My quest to rationalize my career choices

Being well informed is really hard, it is both a blessing and a curse. The more you learn, the more guilty you begin to feel to even walk on the earth but the more you learn, the more you understand that the actions you take in your day to day life can make a real difference. Growing up, I wanted to make a difference. Most people assume that the quest to make a difference is often driven by selfishness – I somewhat agree with this statement.

As a child, I was overwhelmed with empathy for all other living things, I wanted to give my leftover pizza hut buffet to the homeless, I wanted to take lost distressed baby rabbits whose Mum had been got in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident to the nearby wildlife rescue unit and I felt guilty for stepping on snails during a nighttime stroll with our family dog. These actions and feelings were not taught to me – they came innately and often left me wondering “why did I deserve to be so lucky whilst others were not so fortunate?”. Was I being selfish, I am still unsure.

As an adult I now debate with myself about whether the path I have chosen is making enough of a difference – do I have the potential to do more? Be more? Help others more?

This leads me on to the statement “the quest to make a difference is often driven by selfishness”. I love the outdoors, I love forests, mountains, and coral reefs, I love dogs, I love the beach, I love my friends and I especially love sitting on a boat and hoping to see a whale…if I get seabirds, porpoises or seals, I will still be in my element but if a whale appears I will be ecstatic. I could sit and watch them in the open ocean for hours and hours without ever becoming an inch bored. I love how evolution and natural selection has created all of these fantastic creatures, communities, and ecosystems that all interact and even depend on one another to survive. Earth is utterly fantastic.

Because of my love for the natural world and my favourites within it, I selfishly have sort out a career studying whales and the marine ecosystem. I do this because I enjoy it and I want to protect it and even if my best efforts to do what I can to protect and sustain the marine environment fall short, I will at least contribute to our knowledge of this system and educate the younger generations about these awesome creatures  – they are just super cool.

I am sure there will still be days that I ponder whether I have made the right career choice. Such questions as “if I became a climate scientist or an environmental lawyer will I have made more of an impact? will I have contributed to the prevention of the climate crisis, poverty or dramatic reductions in biodiversity?” and perhaps the answer to this question is yes, but I have set myself a different quest, a selfish one… to become an ecological statistician that studies whales, because they are super cool and others need to bathe in their awesomeness.

Some lush poetry

Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in Kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.
These are the things I learned..

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and sane living.

Think of what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put things back where we found them and cleaned up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

What’s it like to be a Whale in the 21st Century?

June 2017

By Danny Buss

Whales have had a pretty tough time throughout recent anthropogenic history. During the 17th Century, the Baleen Whales (an iconic group of large whales with baleen plates hanging from their upper jaw which they use to filter krill, zooplankton and other small fish species from the water) in particular, began to be targeted as a global resource. This was predominantly for oil (extracted from their blubber) to produce candles and lubricants, and to make whalebone stays from the baleen plates, which were used in corsets (Estes 2006). As whalebone corsets grew in popularity and the demand for whale oil increased to lubricate new machines developed during the industrial revolution, rates of whale exploitation grew exponentially across the globe.

Commercial whaling brutally hit Antarctica during the early 1900s, with the realisation that many iconic species, including Blue (Balaenoptera musculus), Humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), Fin (Balaenoptera physalus) and Sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) travel south and gather to exploit the high concentrations of plankton found there during the summer months. These Antarctic whale populations were massacred before “sustainable fishing” was even a concept. For example, records from a whale processing station at South Georgia estimated that 118,000 whales were slaughtered in only 19 years[1911-1930] (Baker and Clapham 2004).

And yet, this story of decimation may be turning into one of conservation success. Thankfully, throughout the period of commercial exploitation no one species was exploited to extinction. By 1946 a global convention for the regulation of whaling was signed, creating the International Whaling Commission, which in turn established guidelines for the whaling fleets and increased protection for the whales. By the 1970s, four species – Blue, Fin, Humpback and Sei, – had protection and by 1986 all commercial whaling was suspended (Tonnessen and Johnsen 1982). Since then, recovery has been evident for most whale species, albeit slow (Roman and Palumbi 2003; Baker and Clapham 2004).

Meanwhile, catastrophic events such as the near extinction of many of the Baleen species were a wakeup call that highlighted a pretty important question – how many whales were there before whaling began? We didn’t know, and without information about baseline population sizes, and studies to monitor changes in population sizes over time, how could conservation strategies be implemented, and population recovery rates accurately be predicted?

This leads me to the questions I am currently exploring as part of my role as research assistant at the University of Exeter and which I will investigate further during my PhD research at the British Antarctic Survey, commencing later this year:
1. Prior to commercial whaling, no monitoring of whale populations was in place. How many whales were there? Does anybody know?
2. If not, is it possible to accurately predict pre-whaling abundances of all whale species using historic whaling records? What other methods are currently utilised and what do we know so far?
3. Are there new methods which we could use to estimate pre-whaling abundances?

These questions are currently being tackled by our research team, led by Professor Dave Hodgson, at the University of Exeter. Using computer modelling techniques, our team is testing whether it is possible to make accurate predictions for all sorts of biological measures. For example, primate brain sizes – can we predict the brain size of one species based on data we have for other closely related species? Or if we know the wing length of 14 out of 15 closely related bird species, can we use this information to accurately predict the wing length of the 15th?

And we are applying the same techniques in an attempt to estimate pre-whaling abundances. To do this, I have gathered current global population estimates from the International Whaling Commission’s website, for all Baleen whales. We will begin by trying to predict the abundances of species for which we already have the data. If we can do this accurately, we can be more confident about our predictions for species for which the data is missing. This is very much ongoing research, but we hope that by combining information on known ecological traits such as prey type and reproductive rate, the extent of commercial exploitation, phylogenetic relatedness and current geographic range data (see figure 1) we may be able to produce accurate estimates of pre-whaling abundances, and in doing so provide vital information for the conservation of these charismatic species in the future.


Alter, E.S., R. Rynes, and S.R. Palumbi. 2007. DNA evidence for historic population size and past ecosystem impacts of gray whales. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(1): 15162-15167.

Baker, S.C. and P.J. Clapham. 2004. Modelling the past and future of whales and whaling. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19(7): 365-371.

Estes, J.A. 2006. Whales, whaling, and ocean ecosystems. California: University of California Press.

Lubick, N. 2003. New count of old whales adds up to big debate. Science 301(1): 451-451.

Palsboll, P.J., Z.M. Peery, M.T. Olsen, S.R. Beissinger, and M. Berube. 2013. Inferring recent historic abundance from current genetic diversity. Molecular Ecology 22(1): 22-40.

Roman, J. and S.R. Palumbi. 2003. Whales before whaling in the North Atlantic. Science 301(1): 508-510.

Smith, T.D. and R.R. Reeves. 2003. Estimating historic humpback removals from the North Atlantic: an update. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 5(1): 301-311.

Tonnessen, J.N. and A.O. Johnsen. 1982. The history of modern whaling. California: University of California Press.

Whitehead, H. 2002. Estimates of the current global population size and historical trajectory for sperm whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 242 (1): 295-304.


Studying whales that died more than a century ago

My research is a bit like magic. I take an old bone that has been sitting on a beach for over a century and draw conclusions about that individual using various scientific approaches. I can tell you information about this individuals diet and how it’s diet compared to other individuals of the same species. I can tell you whether it preferred to eat higher trophic food items such as fish or whether it chose to feed on lower food items, such as zooplankton. I do this by extracting bone collagen and looking at the isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen. I can also tell you what species this individual belonged to and whether it was male or female. I do this by extracting DNA and performing basic molecular techniques, such as PCR and Sanger sequencing.

Although new to me, I could also tell you approximately how old this individual was using an up-and-coming technique known as “DNA methylation”.

You can learn a lot from a deserted bone on a beach… I cannot wait for the advancements in this field and the knowledge it will bring about the individuals and populations that were lost and are now found.

Balaenoptera borealis

Welcome to whale space

Welcome to whale space. Whale space is an area where I share any updates, thoughts and feelings on all the cool things occurring as part of my research and additionally all there is to know about whales, the ocean and marine conservation. I do hope you enjoy this space, learn some cool facts and smile.


A very warm welcome to Whale space. The space where I am going to blog about my current and extremely exciting research and its impacts to help conserve the largest creatures on our planet, the great whales.

So how did I get to where I am and more importantly where is that exactly… well I’ve always been obsessed by the outdoors, wildlife and most importantly the marine environment. As a young teenager I trained as a marine mammal medic with the BDMLR and whenever possible I accepted educational positions at companies wanting to spread the word about ocean conservation.

However, it wasn’t until I joined the Marine Strandings Network during my 5-year cornish adventure that I began to wonder about the real benefits of these poor stranded and often deceased individuals.

I began to exhaust the internet and contact various research associates for known research positions that may utilise the database of stranded marine mammals across the globe for the benefit of conservation research for the great whales. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine forwarded me a twitter link titled “PhD Position – Whale population structuring in the polar south Atlantic at the University of Cambridge, British Antarctic Survey and the Natural History Museum” that I shrieked with excitement and then I peed my pants at the thought of ever applying for a PhD position at Cambridge… no way would they ever accept me, I am no Einstein, Hawking or Newton. Surely I would embarrass myself and my application would get laughed at… after much deliberation I decided to apply with the hope that even if I failed, the experience would help me get closer to my goal. I have never learnt such an invaluable fact…


4 months, 1 painful interview and some extremely solid dedication to learn later… I began my PhD at the University of Cambridge and British Antarctic Survey studying Whale Bones in an extremely powerful and unknown field to me – HISTORICAL ECOLOGY

More on historical ecology to come …

PS. I love my dog (Please click here to learn how awesome my dog is)


I would like to introduce you all to my best friend, Reegan. Officially the happiest and friendliest dog on the planet. Despite having severe heart disease,
arthritis and weird and wonderful growths covering part of his eye, Reegan would never fail to want to go out for the day and see everyone and anyone, play on the beach and join complete strangers for BBQs


tbc …