Patagonia, penguins, and pioneering research

Will Kay

Tracking marine biologist William Kay continues his successful ascent up the research ladder.

It was a day of celebration today (Tuesday 26 January) for 23-year-old William Kay, who received his MSc by Research in Animal Movement Science at Swansea University’s graduation ceremony at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall, cheered on by his very proud parents and grandmother.

While studying for his Marine Biology degree William was selected to take part in the Global Graduate Challenges programme, run by the Swansea University Employability Academy, which aims to give students an experience that challenges them on a life-changing scale. William was selected to take part in a month-long research trip to Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia, Argentina, with staff from Swansea University’s Swansea Laboratory for Animal Movement (SLAM) research centre.

William, who is from Penrhyn Bay, Llandudno and a former pupil of Ysgol Bryn Elian in Colwyn Bay, got a ‘hands on’ experience with cutting-edge research and worked with some of the most enigmatic animals on the planet, including imperial cormorants and magellanic penguins. The fieldwork gave him the opportunity to tag animals with Daily Diary devices, developed within Swansea University’s Biosciences Department. This research involved detailed analysis into how the seabirds captured their prey and the energetic expenditure linked to hunting activity.

William said that his Marine Biology degree had been everything he had hoped for and more; he developed extensive knowledge in a wide variety of areas within the subject, and acquired a vast range of practical marine skills both through numerous field courses and during his research trip to Patagonia.

Between his studies William travelled to Mingulay, an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides, where he undertook seabird research for the National Trust for Scotland, and has been working as crew and a marine guide for Gower Coast Adventures in Mumbles, as part of a Go Wales placement scheme.

William’s master’s degree explored concepts of decision-making in the behaviour of harbour seals. This involved further advanced investigations of diving behaviour and foraging movements using time-depth recorders and dead-reckoned GPS tracks to reveal patterns in the routes that seals swim during trips out to sea.

William is now continuing his studies in this field of research by undertaking a PhD project investigating how marine mammals interact with, and move within the vicinity of, marine renewable energy (MRE) installations.

With growing concerns about climate change and energy security, the demand for green energy in the UK has become a huge target aim for the UK government, who have committed to a target of 15 % of all energy sourced to come from renewables by 2020 (currently just 5 % of our power is renewably sourced).

This target is the most challenging of any EU Member State but the UK is certainly well equipped to meet it and is currently the undisputed global leader in MRE with around 10 MW of wave and tidal stream energy devices being tested in UK waters; more than the rest of the world combined!a One of the main reasons for this being that the UK (for example in Wales and in Swansea no less) has some of the highest tidal ranges and fastest tidal streams in the world.

However, the current knowledge of the effects of MRE installations on marine life (particularly seals, whales and dolphins) is limited and there is urgent need for quality operational monitoring and assessment of the impacts of such installations. To a significant extent, that is what William will be doing - using animal-borne data loggers to pinpoint the movements of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) around MRE installations and provide guidance and understanding for stakeholders on the impact of these devices.

William said: “I am extremely passionate about the topics of my PhD. Having grown up in North Wales and lived very close to a local colony of grey seals, I have always been fascinated by them. This PhD is a fantastic opportunity for me to be at the forefront of pioneering research into the effects of tidal devices on marine mammals. 

“Not only that, it makes me extremely proud to be able to conduct this research in my home country of Wales; a role-model country that is taking huge strides towards development in the MRE sector.”

The main study site for William’s research will be the Ramsey Sound, Pembrokeshire. Tidal streams here can reach speeds of up to 8 knots on spring tides, presenting a substantial opportunity for tidal energy generation. Indeed Pembrokeshire as a whole has some of the highest potential concentration for marine resource in Walesb; with Wales as a nation having the potential to install a 6.4 GW marine energy capacityc.

Throughout the project William will be volunteering with Tidal Energy Ltd (TEL), an innovative tidal stream technology company who has installed Wales' first full-scale tidal stream generating device known as the DeltaStream™ in Ramsey Sound. This volunteer work will involve monitoring the movements of marine mammals within the vicinity of the DeltaStream using acoustic technology (SONAR and hydrophone monitoring).

William added: “Results from the acoustic monitoring at TEL’s DeltaStream has great potential to combine brilliantly with the tagging work that I will be undertaking on grey seals in the Ramsey area. I am still yet to decide the exact data that I will aim record but expect it to involve fine-scale accelerometry, GPS and diving behaviour information, and perhaps additionally the use of acoustic "pingers" which have shown to be successful in shark research. 

“If I were lucky enough to combine recorded data from both my animal-borne tags and the receivers on-board the DeltaStream, it would offer very significant and influential insight into the understanding of the environmental impact of these devices. It is all extremely exciting!”

Speaking about his experience at Swansea University William said: “My time at the university has been truly momentous and the best years of my life. I have received brilliant support throughout all of my studies here and I have no doubt that this will continue." I have an excellent team of academic and industry supervisors including Dr Jim Bull, Dr Luca Börger from Swansea University and Dr Thomas Stringell from Natural Resources Wales, and my masters and undergraduate supervisor Professor Rory Wilson is also on board to deliver his expertise and wealth of knowledge on animal tags.

“I will continue to work within Swansea's Lab for Animal Movement (SLAM) - a department which, in my opinion, is a wonderful setting to work, boasting a real sense of camaraderie and teamwork ethic, utilising knowledge and experience from multiple disciplines including biologists, ecologists, physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists. I don't think I could find a team or setting better placed or better supported to conduct this research.”