PhD update - adapting to COVID

It has been a long time since my last blog post about my PhD work investigating the risk of ship strikes (ships hitting animals) to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the north-east Atlantic. Previous posts focussed on my grand plans (, and conferences where I spoke about my planned work that built on pilot projects ( However, shortly after my last entry, the world changed drastically – as did my project.

I had planned fieldwork for ~60 days crossing the Bay of Biscay repeatedly, collecting data on how often whales narrowly avoided collisions with large ferries and their behaviour in response to oncoming vessels - with the hope of informing crew of how best to avoid them. My first trip was booked in April 2020, with an equipment trial in March 2020 with ORCA. Suffice to say, COVID-19 meant that I did not make it to the Bay of Biscay as crossings either stopped to passengers or became much more constrained and I was understandably no longer allowed on the bridge to collect data. Regardless of vessel constraints, the University of Portsmouth was no longer allowing travel or fieldwork.

As the world had to adapt to a pandemic, I had to adapt my PhD work to not include any fieldwork. Thankfully myself and my University of Portsmouth supervisors had recently agreed a collaboration with Bangor University and St Andrews University to utilize a huge dataset on shipping patterns. Investigating how shipping changes over time, space and within Marine Protected Areas was a big undertaking, but we’re hoping to submit the associated paper soon.

Using our shipping insights, we have been able to investigate the overlap between cetaceans and vessels to start to understand the times and areas where greatest risk may occur. This is being extended with a focus on fin whales in collaboration with the University of the Azores – work that I’m excited to share in the future. While fieldwork would have been interesting and still would add further insight that is needed, our modelling work using large datasets has been fascinating and being stuck at home has allowed me to spend more time looking at the many datasets we are using.

The final part of my PhD is a bit different, and ORCA has generously offered their assistance, in collaboration with Cardiff University. We are circulating a questionnaire to people who work on the bridge of ships or manage ship operations from land. The purpose of the questionnaire is to better understand crews’ experience of ship strikes and encounters with marine animals, and their opinions on potential mitigation measures which could be used to save wildlife from collisions. There are many practical implications of working at sea which policymakers and researchers may not fully understand, so we hope that the results of this survey will help to guide recommendations.

With only a year left of my PhD, I’ve still got a lot to do, but I have enjoyed the challenge so far and can’t wait to share results once published. For more information about planned work, a blog for the Mammal Society outlines some additional details: I’m also hoping to post updates on my website when ready:

This blog was originally written for the ORCA website:

James R Robbins
James R Robbins
PhD Researcher

My research interests include conservation, spatial modeling and marine megafauna ecology.