Scholar Spotlight - Tommy Clay

November 05, 2021


A postdoc scholar at UCSC’s Institute of Marine Sciences, Tommy Clay is a marine ecologist based at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Monterey who is primarily interested in marine predator species like whales, dolphins, and seabirds. In particular, he studies their movements, feeding habits, and the threats they face at sea.

Clay comes to UCSC from the UK where he earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol in Zoology, master's at the University of Exeter in conservation, and PhD at the University of Cambridge jointly with the British Antarctic Survey, studying the migration strategies of albatrosses. Afterward, he spent three years at the University of Liverpool working on postdoc research focused on how seabirds respond to changes in weather patterns.

Though officially moving to California in summer 2021, Clay has attended remotely since fall 2020 from the UK during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Monterey Bay is a global hotspot for marine life. I am still blown away by the fact that I can see sea otters five minutes away from my office. Though I didn't know a great deal about UC Santa Cruz before arriving, I was aware of the group that I now work with as they have an impressive reputation internationally,” said Clay.

While there are many different research groups at UC Santa Cruz, Clay found that there were several related to marine conservation and marine ecology. He found appeal in working among what he considers to be a highly regarded group of international researchers to get a diverse set of backgrounds and skills at a university that brings in a lot of international students and scholars.

“Coming from the UK, I wanted to explore other styles of research. I think having a diversity of opinions and backgrounds helps develop new ideas. When you're in the same place for a while, you can get a bit stuck in the way you think about research. Through working in America in international teams, not only do we bring new, exciting ideas to the table, but the overall attitude is positive and energetic,” said Clay.

Currently, Clay is working on a project that is based on the East Coast of the U.S. where he is looking at the effects of the Gulf Stream Current on the distribution of whales and dolphins, as well as their main prey - fish, squid, and krill. By utilizing a network of hydrophone sensors along the coast from Florida to Delaware, the team, involving researchers from UCSC, the University of New Hampshire, Stony Brook University in New York, and Jasco Applied Sciences in Canada, has been recording the soundscape year-round for four years.

“The Gulf Stream is extremely important to the global climate system. There is evidence that it is slowing as a result of climate change, which will have important knock-on effects on weather patterns as well as the functioning of ecosystems in the north Atlantic. The main aim is to look at how changes in the temperature of the ocean and the movement of the Gulf Stream affect the distribution and abundance of prey that's in the water column. Whale and dolphin species have really distinct calls and so we can also get a good idea of which species are present and how they use the ocean. Also, through using sonar, we can get measurements on where prey are located,” said Clay.

Also represented in the data are deep-diving whale species, such as beaked and sperm whales, that live around 500-10000 ft below the surface and are extremely sensitive to sound, especially human-created noise such as shipping noise or naval sonar. At those depths, there's no light, and their only way of communicating, navigating, and foraging is through sound.

The main objectives of Clay’s current project, funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, are to obtain long-term measurements of the ecosystem off the eastern U.S. coast, in particular, to understand the migratory patterns of whales and the influence of wind energy installations. Despite being one of the busiest areas for shipping activity in the world, there are large sections of the ocean that have not been characterized and studied. The team aims to get a baseline of activity.

“One interesting result of our recent work is that we have detected several different species of beaked whales off the coast of the U.S. and they seem to segregate horizontally such that as you move southwards towards the tropics, one species replaces another in a predictable fashion. Beaked whales are still so poorly understood that new species are still being discovered, two in the last 12 months,” said Clay.

The nature of research at UC Santa Cruz is often collaborative and Clay’s experience is no different. He has also been involved in work predicting the effects of ocean warming on the migrations of large marine species such as tuna, sharks, sea turtles, whales, and albatrosses, work that requires interdisciplinary communication on and off-campus. His research group is made up of oceanographers with physics and biological backgrounds, social scientists, and ecologists.

“I also often speak with people in various fields at UC Santa Cruz, but also at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and other institutes across the Californian Coast,” said Clay.

While he enjoys living and working in the U.S., Clay hopes to eventually take the knowledge he gained at UC Santa Cruz back to the UK and apply it to conservation, understanding the processes that are driving where species are and where they’ll go. Understanding this might inform efforts to reduce marine threats such as overfishing, and ultimately save species.

To learn more, see the Climate and Ecosystems Group, the Atlantic Deepwater Ecosystem Observatory Network, and Clay’s personal academic website.