Vessel collisions with large whales: Behavioural responses and areas of risk
Self-funded PhD students only
School of Biological Sciences
Applications accepted all year round
This 3-year self-funded PhD will be based in the School of Biological Sciences and will be supervised by Dr Sarah Marley, Professor Alex Ford and Ms Lucy Babey (Head of Science and Conservation, ORCA). This project is in collaboration with ORCA ( (Organisation Cetacea), IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and the University of St Andrews.
The work on this project will:
- aim to quantify vessel collision risks for large whales
- review the effectiveness of current monitoring methods for reporting ship strike occurrences
- determine the behavioural responses of whales to large ships
- identify areas of risk for ship strikes
- develop mitigation measures suitable for global application
Collisions between ships and whales (‘ship strikes’) are regularly reported throughout the world’s oceans. In the majority of cases, this results in mortality, major injury or physical trauma. At the population level, ship strikes can thus be an impediment to whale population growth.
This is of particular concern for small, threatened populations and/or those using ‘high risk’ areas where high numbers of both whales and ships occur simultaneously, and although several mitigation techniques have been trialled, no single technology currently exists that will eliminate ship strike.
Reducing the spatial overlap of both high numbers of whales and high numbers of vessels through the identification of high risk areas remains the best means of reducing incidents. However, strike rates are thought to be under-reported due to missed or unreported collisions. There are also considerable numbers of ‘near misses’, where whales encounter a vessel but avoid a collision, and understanding such events could provide the necessary context for deciphering the whale behaviours that lead to ship strike.
There is therefore a need to develop innovative methods that reliably assess the true incident rate of ship strikes; describe the context of near misses; identify areas of high risk; and describe the behaviour of whales during ship encounters. This project aims to address these needs by quantifying vessel collision risks for large whales.
The project will focus on fin whales, the species most commonly involved in ship strikes worldwide, in the Bay of Biscay (BoB). This area has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and high fin whale numbers.
However, some vessels also act as platforms of opportunity from which to study whales. ORCA, a cetacean conservation charity, has been using such platforms to collect cetacean sightings around the world since 2001. On-board observers collect data relating to effort, ship location/speed/heading, and whale sightings. ORCA data were involved in a feasibility trial during 2017/18, which confirmed that opportunistic platforms are suitable for studying ship strikes, near misses, and whale responses.
The current project will build on this work by developing and applying innovative video technology to compliment visual observations. In collaboration with ORCA, IFAW and the University of St Andrews, data collection and analyses will assess fine-scale whale behaviour during vessel encounters. Combined with ORCA’s long-term database, data will also be used to create density surface models and habitat models for the BoB to identify high-risk areas.
Results will be used to develop new mitigation strategies, which will be assessed for transferability to other species and areas. Project outcomes are anticipated to improve industry operational procedures and inform marine conservation policy.
- You'll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (minimum second class or equivalent, depending on your chosen course) or a Master’s degree in a relevant subject area
- In exceptional cases, we may consider equivalent professional experience and/or Qualifications
- English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0
How to apply
Please contact Dr Sarah Marley (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss your interest before you apply, quoting the project code.
When you're ready to apply, you can use our online application form and select ‘Biological Sciences’ as the subject area. Make sure you submit a personal statement, proof of your degrees and grades, details of two referees, proof of your English language proficiency and an up-to-date CV.
Our ‘How to Apply’ page offers further guidance on the PhD application process.
Please note, to be considered for this self-funded PhD opportunity you must quote project code BIOL4770219 when applying.