My #ExeterMarine Expedition: updates from the Indian Ocean

This is a series of updates from #ExeterMarine researcher, Dr Ines Lange, who is on a research expedition in the British Indian Ocean Territory with Professor Chris Perry, the Bertarelli Foundation and ZSL.

Hard at work in the Indian Ocean

03/05/2018 Somewhere in the Indian Ocean

We are in the Central Indian Ocean, sailing south on the “Grampian Frontier”. Prof. Chris Perry and myself, Dr. Ines Lange, from the Geography department are on a research cruise to study the coral reef ecosystems of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The project is part of a large expedition funded by the Bertarelli Foundation and on board are twelve scientist, working on six different projects.
Chris and I are studying the carbonate budgets of coral reefs around islands of the Chagos archipelago. The “ReefBudget” method we use was developed by Chris and calculates how much carbonate is produced by corals and calcifying algae, and how much is eroded by grazing sea urchins and fish, as well as by internal bioeroders such as boring worms and microorganisms. The results provide a metric of reef “health” in terms of whether it is growing or eroding. On this trip we have two main goals:

1) To revisit sites that were surveyed in 2015, before the severe bleaching event that hit the Central Indian Ocean in 2016. We expect to see dramatically reduced rates of carbonate production due to low coral cover.
2) To investigate local rates of coral and calcifying algal growth as well as internal erosion rates by deploying experimental substrates.

On the two-day transit from the Maldives down to Chagos we are busy preparing material for the deployment of experimental substrates and discussing calculations for the model. Of course we also have to include a few safety exercises; it is very hot here so I would not mind going for a swim, but we ended up not abandoning the ship…

Stay tuned for our upcoming adventures underwater.

Survivors in the reef

News from the “Reef team” in the Indian Ocean. The sites in the Salomon and Peros Banhos Atolls we visited so far show a dramatically reduced coral cover due to the severe bleaching event in 2016, causing carbonate production rates to drop to about a third of the values in 2015. On the upside, there are many Porites and also some Acropora colonies that apparently survived the bleaching, and large numbers of small recruits of different genera. Especially in the understory of the reef structure we find many live encrusting corals. Also, the substrate is quite clean of macroalgae, thanks to the high abundance of grazing herbivorous fish. Calcareous algae covering the dead coral substrate continue to produce substantial amounts of carbonate which help “glue” the existing structure together and offer a great substrate for further coral recruitment. We therefore hope we can see a fast recovery of the once glorious reefs over the next years.

To investigate local bioerosion rates in the reefs we had a “fun” day sawing 1000s of blocks from dead Porites skeleton (well, it certainly felt like that, on my last count it was actually 28). Today we successfully deployed the substrates in the reef, where they will be settled by encrusting and bioeroding organisms (or eaten by parrotfish? Hope not …). The work days are long and it’s actually not always as sunny as you would imagine (see how we enjoy our surface interval in the rain?!). But the company is great, and encounters with curious turtles, dancing eagle rays and confused birds trying to land on our heads make every day a great adventure…

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Life on a Russian Icebreaker: ACE Maritime University

Author – Jen Lewis, PhD researcher

This blog originally featured on

Before departure in Bremerhaven Germany

Last year (I can’t believe it’s been a whole year!) I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to attend a one off opportunity, the ACE Maritime University. The scene for this month long ‘floating university’ was the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, aboard the Russian Polar Research Vessel Akademik Treshnikov.

On the 19th of November 2016, 49 students and 16 scientists from 20 different nationalities joined the ship in Bremerhaven, Germany for Leg 0 of the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition. Over 27 days we sailed down across the equator, to Cape Town, South Africa. ACE was a

privately funded expedition, that went on to circumnavigate the continent of Antarctica last summer, visiting the islands, measuring things like marine mammal populations, ocean acidification, carbon dioxide dynamics and marine plastic distribution. There were 22 different research projects, and if you want to read more about them then check out the ACE expedition website and blog.

The aim of the course was to bring together a global group of young researchers and introduce marine science as a cross-disciplinary field. Days were full of lectures on various principles of oceanography, or how to use different type of ocean monitoring instrumentation.

Releasing a radiosonde balloon to take atmospheric measurement


Deploying the CTD and water sampler











We even had homework every other day! We also took part in daily deck work with the different projects that were setting up for the Antarctic legs. This included things like assisting with the CTD deployment, processing data, collecting water samples and filtering them. Highlights included working with Florian and Yajuan to make a film about their research  investigating microbial and plankton communities that have big influences on primary production and the carbon cycle, seeing the different layers of biomass on the echosounder display, and also setting up and deploying a radiosonde balloon that measures the atmosphere.

Dolphins riding the bow waves


CTD profile from cruise data. Each graph shows information about temperature, salinity or oxygen from the surface down to 1000m depth. Samples start from near the Mediterranean (CTD001), over the equator (CTD10) and further south towards the African coast. You can see things like the high salinity Mediterranean outflow at the start, and oxygen minimum zones either side of the equator.

As part of a personal project, I was also filtering seawater samples from different depths from the CTD casts every day. These samples are being used to look at the difference in species diversity through the North to the South Atlantic, by looking for traces of DNA that has been left in the water by different species that are in the area at different depths – so watch this space!

#ExeterMarine community highlights the impact of plastic in the Ocean for Earth Day

The #ExeterMarine research community provides globally significant insight into the effects of plastics in the Ocean and on the organisms that rely upon the marine environment, from plankton to whales, and even humans.

The focus of this year’s Earth Day is to provide information and inspiration needed to fundamentally change attitudes and behaviours about plastics and increase awareness about the impact that plastic pollution has on marine life, human health landscapes and nature. As the use of plastics increases so to is the awareness of the threats posed by plastics.

Here is a selection of what our community had to say on the subject of plastics. Read the full article here.  






My #ExeterMarine Expedition: Sail Against Plastic

Sails Against Plastic is currently raising funds for the expedition – if you’d like to find out more check out their page on Crowd Science.

Author – Flora Rendell-Bhatti

Sail Against Plastic represents a culmination of the time I have had at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus. A diverse, exciting, unique, collaborative and supportive expedition mirrors my time spent studying and living in Cornwall. I completed my undergraduate degree here and couldn’t face leaving the vibrant campus, so continued onto a masters by research, looking into the effects of microplastic contamination on sea urchin larvae development. I chose to continue my studies at Exeter University because of the cutting-edge research being carried out across all of campuses. My undergraduate degree opened  many doors into the research world and I couldn’t face leaving it.


In the first few months of my research masters, whilst at a Plastic Free Falmouth meeting I was invited onto the Sail Against Plastic expedition as a Scientific Director.

As a collaborative sailing expedition with scientists, photographers, film makers, artists, campaigners and sailors it had real promise as a science communication project to reach more people via film, art and photography.  I strongly believe that scientists must make an effort to collaborate and merge environmental outreach and education with their research, in order to make positive change regarding environmental issues.

Our aim as a crew is to investigate and unveil invisible pollution in the Arctic ocean. We will be setting sail from Longyearbyen this summer, as a diverse 18 strong team aim to collect vital baseline data no some of the non-visible pollutants that pervade the seas here, including marine plastic pollution and man-made noise. Using manta trawls and drop-net sampling we will be able to gather baseline levels of microplastic pollution within the Barents Sea (located SE of Svalbard). Our data will contribute to globally-significant research, which may provide evidence to support the theory that the remote Barents Sea is in fact a ‘sixth gyre’ like the other five known ocean areas where currents aggregate plastic waste in huge concentrations.

The Barents Sea is also home to one of the world’s largest industrial fisheries. However the waters around Svalbard are home to up to 14 species of marine mammal, where communication through low frequency sound can be essential for survival. Very little is understood about how, when and where human-generated noise might be impacting upon these species, but we hope to pioneer some preliminary research to begin the first steps to protect these already vulnerable marine species from the dangers of marine noise.

Through the use of film, photography and art, we hope to increase public awareness by making our findings educational and engaging, whilst highlighting the actions needed to preserve this spectacular region. So far, we have engaged with school children about the impacts of single-use plastics, surveyed locally for microplastics, hosted beach cleans and engaging film screenings, have danced our hearts out at our Ceilidh Against Plastic and Gig Against Plastic events. All these events have enabled us to engage with the public about the issues of single-use plastics and how areas which seem pristine and untouched, can be tainted with actions here in the UK. We want to be part of the solution and help communities to come together to be innovative and forward-thinking to stem the plastic tide.

Reducing single-use plastic in your life can seem like a herculean task, when nearly everything we use has some form of plastic wrapped around it! However, simple swaps, community action, accessibility to information, inspiration, finding the correct tools and coming together really does make a difference. Our team members have seen this develop and grow first-hand in Cornwall, being involved in Plastic Free Falmouth, Penryn Produce and Falmouth Marine Conservation. However, with strong links with organisations, schools and individuals in Svalbard, we hope this expedition will be highly collaborative and have a meaningful impact, which goes above and beyond publishing scientific papers.

We are currently raising funds for the expedition, if you would like to support us or find out more please visit our Crowd Funding page!

This expedition is only possible with your help. Be part of the solution to save our oceans: support our project to enable us to make the unseen seen.

Connect with us:

Facebook – A Message from the Arctic

Instagram – A Message from the Arctic

Twitter – @Sail4seas







#ExeterMarine is a interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Falmouth Marine Conservation Group – a collaboration between #ExeterMarine academics and the local community, powered by our students

Author – Jade Getliff , Marine Biology Undergraduate, Founding Member of Falmouth Marine Conservation.

Falmouth Marine Conservation Group (FMC) is a community conservation organisation of active volunteers raising marine awareness to empower our community in protecting the local marine environment, founded in October 2016 by our very own Marine Biology students, including myself!

A little bit about me… I’m Jade, a Marine Biology undergraduate in my second year at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus. I am the Biosciences Subject Chair for the CLES college, as well as a Student Ambassador, so I work closely with our fabulous academics! My favourite marine animal has to be the Green Turtle, which themselves are threatened by everything from sea level rise to plastic pollution. My work with marine turtles drives my passion to protect our marine environment and lead the fight against single use plastics! When I arrived for the first time in Cornwall in September 2016, I was enthused by the passion of our #ExeterMarine academics and wanted to connect that with the love that the local community has for the marine environment here in Cornwall! And so, with the incredible initiative of Meg-Hayward Smith (Chair of FMC) and the support of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, FMC was born…

When we set up FMC almost two years ago, we agreed our four main aims to allow us to achieve our goals of increasing awareness of marine issues, backing up our campaigns with solid research and making a positive impact on our local community here in Falmouth and Penryn!

Education – Our education and outreach team visit local school and youth groups every week, teaching the next generation of conservationists, biologists and policy makers about a huge range of marine topics! More recently we have been focusing on the growing marine plastic pollution issue, which has been grabbing more and more media attention. Through fun games and activities, we encourage the kids to think about how they can reduce their plastic waste and encourage their friends and family to do so too!

This week we visited the Brownies in Falmouth,

where we tested their recycling knowledge in a fun recycling relay game, it shocked all of us how much plastic is really hard to recycle! The kids then made their own never-before-discovered marine species out of plastic waste and presented them to the group, telling us all about how their marine species might be threatened by plastic pollution – some chose to use unrecyclable fruit netting to symbolise how their species might be vulnerable to entanglement by fishing gear. They pledged to not only recycle and reuse, but also refuse single-use plastics!

We hope, through the younger generation, to inspire the community to protect the marine environment and learn how to live alongside our marine wildlife harmoniously.

Research – We believe backing up our campaigns with research is so important! We encourage and run lots of citizen science projects throughout Falmouth, collecting data and recording local wildlife sightings to support our conservation efforts and understand more about the local coast and how we can conserve it in the best way possible. We are currently surveying and tackling the invasive populations of Pacific Oysters around the Fal river, as well as running regular cetacean surveys and microplastic trawls – so there is lots for volunteers to get involved in!

Events and Campaigns – From Rockpool Rambles to Snorkel Safaris and engaging Academic Talks, we run a vast variety of regular events to inspire and educate the local community through fun and motivational activities! One of our most successful events has been an Academic Talk, delivered for us by our very own Professor Brendan Godley and Sarah Nelms on the subject of marine plastic pollution. A whopping 290 people attended, raising a huge £530 to support the vital work of Falmouth Marine Conservation and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust! Many of our members and the student community were inspired and have pledged to ditch single-use and back us in our campaign to make Falmouth a Surfer’s Against Sewage Plastic Free Coastline!

Business – We collaborate with business to improve the Falmouth marine environment by helping them decrease their negative impact – many have taken the plunge to ditch straws, plastic bags and single use coffee cups!

I could go on forever about the amazing work of FMC… I hope you enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of what we have been up to over the past two years! Please find us on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date with our exciting events and news – and stay tuned on the #ExeterMarine blog for more turtle-y awesome (and hopefully shorter!) blog posts by yours truly.

#ExeterMarine is a interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

#Research: Testing new mooring systems for #MarineRenewableEnergy

Author – Dr Tessa Gordelier

A new paper has been published by #ExeterMarine academics Prof. Lars Johanning, Dr Tessa Gordelier and Dr Philipp Thies in collaboration with the French research institute IFREMER (@Ifremer_en).

The mooring systems were put through their paces at the University of Exeter’s DMaC facility

Assessing the performance durability of elastomeric moorings: Assembly investigations enhanced by sub-component tests”  investigating novel mooring tether performance for offshore renewable applications.

The growing marine renewable energy sector is placing new demands on mooring systems; not only are they required to hold devices on station they must also provide the compliance required to harvest energy from the marine environment.  In response to this, several innovative mooring tethers have been proposed, with increased compliance and a degree of customisation of the stiffness profile.  Many of these novel systems utilise materials in a unique application within the challenging marine environment and their long term durability remains to be proven.

The novel mooring system underwent 6 months of sea trials on a mooring limb of the South West Mooring Test Facility

In response to this challenge, the work presented in this paper summarises a multifaceted investigation into the durability of a novel mooring tether with an elastomeric core.  Tether assembly testing is conducted before and after a 6 month sea deployment in addition to detailed laboratory investigations.  At a sub-component level, to represent the operational demands of the tether on the elastomer core, detailed material investigations review the effect of both marine exposure and repeated compression loading on key material properties. This work is the first of this type to be published and will be of interest to anyone utilising this material in other relevant applications.

Overall the results indicate an increase in both material and tether stiffness profile with use; this will affect both system dynamics and mooring loads.  If we are to realise the benefits of these novel mooring systems, this characterisation is crucial to ensure reliable and effective integration into offshore engineering projects.

#ExeterMarine is a interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Assessing and mitigating the future risks of harmful algal blooms (HABs) to wild fisheries and aquaculture

Rope grown mussels (Mytilus edulis) in St Austell Bay

Author – Dr Ross Brown, Senior Research Fellow

HABs can result in the production of harmful algal biotoxins and oxygen depletion, therefore presenting a significant risk to shellfish and finfish health. According to the UK Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP), HAB occurrences are anticipated to increase with climate change and the influx of warmer water planktonic algae, including more toxic species, to UK coastal waters, MCCIP Report Card 2013. The impacts of these HABs are likely to include prolonged closures of shellfish farms and increased mortality of juvenile fish on nursery grounds, and these are major future concerns for UK inshore wild fisheries and seafood farming (aquaculture).

‘Real-time’ monitoring via in situ sampling and ‘remote’ satellite sensing can readily detect high biomass and surface forming algal blooms, but these strategies provide limited forewarning and are not appropriate for detecting the onset of low biomass blooms (e.g. Dinophysis sp.) or blooms that initiate below the sea surface (e.g. Karenia mikimotoi).  Another option is to use environmental data to predict where, when and how often such blooms are likely to occur. This information could then be used to inform mitigation strategies; allowing businesses to better plan the timing of shellfish harvesting, when and where not to feed finfish stock and furthermore, guide in the placement of new farms (i.e. locating new farms in areas that have a low risk of HABs forming).

Recent research undertaken in St Austell Bay by Drs Jamie Shutler and Wiebke Schmidt, at the University of Exeter, and Dr Peter Miller and colleagues from Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), has shown that the formation of HABs and the concentration of biotoxins in shellfish is associated with changes in environmental conditions, including sea surface temperature, solar radiation, rainfall and wind speed. Incorporating these factors in a site-specific predictive model enables one-week forecasts of biotoxin accumulation within the farmed shellfish.  This work was been carried out as part of the UK Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBRSC) and UK National Environmental Research Council (NERC) funded ‘ShellEye’ project.

Research studies such as AMHABs and ShellEye are key to informing and underpinning the sustainable development and management of marine ecosystem services, including capture fisheries and aquaculture (mariculture) …….,”  – Dr Grant Stentiford, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Co-Director of Sustainable Aquaculture Futures (Cefas and University of Exeter partnership).


Researchers including Drs Ross Brown, Chris Lowe, Jamie Shutler and Prof Charles Tyler at the University of Exeter are currently working with PML colleagues to extend the modelling approach to identify what causes the formation of HABs, and importantly where they are likely to form, around entire coast of the UK South West Peninsula. This project ‘Assessing and Mitigating risks of Harmful Algal Blooms (AMHABs)’, has been funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).



The findings of these research projects will help to inform decisions regarding Marine Spatial Planning in UK coastal waters and aid the development of strategies concerning adaptation to changing climatic and environmental conditions.

#ExeterMarine is a interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

My #ExeterMarine PhD: Social learning in whales and dolphins: implications for their conservation

Author – Philippa Brakes  (@PBrakes)

Whales perform some of the longest migrations on earth. Many live in close family groups, some sing, feed cooperatively, transmit innovations, share the care of their offspring and are even vital ecosystems engineers. They are the stuff of legend and the cornerstone of many marine eco-tourism businesses around the world. Yet despite the size of these charismatic megafauna, both in life and in our imaginations, they remain somehow enigmatic: the details of their lives are challenging for us to grasp. Nevertheless, through long-term studies, we are starting to unravel some of the mysteries and these scientific insights also necessitate a re-evaluation of how best to conserve these giants of the deep.

Behaviour matters. One key issue for the conservation of whales – and likely many other taxa – is social learning. There is growing evidence that many species of whales learn some important behaviours from their elders and sometimes their peers. Evidence for social learning in whales is found in all the main behavioural domains; from communication to foraging, migration to play. This is significant for conservation efforts. Understanding that behaviours from foraging strategies to migration routes may be socially transmitted, requires us to reflect on the types of resources whales need to survive and thrive in ever changing environments.


The emerging evidence in this field is also now beginning to influence conservation policy. The UN Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)  has been spearheading important work in this area. At a Conference of the Parties in the Philippines late last year, CMS committed to further examine the importance of social learning for the conservation of a range of migratory species. CMS also agreed a concerted action for the acoustic clans of eastern tropical Pacific sperm whales, which requires cooperation among the range states to gather more information about the social behaviours of these whales.


The better we understand social networks, the types of relationships individuals have, how they innovate and share new information and the roles that specific individuals may play within their social groups, the better equipped we will be for bespoke conservation solutions for animals that learn socially. A key area of importance to conservation will be determining how foraging strategies are socially transmitted. If information about a new technique for foraging on a specific resource is transmitted within a social group, these individuals may become specialist feeders on a particular prey type. Potentially, this has both conservation and evolutionary advantage, if this behaviour results in more efficient prey gathering or provides access to more abundant or better quality prey. However, such specialisation is not without risk. A significant decline in a certain prey type may present a challenge to the survival of some specialist feeders, unless of course they readily swap to other types of prey.

This ability to swap behaviour may be key. For example, bottlenose dolphins have the capacity to socially transmit new foraging strategies. But this species also exhibits sufficient behavioural plasticity to diversify to other prey types when their environment changes and certain prey become scarce. In contrast, killer whales, who are considered more conservative in their behaviour, generally adhere rigidly to their prey specialisations throughout their lifetime. There may be a tension between conservatism and plasticity, both within individual behaviour and across species, which highlights the complexity of conserving animals that learn socially.


But social learning is not the whole story; social structure, social role and even distribution of consistent individual difference (or personality) may also have an influence on the trajectory of populations. To examine this further WDC (@WHALES_org) and #ExeterMarine (@ExeterMarine) are investigating a feeding innovation in humpback whales off Cape Cod in the U.S.A., with the kind help of amazing WDC North America interns. Here, as well as bubble net and lunge feeding, a group of humpback whales have learnt a unique feeding strategy called kick or lobtail feeding. These whales lift the tail fluke (or entire caudal peduncle) out of the water in order to strike the water hard with the tail fluke (at least once) to stun the sand lance. This is typically followed by the whales then corralling the stunned fish by blowing bubbles underwater and surfacing with a mouthful of seawater and fish, which is then strained through the baleen.

This foraging strategy is unique to the Gulf of Maine population of humpback whales.  Previous research has determined this behaviour has been socially transmitted between whales in this population for nearly three decades. WDC (@WHALES_org) and ExeterMarine (@ExeterMarine) are now exploring whether factors such as age or social position matter when learning these new foraging skills. Is success rate related to whom you learn from, or are some individuals more predisposed to try out new innovations? Do some whales perfect their technique more rapidly than others, does skill level increase over time? Or, are particular individual differences in feeding style consistent over a lifetime? Do some whales never quite get the hang of the optimal kick feeding style and does that influence their overall calorific intake, their reproductive success, or even their longevity?

Our research so far indicates that individual whales exhibit their own specific styles of kick feeding, the question is how and if these styles change over time. Another interesting discovery is that some whales in this group seem to be goal hangers! There may be a producer-scrounger system in operation among these whales, although how dynamic this situation is remains to be seen. Non-kicking ‘scroungers’ may be benefiting from feeding on the fish stunned by the kicking whales. This begs several questions. Does it pay sometimes to be a kicker (producer) and sometimes a scrounger? Or is this part of the process of learning this unique foraging strategy? Does scrounging behaviour vary with group size? Are there ecological constraints? Only by gathering data on how these individual whales feed will we gain a better understanding of how these systems work and what role consistent individual difference may play in the spread of social learning of particular foraging strategies.

We can look to other taxa for clues. For example, chimpanzees exhibit gender differences in learning, particularly in relation to attention to maternal techniques, which has been used to predict competence in learned behaviour at a later date. Understanding whether similar differences between males and females exist in humpback whales will enable a richer understanding of social transmission in these species.

One thing is certain: whale science has advanced considerably since the save the whale movement of the 70s and 80s. Contemporary efforts to conserve whales from human-induced rapid environmental change requires more sophisticated and strategic approaches to protecting populations, which in some cases includes defining and managing social units. Saving whales today requires us to rethink some traditional approaches for delineating populations and shine a light on some of the detail of their individual lives. Just as ecological and conservation thinking has evolved from the elementary description of basic food chains, towards grappling with the complexity of food webs, future conservation efforts will need to incorporate the many facets of the social, as well as ecological, aspects of the life histories of these leviathans.


#ExeterMarine is a interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!