Based in Tobermory, Island of Mull off Scotland’s west coast, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) recently announced details of 2013 surveys into the lives of whales, dolphins and porpoises along Scotland’s varied west coast and islands.
HWDT's 2013 surveys, carried out by volunteers and marine scientists based on board this conservation charity's research yacht Silurian, will take place between May and September. The surveys will monitor population numbers and compile data on the cetacean population – whales, dolphins and porpoises – in the seas along Scotland's fragmented west coast taking in some of the Hebridean islands.
The aim of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust is to use the research findings in support of effective conservation and preserving the extraordinary biodiversity to be found in Hebridean waters. The data assembled by the research will also assist in the future management of cetacean populations and contribute to HWDT’s environmental education work.
The seas off western Scotland contain a remarkably high level of biodiversity and are one of the most important European habitats for cetaceans. The indented, meandering coastline of mainland Scotland is peppered with sea lochs and that coupled with the many islands, large and small, gives rise to varied currents. The result is a vast variety of habitats providing a rich, diverse environment for marine life.
Cetacean species typical of both warm and cold oceans can be seen in this diverse oceanscape and the HWDT website contains regular reports of sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Just this week, the HWDT reported the first sighting of a minke whale in 2013 east of the Shiant Islands in the Minch, the stretch of water which separates the islands of the Inner Hebrides close to the Scottish coast from the more remote Harris and Lewis together comprising the Outer Hebrides archipelago.
Earlier in April, HWDT also reported on the sperm whale in Oban Bay, also covered here in Digital Journal, having ‘moved on’.
To date, HWDT has recorded 24 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises off western Scotland with many of those sighted considered Scottish and international conservation priorities.
Announcing the 2013 HWDT surveys, Olivia Harries, HWDT Biodiversity Officer, said: “Given environmental and climate change, action to monitor and conserve Scotland’s spectacular whales, dolphins and porpoises is more important than ever. With 2013 being the Year of Natural Scotland, we’re keen for people to take part in our surveys.
“Volunteers will effectively become marine mammal scientists during their time with us – contributing directly to knowledge and conservation of cetaceans, and with opportunities to develop new skills and to visit some of the most remote and wild parts of the British Isles.”
Until HWDT started its work in 1994, undertaking long-term monitoring of cetacean distribution, population and habitat, not a great deal was known about Hebridean cetaceans. Since the charity’s inception, and with the research vessel Silurian coming into the frame 10 years ago, a knowledge base has been established giving a greater understanding of the movements behavior and numbers of the wide variety of large marine mammals off Scotland’s west coast.
To date, Silurian has travelled more than 61,000 kilometres surveying Hebridean waters from the island of Islay, famed for its whisky, in the south, to Cape Wrath, often regarded as the most remote outpost of mainland Scotland in the north.
Some examples of HWDT’s key findings are:
Scotland’s western coastal waters are home to 55 bottlenose dolphins – the smallest resident population in the UK.
The region hosts one of the highest densities of harbour porpoise in Europe.
Photo identification work has so far catalogued 125 minke whales, some of which are thought to stay in Hebridean seas all year round.
The region supports the UK’s only resident population of killer whales, consisting of nine individuals whose conservation status is believed to be critical.
Apart from cetaceans, HWDT has also catalogued 10,000 basking sharks and pinpointed two feeding and breeding hotspots for these gentle giants of the seas.
HWDT works with local shore based community volunteers to compile its year round data and compliments its seagoing research with an educational function on land. The charity has its HQ on the island of Mull, easily reached by a short ferry crossing from Oban on Scotland’s west coast. At Tobermory, the principal town on Mull, HWDT has its main education and research offices as well as a visitors centre and shop.
Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust's research yacht Silurian, based at Tobermory on the Island of Mull
Volunteer places for annual surveys aboard Silurian are always in high demand as space is limited. On each survey trip up to six volunteers join marine scientists working on board Silurian for seven to 10 days. As the costs of HWDT research are significant, volunteers selected to assist with research should expect to pay between £900 and £1,200. The costs include accommodation and food on board Silurian.
Volunteers contribute directly to research work as well as receiving training in scientific techniques and species identification. There are also opportunities to gather comprehensive data through acoustic and visual methods, including photography of dorsal fins to help in identifying individual cetaceans.
A previous volunteer, Lars Rumpel commented, "Those 12 days sailing around the Hebrides changed my life. If I could, I would dedicate my whole life to the aid of nature."
Places for the 2013 HWDT surveys, departing from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, are available for May 17 to May 26 and from September 16 to September 26. All income generated from survey volunteers supports HWDT’s various cetacean and basking shark research programmes. Further information on volunteer participation can be found on the HWDT website.