A whole new world of fieldwork

For the past two years, you faithful readers of this blog have had to listen to me write about males, about studying seals which breed on the sand, at relatively easy to access locations and from the ‘luxury’ of a small wooden box in the dunes.

The Isle of May is a whole different story.

I might be repeating a bit from Sean’s last blog but as he has been here many times, I figure I’d say a bit about this “newbie’s” first impressions.

First off, out here there is no ‘quick trip’ to the store to pick up batteries or emergency chocolate this time. We aren’t completely off the grid here, there are occasional boats that come out with supplies as some personnel will be coming and leaving throughout the season, but it certainly makes you feel more removed from the world when it takes a thirty minute boat ride to get there. Personally this isn’t a bad thing…I more or less was happy to ‘run off into the field’ and forget about thesis writing for a few weeks. And I brought my own emergency chocolate…which is safely stored out of reach of the hordes of mice.

View of the island looking North. Not quite as flat and sandy as I'm used to!

View of the island looking North. Not quite as flat and sandy as I’m used to!

On that first day, Sean Hayley and I unpacked a bit then went for a wander around the island to get to know our surroundings. The island itself is a craggy rocky collection of gullies, pools, nooks and crannies. Burnett’s Leap, Kirkhaven, Rona Top, Karen’s Gulley…Sean listed off a seemingly endless list of names Hayley and I were desperately trying to commit to memory. It will get easier with time we know, but many of these places are already settled with mums and young pups so the learning curve will have to be quick!

As we crouched behind old stone walls with our binoculars, we looked for any ID markers which would indicate a female was a part of the long-term study that has been conducted on this island for years. After a while, the rest of the crew from the Sea Mammal Research Unit caught up and we wandered up to the North Horn for a pretty darn good view of the whole of the north of the island.

Halley having a look over the island and starting to get in her 'eye' for seal observations.

Hayley having a look over the island and starting to get in her ‘eye’ for seal observations.


The next two days turned into a bit of a routine of wandering the island looking for females, cooking amazing food, and playing card games into the night. Since the weather wasn’t exactly ideal to start out in the field, as Sean mentioned, we worked diligently on making our heart-rate monitoring equipment Model 2.0. Quickly Hayley and I learned that this type of research was about 70% observation and behavioural work, and another 30% shop class. We cut ‘ballistic nylon’, scraped plastic discs, set up wiring, and sewed (Hayley is now a MASTER of the sewing machine….of which I still cannot fathom how to work) until we had roughly 20 devices ready for deployment.

Sewing machine mastery at work.

Sewing machine mastery at work.

Setting up the electrodes in the lab.

Sean setting up the electrodes in the lab.

Learning to use a 'hot knife' for cutting ballistic nylon

Learning to use a ‘hot knife’ for cutting ballistic nylon

We just needed a female….

At lunch today, the team discussed there might be a good female in the north, and all of a sudden it was go time. Gathering equipment in clearly labeled bags, neatly organized into a tackle box, protective gear was donned, wooly hats were on….and before you knew if our device was on the female and running, and we were recording!


A female chilling by one of the path marking signs

A female chilling by one of the path marking signs. Not the one we deployed on but we were a bit preoccupied to get photos at the time.

Now that we have one female tagged it will be an ongoing tradeoff of getting more females into our sample and getting reliable behavioural observations to match to the heart-rate traces. There will be plenty of days of sitting quietly on a hillock, ducking out of the wind; and other days of hectic processing of data. So for now, I will raise a glass to our first deployment and wait in anticipation to see what the data looks like tomorrow!



One response to “A whole new world of fieldwork

  1. Pingback: Where are they now: North to the Future | Studying Seals·

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