A seawoman’s research expedition to the arctic

An interview with Marine Biology PhD Jenny Bortoluzzi

Jenny Bortoluzzi, a student in her second year of a four year PhD in the field of Marine Biology, grew up on the shores of Brittany in France, spending her childhood summers on the beach. From an early age her interest lay in the natural world, and so while her brothers built sandcastles she would spend her time looking for creatures in the rockpools. It was a family trip to Canada in her early teens that confirmed her eagerness to study the natural world. Her parents brought her whale watching and she was “gobsmacked” by the beauty of these large marine inhabitants. Her affinity for sharks arrived soon after, when she saw “Sharkwater”, a documentary which explored the shark finning industry. It was at this stage that she says she “became obsessed with sharks”. 

In line with this passion of hers, she attended the University of Southampton for her undergraduate degree, where she studied a BSc in marine biology and oceanography. Her undergraduate thesis was on the common skate and followed up on a conservation problem whereby a similar species was often mistaken for the other due to a knowledge gap of their distinguishing traits. By carrying out dissections of individuals caught as bycatch, she was able to describe the reproductive and biological traits of one of these two species. 

“real lasting improvements can only be achieved through cooperation and mutual understanding.”

After college, she was eager to get practical experience and decided to apply for multiple internships. The first of this was at an NGO in London and was computer based. Here she tracked shipping vessels in West Africa, and reported any suspicious activity indicative of illegal fishing to the authorities. Corruption, vested interests and insufficient resources on the part of local authorities means that more often than not these reports were not ultimately investigated. However, when the reports were followed up there was at least the satisfaction that the legal consequences could act as a deterrent to others. Another problem is that outside of the national waters there are close to no regulations, and those that do exist are rarely enforced. This leads to a situation in the high seas where “everyone goes in and fishes everything out” which has detrimental effects on conservation efforts. During this internship she began to reflect on the complexities of fisheries’ management and conservation. One aspect of this was the effect of bycatch, which is a huge issue for sharks since proving they are truly caught as bycatch or are, in fact, targeted is a difficult task. Because of this, certain vessels may actually hope to catch these animals as they provide greater profit. On a global scale, sharks are caught primarily as a source of meat, with artisanal fisheries usually selling the meat to feed locals while the fins are also sold to provide additional income. Given the place that shark fisheries can have for indigenous cultures, Bortoluzzi says that “it’s important to work with fishermen” since real lasting improvements can only be achieved through cooperation and mutual understanding. 

Her second internship was in Bimini in the Bahamas where she worked in a lab based on a tiny island. Here she was given her first opportunity to get “close and personal” with sharks as she worked with PhD students on projects investigating the biology, ecology and behaviour of various species. One of the projects she worked on explored the personality of lemon sharks. An animal’s personality is quantified by the boldness exhibited by different individuals and their social behaviours. She even got the opportunity to handle sharks for the first time as part of the tagging process required to study them and this experience she says truly “put things into perspective”.

In Bimini she also got to dive with sharks, and saw first hand how people began to change their negative initial perception of sharks when they were given the opportunity to do so. As part of this project sharks would be given official names so as to allow for their identification if and when they returned to the area.. It was in Bimini that she had “one of the most incredible experiences” involving an encounter with a shy yet inquisitive hammerhead shark named ‘Medusa’ who was already known to the research team. After spending several minutes with the shark underwater she resurfaced only to find that the shark had followed her all the way up, curious to see where she was going.

Having completed a master’s in research at the University of Plymouth she started looking at opportunities to do a PhD. When she came across a tweet by Professor Andrew Jackson announcing the opportunity in Dublin she was immediately interested. In its origin the position was to revolve  largely around computer-based techniques but when she discussed the project contents during her interview it became apparent that her enthusiasm and desire to expand on the project would work in favour of expanding the scope. Indeed her project now includes a study on the trophic position (place in the food web) of various marine vertebrate predators such as sharks and cetaceans. To do this, she will be using modern molecular techniques such as stable isotope analysis which can be used to determine the diets of these animals as well as their migration patterns. One of her projects is on blue sharks, a species which passes through Ireland during its migration between July and August. This component of her project is largely in collaboration with Professor Nicholas Payne, who has already tagged blue sharks in Irish waters. Unusual behaviours have been observed which may be related to their diet or associated with phases of rest where they may simply be ‘gliding’ through the water. As part of her study, she will be conducting energetics analysis to understand the role of body mass and morphology in this behaviour.

Bortoluzzi is hoping to expand on her blue shark research by collaborating with researchers in Cape Cod who are studying their behaviour in the West Atlantic where the water conditions are generally comparable. In general, their ecology and behaviour are not yet fully understood, she says, and it may prove necessary to implement different conservation measures across their range. Another problem is that even if protections are given in certain waters, the effects of such legislation cannot solve the entire problem as long as they continue to be fished unsustainably in other waters.

Another part of her project involves understanding how human influence has, through time, affected different marine vertebrates. Among her subjects are blue whales who feed solely on plankton, minke whales who eat only fish and fin whales who can eat both. She hopes that her research can identify changes in their diets and migrations as overfishing and other human activities affect the ocean. By collecting samples from museum specimens she hopes to show how these changes have occurred over time.

“Pepsi cans were found in one of their stomachs, highlighting the global impact that ocean pollution is currently having.”

Since arriving in Trinity, Bortoluzzi has found even more research opportunities. In November she will be heading to the Arctic as a part of an all-female expedition called Sedna Epic. This is not the first time she has been to the ends of the earth however. When she was still an undergrad at college, one of her lecturers informed her that one of his former postdoctoral researchers had just moved to Norway and was looking for research assistants for a project in the Norwegian Arctic Island of Svalbard. During this first experience in the Arctic she found herself surrounded by experienced scientists. Naturally, she  sought to collaborate as much as she could with a particular marine biologist who was doing a study on the Greenland sharks. This again involved tagging work as well as dissection work on a number of individuals. Curiously they found polar bear fur in the stomach of one of the sharks but it was unclear whether this would have been ingested through scavenging or active predation. The presence of herring in some individuals suggested that, despite their generally passive nature, they must be capable of some active predation. Pepsi cans were found in one of their stomachs, highlighting the global impact that ocean pollution is currently having. 

One of her most cherished moments from this trip was when a curious polar bear approached their boat and even leaned its paws against the sides. After this trip she says that she never thought she would be going to the Arctic again and considered it to be “a once in a lifetime experience”. This, she says, is a good approach to have since that way “you enjoy it to the fullest.”

“The goal, Bortoluzzi says, is to learn from these indigenous communities as much as it is aiming to contribute to increase their scientific knowledge of their environment.”

Her upcoming expedition will see her participating in whale research. The Sedna Epic all-female Arctic expedition was founded in 2013 by Susan Eaton, a geologist and geophysicist in Canada. A major focus of the expedition is to raise the profile of women in exploration since it is an area which has been historically dominated by men. The scientific element of the exploration will also in its own right promote and provide opportunities for women in STEM subjects. In its first phase the aim of this social enterprise was to cross the Northwest Passage, a long sea route in the Arctic. Since then the expedition has been to Greenland and Canada and it is carried out in collaboration with a local Inuit advisor who facilitates interactions with the local communities. The goal, Bortoluzzi says, is to learn from these indigenous communities as much as it is aiming to contribute to increase their scientific knowledge of their environment. Indeed, the first three days will be spent on land to take part in a ‘Women in Leadership’ programme which will see her and her fellow crew interact with the local Sami women to exchange skills, ideas and experiences. By engaging with the local women in this manner it is hoped that they will be encouraged to take leading roles within their communities to tackle climate change. Another way in which the crew will contribute to these local communities is by providing them with ways of seeing first hand what the creatures under the water look like with minimum intrusion on their habitat. This is achieved through the use of several outreach initiatives such as the use of mobile aquariums to show what marine life is like below the surface. They will also bring young girls and women snorkelling to give them a first hand experience of this subaqueous environment.  

The crew itself is composed of women from a wide range of professional backgrounds and a wide range of ages. Each member will bring something unique to the project. Photographers, videographers, artists and communicators on board will be tasked with the vital role of raising awareness and spreading the message of the damage that we are causing right now on the ecosystem and indeed the local communities who continue to live in harmony with nature. The on board scientists will conduct a wide range of studies; from the study of microplastics to microbiology and even the bioacoustics of whale and orca sounds. Bortoluzzi will be focusing in on the behaviour of these two cetaceans and her research will involve the tracking of individuals over the course of the expedition. By using photo IDs of the animals’ unique patterns on their fins and faces it is possible to track their movements when they are spotted on multiple occasions. She will also be doing studies on the Environmental DNA (eDNA) extracted from water samples which will reveal information on the presence of certain animal species. Her research on the expedition will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Tromsø using their standardised research methods so that the data she collects will contribute to the research they themselves carry out in the region. Through this collaboration she hopes to be given access to data from previous research of theirs which could compliment her own PhD project.  For her part, Bortoluzzi sees this expedition as an amazing opportunity to develop new skills on a personal, professional and academic level.

Ciarán Ó Cuív

Ciaran Ó Cuív is the Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Zoology student.