What’s In A Vessel?

I have had the opportunity to work on a few different platforms during my brief time as a marine biologist and all of them have their ups and downs; with some I favour over others. In this post I thought I would go into a little detail on the pros and cons of different vessel sizes.

SEACR Vessel 2

View from a small vessel with a gray whale off the bow.

Small Vessel

From small vessels which vary between little “tinnys” to high powered ribs you are close to the water level and therefore closer to your species of study.

Using small vessels you can more easily manoeuvre in your study area and conduct focal follows, take samples (such as blow or faecal samples) and switch off your engines. They enable you to travel into areas that would otherwise be impossible with something larger including shallow channels, small inlets and waterways between islands.

View Off Small Vessel 2

View from the stern of a small boat.

They are cheaper to run and you don’t need to have a full crew and Captain, it can just be you (with the correct license and permits) alongside whomever you are collecting data with. You will cover a smaller area over a days research and are a slave to how much fuel you can carry and the weather conditions. If your vessel is completely open then you will also be personally impacted by the elements, think soggy trousers and chilly toes!

KPII - At Sea

Example of a large research vessel.

Large Vessel

From large vessels you are on a much higher platform. You can see a greater distance and can usually travel a lot further off shore, over a longer time period and in more adverse weather conditions.

This is great so that data can be collected over a longer time frame and distance and not just on perfect weather days. Sometimes you can go out on multi-day trips staying aboard the vessel and therefore traverse even bigger regions than you can reach on day trips. Larger vessels also allow the for the use of some heavy duty equipment such as seismic arrays and multiple large noise loggers (long term underwater noise recorders).

You do however need to have the appropriate crew and budget for such a venture. Larger vessels mean a bigger crew, a bigger fuel requirement and a bigger rental fee which mean greater project running costs.


Tail slap viewed from a larger vessel.

The data you can collect will differ from that on a small boat. You may still focal follow but you won’t be literally be (safely) following an individual animal. You could still drop a hydrophone but you would need to shut of the engines of the whole ship for it to be worthwhile. The higher platform means that you will be collecting data over a much larger area (in regards to what you can see and where you can go) and may need a much bigger team in order to take advantage of this.

You will also need to be more wary of what you are seeing far away. As at a distance you may be able to collect presence/absence data but, you will be less likely be able to tell the difference between individuals and be specific about behaviours.

On large vessels you are able to collect data from regions that are inaccessible and unsafe for small boats to go into such as higher sea states and further off shore and off continental shelfs.

WW Kaikoura NZ

Whale Watching Vessel in Kaikoura, New Zealand

The Whale Watching Vessel

Usually a large vessel like above but, worth a separate mention I think.

Sometimes it is a benefit to form a collaboration with whale watching operators and vessels who will allow you on board for free (usually if there is there is space) to collect data on marine life during their whale watching trips.

You are at the mercy of the whale watch operations movement and travel decisions and to the whim of the the whales as to where you go (so a strict transect couldn’t be followed). Engines won’t always be able to be switched off when you need them to be (so collecting acoustic data could be hard) and the paying customers enjoyment comes first.

However, it is a pretty handy way to collect data, collaborate with others in the industry and involve both the whale watching operators and the public in active research.

Then there is also the off water alternative:

Land Based NZ

The view from the top. Cliff based land research station in Kaikoura, New Zealand.

The Land Based Station

From here you get to observe without any interactions and therefore potential influence on your target species. Using equipment such as theodolites you can track whale movements over a much larger area and also that of interacting vessels. Therefore you take a much “Bigger Picture” approach.

Like on large vessel you can see over a greater distance. You are also keeping an objective distance from you subjects. Land based research station require no boat fees or hefty fuel fees. They allow you to take yourself and your vessel out of the equation and focus on the study species and the environmental and anthropological facts affecting them.

Depending on start up and equipment costs they can be a much cheaper operation to run. If your location is good you can even involve some citizen scientists or students wishing to increase their skill set in the data collection and interact with passers by sharing your research and why it is important. At a land station you can set up longterm monitoring come rain or shine from the exact same location and get some great data over many years from your vantage point.

Oh The Variety!

With so many options you can pick the one that suits your needs or the data you are trying to collect. It takes a bit of practice switching between platforms over a short time frame as you need to adjust where you are looking and how you search but, you can quite quickly get use to it.

What is my favourite? Well, small vessel for ever and always. I started on small vessels and I love them! I love being close to the water and the opportunity for whales and other marine wildlife to granting us with their presence. As you may have guessed I love the ocean and am happiest when close to it.

Albatross Direction Hydrophone NZ

An albatross checking out our directional hydrophone in Kaikoura, New Zealand.

2 thoughts on “What’s In A Vessel?

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