'My love of seabirds led me to study marine biology in Bangor'
2021-22 GREAT scholar Peter, from Malaysia, finished his master’s in marine biology at Bangor University in September 2022. He shares his love of fieldwork - especially on seabirds - and why he would be happy to be a field biologist for the rest of his life.
‘I like being outdoors in rugged conditions for long periods of time’
In the UK, a lot is happening in the field of seabirds. My favourite part about what I do is fieldwork. I like being outdoors in rugged conditions for long periods of time. After doing my master’s, I realised that what I love most is the field component of marine biology, rather than the more academic side which requires write-ups and data analysis, for example. In the future, I want to work outside and would be happy to be a field biologist for the rest of my life.
For my thesis, I conducted fieldwork on Puffin Island off the coast of Anglesey. Despite its name, there are only about 10 pairs of puffins there, and it’s populated mostly by common guillemots. Through my research, I tried to establish whether or not the foraging routines of guillemots were affected by tidal patterns and diurnal (daily) cycles of their prey fish In practical terms, I set up camera traps and went back to the island weekly between May and June to collect the memory cards and count the number of birds in each image at half-hour intervals. Unfortunately, due to the avian flu outbreak, I haven’t been able to get to the island since July.
‘Living close to the sea is important to me’
For my whole life, I’ve lived close to the sea. I grew up on an island in the tropics and when I first moved to the UK for my undergraduate studies, I lived in Belfast near the coast. Until I moved to Alberta, a landlocked province in Canada, for my undergraduate year abroad, I didn’t realise how important living near the sea was to me. Although I enjoyed my time there, the lack of near access to the sea motivated me to transfer to marine biology when I returned to the UK.
‘Seabirds are big and noisy and not afraid to be seen’
In Canada, I spent three months in the boreal forests in Northern Alberta helping a master’s student with her thesis fieldwork. Her research focused on how Canada Warblers were being affected by linear disturbances in the forest. We would regularly set up automated recording units on trees and collect them two days later to monitor the recordings for signs of the birds. The birds were small and very beautiful. I was familiar with their call by the time I left, but I never once saw them amidst the overwhelming forest, which disappointed me.
That’s one of the reasons I sought out seabirds. They are big and noisy and not afraid to be seen. They always congregate in big colonies and only come to land to breed, usually once a year during the summer, though some less regularly.
‘A lot of seabirds are socially monogamous’
A lot of seabirds are socially monogamous. I say socially because although a lot of birds appear to be monogamous, research has shown that they tend to have little flings with birds who they have not built a nest with. This varies by the clade they belong to. A clade is a group of organisms believed to comprise all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor. For females, this makes a lot of evolutionary sense because ideally, they want the best genes for their offspring, even if their partner is the best ‘father’.
Albatrosses, one of the most monogamous seabirds, can live for up to 80 years or even longer. The longest-living Albatross is called Wisdom. She has even outlived the person who tagged her in 1965.
I find it so interesting that seabirds are so similar to a large part of human society - they are monogamous and live for a long time - and this is a result of how harsh their environments are. But humans are polluting the ocean and threatening the survival of many long-lived seabird species.
‘Bangor University has its own research vessel’
Bangor University has its own research vessel, Research Vessel Prince Madog. It’s one of the reasons lots of people come to Bangor to do marine biology. The vessel is about 35 metres long, which is pretty large and I love that we have relatively easy access to it, unlike many other universities offering degrees with marine-based components.
Bangor is also unique as it’s the only university with a dedicated school of ocean sciences and academic staff who undertake research exclusively within the field of marine science. In other universities in the UK, marine studies are usually offered under a general umbrella of biological or life sciences.
‘On one of my modules, we did fieldwork on the boat’
In my course, we each got at least a full day's worth of fieldwork on the boat. We collected fish samples from the otter trawls on the boat (for a fisheries module) as well as sediment samples for a benthic ecology (the study of organisms inhabiting the seafloor) module.
Because British waters are very cold, there are no charismatic sharks. When I say charismatic, I mean bigger than normal. You won’t find big sharks like a blue shark or a goblin shark though you do find Greenland sharks in deeper waters and Basking sharks in the North Sea. Compared to tropical sharks, they are big and ‘cool’ in the sense that they don’t move much. They are calm and fairly docile, likely due to the nature of their habitat. But we managed to land (bring on board) the largest shark species found in these waters - a greater spotted dogfish - a species of catshark measuring around a metre long.
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