing the need of international collaborations for their effective conservation! Turtles stayed mostly within MPAs across the network, underscoring the importance of this sites for this major population. Based on our results we provide recommendations for conservation managers on how they may enhance protection.”

Link to paper:  

Publication 4 of 8:Marine turtles of the African east coast: current knowledge and priorities for conservation and research 

 Lead author: Casper van de Geer

In this research we worked with a team from across the Western Indian Ocean region to bring together everything that is currently known about turtles along the continental East coast of Africa. Clearly, there is a lot of work left to do, and our findings also highlight the vulnerability of the populations that nest, migrate and forage along the continental coast. Fortunately, there are some great examples of conservation efforts and there is growing recognition of the need to implement effective protection across the region.” 

Link to paper: 

Publication 5 of 8: Green turtle population recovery at Aldabra Atoll continues after 50 yr of protection 

Lead author: Adam Pritchard

“It’s been an honour to record the inspiring population increase of Aldabra’s green turtles and help deliver a much-needed “good news” conservation message which will hopefully encourage similar programmes. It just goes to show that, given the opportunity, animals have an astonishing capacity to recover from exploitation.”

Link to paper: 

Publication 6 of 8:Fulfilling global marine commitments; lessons learned from Gabon 

Lead author: Dr Kristian Metcalfe

Link to paper: 

Publication 7 of 8: Investigating differences in population recovery rates of two sympatrically nesting sea turtle species 

Lead author: Dr Lucy Omeyer

“After 30 years of consistent, intensive monitoring of sea turtles in Cyprus, it is great to see such an increase in green turtles. On the other hand, loggerhead turtles are not doing as well, potentially because of incidental bycatch in fisheries in the Mediterranean region. Understanding the threats faced by juveniles will be important for the effective management of these threatened species.”

Link to paper:

Publication 8 of 8: ‘Dietary analysis of two sympatric marine turtle species in the eastern Mediterranean 

Lead author: Josie Palmer

“In this study we investigated diet of stranded and bycaught green and loggerhead turtles in North Cyprus. Green turtle diet was dominated by an invasive seagrass from the Red Sea. In other regions where it has invaded, green turtles still prefer native seagrasses which are rapidly being displaced by the Red Sea invasive leading to concerns over their long-term persistence. This paper documented the highest consumption levels of this invasive seagrass in Mediterranean green turtles to date potentially indicating they are better adjusting. Loggerhead turtles were more opportunistic and carnivorous, placing them at risk to different fishing methods such as baited gears in deeper waters, whereas green turtles forage in shallower water where static set nets are more common. As part of my larger PhD study into the impacts of small-scale fisheries on marine turtle populations in the eastern Mediterranean, these data will be combined with satellite tracking of foraging turtles, fisheries monitoring data and habitat modelling to better inform the level of overlap in habitat use with fisheries and highlight key areas of conflict and opportunities for mitigation.”

Link to paper:  


To follow the work of these authors, please see their Twitter handles below: 

Dr Emily Duncan – @EmilyDuncan34 

Dr Rita Patricio – @arcpatricio 

Casper van de Geer – @CasperGeer

Adam Pritchard – @AdamPritchard5

Dr Kristian Metcalfe – @K_METCALFE

Dr Lucy Omeyer – @LucyOmeyer

MSc Graduate in Focus: Steph Trapp

We are looking at the achievements of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine science around the world since studying with us. Today we meet Steph Trapp, MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology & Conservation graduate (2021) and now undertaking her PhD here at The University of Exeter.

What did you enjoy most about studying at the University of Exeter?  

Having the opportunity to learn from such a wide range of researchers and professionals from all over the world. This was definitely one of the biggest advantages of online learning during the pandemic, also living in Cornwall and being 10 minutes from the beach is pretty sweet. 

What were the best aspects of studying your course?  

I really liked how the course was split between structured, taught modules in the first half of the year and then completely independent project work in the second half. It gave us the chance to learn and develop academic skills like statistical modelling and GIS and then put them into practice for our own projects. The lecturers are all fantastic and super enthusiastic. We were able to explore some of the UK’s marine wildlife, including puffins, basking sharks and Risso’s dolphins. It was the perfect way to round off the taught part of the course. 

What skills and experiences did you gain that will/have been useful for job/internship applications? 

Learning statistical and spatial analysis techniques, using R and GIS software, whilst developing writing concise and logical scientific material have all proved useful. Additionally, gaining practical experience such as seabird and cetacean identification, alongside boat and land-based survey techniques have better prepared me for the industry. The combination of these have given me a good foundation for both practical fieldwork and more academic careers.   

Why did you choose to study at the University of Exeter? 

I did my undergraduate degree here too and loved living in Cornwall. Finishing my degree mid-pandemic, the chances of getting a graduate job seemed pretty slim, but conveniently that was also when the new MVEC masters was being launched. I had been taught and supervised by some of the academics involved so knew it would be brilliant, and it seemed like the logical choice!  

Do you think there are any factors that make the University of Exeter a unique place to study? 

I think the location of the campus and the whole Biosciences research community make it a very special place. It’s a very welcoming and supportive group to be part of, with so many world-class researchers doing amazing work. Everyone from undergraduate level to professors seems to have a shared love of being outdoors and exploring the Cornish coast. 

What skills and experience have been most useful for your career? And how do you think your programme prepared you for your career/current role? 

The programme gave me a solid academic grounding, especially in effective scientific communication and statistical analysis, which are vital if you want to do any kind of research job. However, for me the key to being offered my PhD was talking to lecturers and taking opportunities as they came up. Much more so than undergrad, the masters degree gave me the chance to get to know the academics and researchers in the department better and find opportunities to help out with fieldwork etc. 

Why did you choose this career? 

I still don’t feel as if I have actually “chosen” a career, although I have always wanted to work in conservation. Different opportunities kept popping up throughout my time at university, none of which I could have foreseen, which in turn led to other opportunities. I volunteered on a local wildlife tour boat, helping with dolphin and penguin research during my study abroad year. I also spent a summer on a seabird island as a research assistant. My idea for a career seems to change every few months depending on what I’m doing at that moment in time, which I personally find really exciting as I never know what might come up next! 

What advice would you give to a current student who wishes to pursue your career? 

Be open to every opportunity, even if it’s not exactly what you thought you would be doing. I think having your career plans really set in stone means you could miss out on a whole load of great experiences. In the same vein, try to make the most of everything you do – I got my first paid research assistant job through working as a cleaner in a hostel. Just being enthusiastic and keen can work wonders!  

What are your plans for the future? 

I don’t have too many plans for now. I’d like to do some more fieldwork, probably with seabirds, possibly somewhere cool like the Subantarctic, and get my bird ringing license. Other than that, I’ll wait and see what opportunities pop up during the PhD. 

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying to the University of Exeter? 

Do it, there’s nothing to lose! Come and see the campus and explore the area, have a good look at the course descriptions, and don’t be afraid to contact lecturers and staff, or even ex-students on social media, with any questions. 

MSc Graduate in Focus: Rachael Thomson

We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine science around the world since studying with us. Today we meet Rachael Thomson, MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology & Conservation graduate (2021) and now a Marine Wildlife Analyst for APEM which is an environmental and geospatial ecology company based in the UK.

What did you enjoy most about studying at the University of Exeter? 

One of the things I enjoyed the most about studying at the University of Exeter was hearing about the careers and experiences of other scientists who had previously studied here or have some sort of affiliation with Exeter. They do a lot of great research, taking a global collaborative approach which, I think is exciting. 

What were the best aspects of studying your course? 

Going on the boat trips around Cornwall and spotting basking sharks, seeing Risso’s dolphins and gannets were one of the highlights of studying my course. It was made even better that we were able to share these experiences with lecturers and other key staff in the department, giving us the chance to learn from them. We were also given a great range of research projects to choose from. My research project assessed whether marine turtles nesting in Panama may be somehow buffered from the effects of climate change, as research is suggesting higher temperatures produce more female hatchlings. I really hope to further collaborate with the Sea Turtle Conservancy which is based in Costa Rica and Panama to publish my project.

What skills and experiences did you gain that will/have been useful for job/internship applications? 

We were able to learn about the variety of technology that can be used to help solve conservation issues, which was something I found very fascinating and innovative. For example, the use of drones, baited remote underwater video (BRUVS), biologging tags, temperature loggers and aerial survey photography. Learning about these technologies and how to analyse the outputs was a great skill to have in the field of conservation. One bonus of doing my MSc in the pandemic was that it enabled me to spend more time improving my technical skills.  

Why did you choose to study at the University of Exeter? 

A lot of skills and experiences offered on the Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation MSc seemed practical and useful for the current job market and I really wanted to take advantage of the opportunities. Additionally, I admired a lot of the staff and research that came from the university. Especially their involvement in working with sea turtles, marine mammals, basking sharks, and tuna. There is also a focus on international collaborations, and I enjoy travelling and understanding conservation issues on a global scale. 

Do you think there are any factors that make the University of Exeter a unique place to study? 

Studying at the Cornwall campus and living in here has been essential to my enjoyment and wellbeing. Choosing where you study is an important part of any undergraduate, postgraduate or PhD decision. Since living here, I have found a new appreciation for UK wildlife and the coastline, with some great opportunities to get out on the water via boat, paddleboard, surfboard or even going for a refreshing cold-water snorkel. I even got the chance to see bioluminescence which I would have never thought was possible in the UK. 

What skills and experience have been most useful for your career? And how do you think your programme prepared you for your career/current role? 

I think the MSc programmes at Exeter provide excellent networking opportunities and the chance to see what your career could truly look like if you want it enough. Most importantly, the programme encourages independent learning and gives you the confidence to trust your knowledge and skills.  

Why did you choose this career? 

I have had a natural curiosity for as long as I remember and as soon as I realised science could give me answers, (or answers that lead to more questions), I knew it was for me. As well as collecting anything small and living – from woodlice to limpets. Choosing to pursue conservation began when I volunteered at my first sea turtle project in Kefalonia in Greece where I gained an understanding of the many ways we as humans negatively impact wildlife. After that, I wanted to help be part of the solution.  

What advice would you give to a current student who wishes to pursue your career? 

Always make time for people and be approachable and friendly, as conservation needs people to work collaboratively. I would say to take advantage of the opportunities you are given and be open to working with different species or in different locations that might put you out of your comfort zone. Lastly, although easier said than done, don’t spend energy obsessing over how well others are doing in the field as you devalue your own achievements, and you deserve to be proud of those.

What are your plans for the future? 

I don’t like to plan too much but the most important thing to me is working with passionate people and working towards conservation that aims to solve one or multiple conservation issues. And hopefully improving the conservation of marine vertebrates such as turtles, sharks, marine mammals, and seabirds.  If this opportunity doesn’t exist, I will just have to create it!  

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying to the University of Exeter? 

Don’t even hesitate! Reach out to staff at the university or to people like myself who are very accessible on social media platforms like Twitter.