Research with a porpoise

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Research with a porpoise

Building on our track record of working with leading UK universities, we chat to Kimberly Neilsen about an MSc project she is completing using ORCA data.

Kimberly Neilsen is an MSC student at Plymouth University who is conducting research into ORCA's harbour porpoise data as a part of her masters programme. She told us a little bit about her background, how she came to marine biology, and what her project is hoping to achieve.

My name is Kimberly Nielsen, and I’m here in the UK from southern California. I received an undergraduate degree in Marine Science and Biology back home through the University of San Diego in 2014, and I am currently pursuing a Masters of Research in Marine Biology with Plymouth University and the Marine Biological Association.

For me, there has always been something magnetic about the ocean. Growing up on the west coast, I spent a lot of time at the beach, free diving in kelp forests and watching seasonal migrations of whales from shore. Those initial curiosities and a passion for the environment naturally extended to an interest in the sciences. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to spend three years participating in research at remote field stations, studying sea turtle nesting and migration patterns in Costa Rica and Australia, and a bit of cetacean foraging behaviour and habitat-use in British Columbia. Even in pristine habitats hours away from the closest town, human impacts on these species were clear, from climate change and pollution, to ship strikes and fisheries entanglement. With a heightened awareness of the need for management, I decided to come to Plymouth to specialize in ecology and pursue research that can support conservation.

My masters project is going to use 12 years of survey data collected by dedicated ORCA volunteers to better understand the fine-scale distribution and abundance of harbour porpoises in waters surrounding the UK. With a long-term dataset on baseline distributions we are able to pose and answer specific questions related to population dynamics, variability, and threats. As habitats and distributions change with exposure to environmental stressors or anthropogenic impacts, the ability to answer those ecological questions on spatial and temporal scales – particularly for highly mobile species like cetaceans – is critical for progress in management and conservation.

I believe that citizen science programs like ORCA play an important and invaluable role in contributing to research which sparks conservation. Hopefully, an analysis on the abundance and distribution of harbour porpoises along survey routes will help identify priority regions and preserve a favourable conservation status for the species.

Ten years ago I never would have imagined that I could travel the world as a biologist and end up studying in southwest England. With any luck, the next ten years will be just as adventurous! Down the line, I would love to be living on the coast somewhere, running a field project and working with students. In the near future, I hope to undertake PhD-level research on marine megafauna in movement ecology or behaviour.