The Land of Fire and Ice ... (and Whales!)

A reflection on my summer spent tagging whales in southern Iceland and the lessons I have learned in the process
The Land of Fire and Ice ... (and Whales!)

Header photograph shows a tag which has been successfully deployed on a long-finned pilot whale and is now collecting and transmitting data for analysis.

(Photograph taken by Tatiana Marchon, 2023)

Probably the number one question I am asked when I describe my project to new people is: “how exactly do you tag a whale?”

The answer to this question: “with a very long pole”, always feels comically simple.

Yet this theme of rudimentary methods is one which I have found running through my entire research experience and which has definitely taken me by surprise.

photo 1: A killer-whale surfacing just out of reach of the described ‘very-long pole’. The tag can be seen still attached to the pole’s end.

To elaborate a little on my project, my work this summer has surrounded a piece of technology known as a Dtag. This is a digital tag which is attached to a focus animal and can be programmed to collect a variety of both biotic and abiotic data of a researcher’s choosing. The tag then transmits this data to a receiver (often through a satellite network) so that it can be remotely accessed by a computer anywhere and at almost any time (Johnson and Tyack, 2003). This type of technology can therefore be extremely useful to scientists studying many different elusive animals and, as such, it is often being modified in a way that best suits the target species.

My project focused into some of these modifications which had been made on a Dtag used to study whales in Iceland. The point was to make a review of how some of the tag elements performed during a pilot study so as to help inform any further changes to the tag itself or tagging protocol ahead of bigger research efforts which are to come.

From this project description, and with the knowledge that I was a part of a pilot study where the technology was still under refinement, I had of course anticipated that the tag in question might appear a little less streamlined than an off-the-shelf product. However, nothing prepared me for my first day of work when I was presented with an item which was composed of as much zip-ties as it was technology.


Photo 2: A picture of a Dtag which has been zip-tied shut after an internal element was swapped out. The zip-tie ends were trimmed before deployment on a whale as is seen in the header photo.

Working with this franken-tag, I found it odd to think that a piece of apparatus as powerful as this (and as expensive as this!), would come into being through such basic and small steps. That, over time, each new element had simply been added where it fit best (roughly speaking) and secured with whatever means were available. However, as my project went on, I came to realise that really, this was all that was needed. That, in fact, electrical tape, magnets and an ungodly amount of zip ties could make almost any creative vision we had come to life.

This insight has really changed my perception of research in terms of how fancy apparatus comes about but also how complex methodologies and, by extension, large papers come into being too. I have realised that, similar to the tag, they are all just a compilation of unsure and impossibly small additions which have been slotted together to create (what appears to newcomers) a complex whole. To some extent, I have always known this from writing my own essays or lab reports in the past, however for some reason I had always assumed that professional research wouldn’t be like this. That it would be ‘neater’ and use only meticulous plans and high-end products in each stage. I had certainly never envisaged everyday household items to be so crucial in its success! After this summer of experience however, and having worked through my first truly independent report, I can say that there really is truth in the idea that some creativity and baby steps are all you need to achieve something meaningful.

It seems a little redundant to write this to all of you as I’m almost certain you will have made the same discovery for yourself. However, knowing that ground-breaking research is made through these tiny movements and simple methods has inspired me to be braver with my creativity for future work, regardless of my apparatus or perceived ability. Therefore, I feel this is one of the most important lessons I have learned through Laidlaw and I hope one that I will continue to explore as I go on.


Photo 3: A bonus photograph of the eruption of Litli-Hrutur. A nearby volcano which erupted during my time in Iceland and which we visited on my final day.

(Photograph by Rebekah Bryson, 2023)


Johnson, M & Tyack, PL 2003, 'A digital acoustic recording tag for measuring the response of wild marine mammals to sound', IEEE Journal of Oceanic Engineering, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 3-12.

Following the sentiment of this post, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw foundation for this incredible opportunity. I would also like to extend my heartfelt thanks to those that have supported me more personally on this journey. Namely my supervisors: Ms Ellen Hayward and Prof. Patrick Miller as well as the whole St-Andrew’s Laidlaw team.

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Go to the profile of Oliver Righton
3 months ago

That's a lot of zip ties, and a great lesson to take forward from your research! Sounds like you had a lot of fun!