Saving marine mammals? Sounds like a plan for this Cork scientist

Emer Keaveney is the Cork marine biologist behind a new acoustic project that will record marine mammals and explore how noise pollution of the oceans is affecting them, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
Saving marine mammals? Sounds like a plan for this Cork scientist

Marine biologist Emer Keaveney, from Blackrock, who is behind a new acoustic project.

MARINE biology might be one of the most over-romanticised careers on the planet, but Cork woman Emer Keaveney is here to inject a shot of realism into how people view her job.

For her UCC undergraduate thesis, Emer spent three months “washing seal poo, basically,” she says with a laugh.

“I was doing an analysis of the diet of grey seals,” says Emer, who grew up in Blackrock.

“I think there’s a lot of romanticising about marine biology, but that project was a great introduction to what it really is. We got about two days of field work where we went to the Blasket Islands to collect samples and we got to see some seal pups, but then the rest of it was three months in a lab, sieving seal poo and taking out fish bones.”

As a little girl, Emer was always “mad about nature,” so a Zoology degree in UCC, specialising in marine mammal science, was a natural choice. She followed up her seal poo washing research with a Masters in marine biology.

Fresh from her studies, Emer co-founded ORCA (Ocean Research and Conservation Association) Ireland in 2017, and launched the Observers App, a citizen science app that allows users to log sightings of marine mammals and report stranding incidents, the same year.

“We wanted to get everyone interested and learning and recording what they were seeing,” Emer says of the Observers App.

“No-one was recording the sightings and strandings at the time.”

Strandings — when marine mammals get washed ashore, either alive or dead — are a phenomenon that are increasing in frequency at a rate that is cause for concern, both in Ireland and around the world.

In 2021 alone, reports of strandings of marine mammal species are up 50% on 2020, just three months into the year, with a steady increase over time in the preceding years.

Emer acknowledges that increased reporting rates might be part of the reason, but says there are other factors of real concern.

“My research showed that strandings in Ireland had increased between 1990 and 2014,” she says.

“Between 2020 and 2021, we’ve seen a 50% increase in stranding records and it’s only April now, so there’s been a huge jump. That could be explained by the huge amount of extra public interest, but there are also concerns with regard to climate change, because our weather events have been getting more extreme and you always notice a peak in stranding events after bad weather.”

Another factor is the enormous issue of noise pollution caused by human activity at sea, which has a devastating impact on marine mammals. The ocean is a sonic environment: marine creatures, subject to poor visibility underwater, have adapted the extraordinary ability to use sound to build an image of their world, Emer explains.

“I don’t think many people think about it, but sound travels so much faster in water than in air. In water, sound travels at 1,500 metres per second, but in air that’s just 340 metres per second. These animals are receiving these sounds faster and at greater intensities than land mammals would; they’re specially adapted to receive these sounds.

“Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) completely depend on sound for communication, navigation, detecting prey, and avoiding predators. They don’t have ear drums: instead they have fatty tissue on their lower jaw that’s adapted to take in these sounds, sending messages to their brain that essentially creates a visual picture of their surroundings. They can see where they’re navigating, what prey they’re hunting, through sound.”

If you build your visual picture of the world through sound, and then you’re subjected to sound pollution, what happens?

“Acoustic trauma,” Emer says. Sound pollution can disorient and distress marine mammals.

A great many whale species communicate in low frequencies that human beings can’t even hear, but shipping and other human activities create these frequencies, even though people aren’t aware of them: it’s an invisible problem, the extent of which is only now being fully explored by scientists like Emer.

“There’s a real concern that noise pollution is having an impact on deep-diving species,” she says.

“ A Cuvier’s beaked whale was stranded in Tragumna, near Skibbereen, recently. That’s very worrying because they are usually a species that dive off the continental slope and they dive to 2,000 metres depth. What caused that animal’s death?”

Human activity, it seems, is making the sea a very noisy place.

“There’s oil and gas extraction, pile-driving for offshore wind, shipping and recreational boats,” Emer says.

“With massive cargo ships, 80% of the noise they produce is coming from their propellers and there are so many ships in the ocean. Everything we’re doing is adding to the soundscape.”

With a National Marine Planning Framework now overdue, and a host of offshore wind exploration licences being sought by energy companies as Ireland seeks to transition to 70% renewable energy by 2030, Ireland is intensifying the planned use of its coastal waters.

But Emer’s latest research project, the Smart Whale Sounds Project, based off the coast of Baltimore in West Cork, could help us not only understand marine mammal behaviour, but the extent of the sound pollution they are being subjected to.

ORCA Ireland, in conjunction with mobile phone giant Huawei, has placed an autonomous buoy equipped with a hydrophone, the Gannet 2200, off the coast of Baltimore that is able to play audio from under the sea back to researchers in real time. This is a first, Emer explains: other acoustic research relies on collecting data over the course of months and then retrieving it, but Emer and her team, based in the Rubicon Centre in MTU, have access to acoustic information uploaded to Huawei’s cloud in real time.

“It’s essentially Ireland’s first whale phone,” Emer says with a smile. “We’re transmitting the vocalisations of whales and dolphins in real time to Huawei’s cloud server, and we’re going to use AI algorithms to detect different species’ vocalisations.”

Just hours after the Gannet 2200 was launched in March, Emer’s team was picking up the noisy chatter of pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins.

“They’re very social and basically chatterboxes, and whistles are how they communicate,” Emer says.

“We’ve recorded echo-location clicks too, which show us that they’re feeding. There was one day that we had an hour completely full of dolphin chatter, referred to as a chorus.”

As well as dolphins, Emer is excited at the prospects of recording some of the spectacular whale species that migrate through Irish waters seasonally.

“We have the second largest animal on earth, the fin whale, we have whales that are migratory like the humpback whale, and there is very little research in the Atlantic on their vocal repertoires, especially in Irish waters,” Emer says.

“It’s exciting for us to learn more about those species, and the motivation for their behaviours.”

But as well as studying the animals themselves, Emer hopes the project will shed light on the human activities that are threatening marine mammals, and even to develop an early warning system for ships to alert them to the presence of cetaceans.

“At the moment, we’re in a biodiversity crisis and our oceans tend to be far from sight and far from mind, but everything depends on our oceans and everything ends up in our oceans,” Emer says.

“ An island nation like Ireland does have a responsibility to be a custodian of our seas. These top predators that we are monitoring are indicators of ecosystem health. If they’re not healthy, we’re not healthy, and we need to realise that.”

Fancy becoming a citizen scientist marine mammal monitor? ORCA Ireland’s Observers App can be downloaded at www.orcaireland.org

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