Record numbers volunteer for marine surveys

Common dolphin, hebrides copyright hwdt (1)

More than 120 people assisted with research for the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust last year.

21st February 2020 by Gavin Stuart 0 Comments

Record numbers of volunteers are helping a conservation charity protect whales and dolphins off the west coast.

Last year, more than 120 people assisted in research expeditions organised by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, helping to launch a new year-round programme of monitoring marine mammals and basking sharks around the islands.

For the first time, the charity carried out surveys from its specialized research yacht Silurian during the winter months, with crucial data collected every month of the year about the presence and behaviour of some of the country’s most spectacular marine wildlife. 

Scotland’s west coast seas are globally important habitats for cetaceans – the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoise – as well as the endangered basking shark. But so far there has been little year-round data about these animals in the region. 

As well as increasing understanding of cetacean and basking shark behaviour, the groundbreaking research helps detect trends and changes in the marine environment such as increases in underwater noise pollution and emerging threats like entanglement. The evidence gathered will now be used to inform action to protect marine wildlife.

Becky Dudley, the trust’s marine biodiversity officer, said: “Our new winter surveys and the contribution of our wonderful volunteers offer us the opportunity to study the year-round presence and distribution of some remarkable species for the first time.

“Our established summer expeditions, when most species are present in Hebridean waters, remain vital. But embarking on year-round surveys will shed new light on marine wildlife, and help us answer questions such as whether minke whales are present in the Hebrides all year, and if distribution of harbour porpoise changes between summer and winter.”

In the first year of year-round surveys, the team recorded four species of cetacean – common dolphins, harbour porpoise, killer whales and minke whales – in the winter months. These sightings add to a growing body of evidence that the Hebrides is an important area for certain species year-round. In total, nine marine mammal species were recorded in 2019 – the others being bottlenose dolphin, common seal, grey seal, Risso’s dolphin and white-beaked dolphin.

Bruce Crawford, a volunteer who has joined the trust onboard Silurian during both summer and winter surveys, said: “It’s an amazing feeling to know this work could help secure the future of these remarkable marine animals.

“I was part of a great team, which recorded sightings, assessed human impacts on wildlife such as marine debris, monitored sounds with an underwater microphone, and identified individual cetaceans through photography. We also had chance to explore some of Britain’s most remote and beautiful places.”