Patagonia, penguins, and pioneering research: 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.

Penguin

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’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.

Juvenile grey seal

William said: “I am extremely passionate about the topics of my PhD: (i) marine mammalogy and animal movement and (ii) marine renewable energy. 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).

Seal interaction

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!”

Seaking 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 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.”

a http://www.renewableuk.com/en/renewable-energy/wave-and-tidal/index.cfm

b http://www.marineenergypembrokeshire.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/WDA-Wales-Marine-Energy-Site-Selection-REV4-31-03-06.pdf

c http://www.marineenergypembrokeshire.co.uk/about/the-resource/

Follow William on Twitter athttps://twitter.com/willmarine92for frequent project progress updates and relevant information on marine mammals and renewable energy.

Summary of William’s PhD project “Advanced Telemetry and Bio-logging for Investigating Grey Seal Interactions.” Project Supervisors: Dr Jim Bull, Dr Luca Börger and Professor Rory Wilson (Swansea University)

Marine mammals are iconic animals, and particularly well represented in the Irish Sea. Seal populations are increasing in our waters, presenting both challenges and opportunities. Developing sustainable marine renewable energy (MRE) is a key part of global commitment to combatting climate change and Wales is at the forefront of this drive, with strategically important MRE sites planned in Convergence Area waters. This project will use cutting-edge telemetry and bio-logging devices to quantify and understand interactions between grey seals and MRE installations. We will assess seal abundance and distribution around south Wales and, using game-changing tagging technology (SLAM tags) developed in Swansea, we will monitor and assess in-water seal behaviour and energy expenditure. Outcomes will be academic and applied, particularly in expediting environmental risk approval. This is a true world first and, combined with advanced mathematical modelling and hydrological data, this project will make major advances in our understanding of marine mammal interactions with MRE. We will generate predictive maps of seal distributions around MRE sites and inform stakeholder partners on types and intensity of monitoring to meet environmental monitoring commitments. 

For more information about the Swansea University’s Swansea Lab for Animal Movement (SLAM) go to http://www.swansea.ac.uk/biosci/researchgroups/slam/ or follow their Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/MovingAnimals 

Picture 1: Penguin

Picture 2: Juvenile grey seal

Picture 3: Will interacting with seal

 (All pictures should be accredited to William Kay, Swansea University)