New year-round expeditions to shed light on spectacular Hebridean marine wildlife
Record numbers of volunteers took part in research expeditions organised by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust last year, helping to launch a new year-round programme of monitoring marine mammals and basking sharks in the Hebrides.
For the first time, the conservation charity carried out marine 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 – plus the endangered basking shark. But so far there has been little year-round data about these animals in the region.
“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,” said Becky Dudley, Marine Biodiversity Officer at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. “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.”
As well as increasing understanding of cetacean and basking shark behaviour, this groundbreaking research helps detect trends and changes in the marine environment – including increases in underwater noise pollution and emerging threats like entanglement. All of this scientific evidence can then be used to inform action to protect marine wildlife.
In 2019, Silurian covered over 5,000 nautical miles during 23 research expeditions – stretching from as far north as Cape Wrath, south to Islay and Jura, and as far west as the Flannan Isles. Highlights during 2019 included two exciting encounters with killer whales. One was with Busta, a well-known male from a group called the Northern Isles Community, mainly seen around Orkney, Shetland and Scotland’s north coast. The other, off Ardnamurchan, was with males John Coe and Aquarius – part of a pod known as The West Coast Community, which is most often seen in the Hebrides and is at imminent risk of extinction.