‘People imagine I spend my days following dolphins in the sun’

8 May 2019

Dr Ailbhe Kavanagh in Antarctica. Image: MaREI

Dr Ailbhe Kavanagh of UCC and MaREI reveals the delicate, threatened ecosystem that supports some of Antarctica’s vital marine life.

After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in science from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 2002, Dr Ailbhe Kavanagh got her first job working for An Bord Iascaigh Mhara for two years. Spending a couple of years travelling in Australia and Asia, Kavanagh returned to Ireland to work as a research assistant at TCD’s zoology department, leading to her securing a research master’s in University College Cork (UCC).

Following another return to Australia to complete a PhD, she took up a postdoctoral research position at the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy (MaREI) at UCC.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I think experiencing my first scientific conference is what sent me down the research road. It was inspiring to hear all about the amazing science that was going on around the world and to meet so many enthusiastic and encouraging researchers at different points in their careers. I wanted to be part of that.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I recently returned from a seven-week voyage to the Southern Ocean where I was part of a team of international scientists looking at the relationship between Antarctic blue whales and krill, examining their role in maintaining the health of the ocean. The Euphausids and Nutrient Recycling In Cetacean Hotspots (ENRICH) project was led by the Australian Antarctic Division and was a collaboration between multiple universities and research institutes from all over the world, including UCC.

Antarctic blue whales were hunted almost to extinction in the last century and, although their population is recovering, today their numbers remain at under 1pc of their original levels. The main food of these critically endangered species is krill, which are predicted to decline during the 21st century due to reduced ocean productivity associated with global warming and to increasing ocean acidity, which limits their shell-building.

In addition, krill are the target of a large and rapidly growing fishery in the Southern Ocean. The ENRICH project involved a team of 28 scientists, including marine mammal biologists, drone pilots, acousticians, biogeochemists and krill specialists, looking at the entire food chain from the smallest organisms on the planet to the largest.

I was one of the marine mammal biologists involved in tracking whales throughout the voyage. The team carried out more than 300 hours of visual survey effort and encountered 36 groups of blue whales with the help of the passive acousticians. We conducted photo identification, video tracking both from the vessel and using drones, and recorded data on the behaviour and movement of the animals encountered. The data collected will be used to calculate abundances of Antarctic blue whales to look at recovery post-whaling, and to understand their movements around Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

This data will also link in with the work of the other scientists on board, helping us to better understand how these animals behave around krill swarms and what kind of swarms they target. It will also help show how the mix of predators, prey and their poo affect productivity in the Southern Ocean and to examine the behavioural contexts of their vocalisations.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

It’s important because not only does it contribute to our understanding and conservation of a highly endangered species – Antarctic blue whales – but also to the improvement of ecosystem-based management of the Antarctic krill fishery.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Better management of the krill fishery will have positive effects on krill conservation and the long-term productivity of the fishery. Krill are a key species in the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

Therefore, having a better understanding of the relationship between Antarctic blue whales and krill will contribute to the protection of this Antarctic environment, which supports a large-scale tourism industry.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Job security is rare in this line of work and finding funding to continue your research is a constant challenge. This is particularly the case for research that involves large periods in remote field locations. The ENRICH voyage was supported by a grant of sea time on RV Investigator from the CSIRO Marine National Facility.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

When people think about the life of a marine biologist, they imagine I spend my days following dolphins in the sunshine, but the reality is far less glamorous. Although I do get to experience some amazing fieldwork, it’s usually in the freezing cold Southern Ocean or in wild offshore Atlantic waters.

In reality, 90pc of my time is spent behind a computer, crunching numbers, applying for grants, writing scientific papers or trying to communicate my science to a wider audience outside of the academic bubble.

I think the way to address these misconceptions is to make the exciting science we are doing more accessible to people from all walks of life through public talks, school engagement and publicising the work in the media.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see more money invested in research into understanding the effects of the environmental changes and increased anthropogenic use of our oceans we are likely to see in the next century.

Information on how our oceans and marine life are likely to be affected will equip us with the information we need to mitigate for these changes and disturbances, and potentially give us a head start on designating new marine protected areas.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.