Our Marine Ecologist, Natalie Crawley, recently went on an expedition with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust on a quest to find an elusive creature:
In September, I joined the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) for two weeks of marine mammal research surveys. HWDT conducts transect surveys throughout the cold Scottish Hebridean waters every summer, collecting data on the abundance and distribution of marine mammals. The Hebrides are the home to the highest abundance of marine mammals in UK waters, with both large numbers of resident mammals, such as porpoises and bottlenose dolphins, as well as seasonal visitors, such as the common dolphins, minke whales and even humpback whales.
Of particular interest to me, was the possibility of sighting the holy grail of marine mammals, the Orca. I have long been fascinated with these incredibly intelligent and curious creatures and have travelled far and wide in search of them. Whilst orcas are known to visit Atlantic waters, it was only relatively recently, that I discovered there is a resident population of orcas that live all year round in the Hebrides called the 'West Coast Community'. However, the outlook does not look promising for this family of nine individuals. With no calves having been seen in the last 20 years and all the females thought to be past reproductive age, it is likely that this family will die out in our generation. I had to take up the opportunity to take part in this survey in the hope, however small, that I would encounter them here in the UK before it is too late. With over 40,000km2 of ocean to search and no guaranteed sites to spot them, the odds were not in my favour. But I was not left disappointed! On only the second day of surveying, we saw not one, but two male orcas from the West Coast Community- Aquarius and Comet. These enigmatic creatures literally left me speechless one minute and unable to contain my excitement the next. They command the waters, and there was no doubt that these animals are as intriguing as they are intimidating. Many a Scottish folktale is written about the killer whale, and they have been blamed for the disappearance of sailors and fishermen alike. But despite their shady reputation, many now recognise the orca's intelligence as something to be in awe of rather than fear. Indeed, whale watching tourism is on the continual rise in the Hebrides with orca being the main attraction for many.
Orca (Orcinus orca): Male called Comet from the West Coast Community. One of only 4 males left.
In July 2014, the creation of 30 new Marine Protected Areas in Scottish Waters was announced, which will cover over 10% of the sea around Scotland. This is an excellent start in safeguarding the rich and diverse marine life in Scotland. However, these marine protected areas have not been designated to protect the array of cetacean species that inhabit these waters. Plans are now underway for four more marine protected areas to protect the risso's dolphin, the minke whale and also the basking shark, which visits the Hebrides in the summer months. No plans are currently being made for an MPA to protect the West Coast Community of orcas, there just simply isn't enough information on them in order to know how best to protect them. NatureBureau is now collaborating with HWDT to research their distribution and social structure using a long-term sightings database in the hope of gaining a better understanding of this community.
In two weeks of surveys we travelled over 515 miles and recorded over 420 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and 58 seals, proving that the Hebrides really is one of the best places in Europe to see marine mammals. Whilst we were treated to an encounter with a super-pod of common dolphins and a very friendly minke whale, it is Comet and Aquarius that will be my enduring memory of my time in the Hebrides. All that could have made it better was a sighting of a calf bringing with it the hope of a continuation of the West Coast Community of orca. Maybe next time!
Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
Visit www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk for more information on the research conducted by the trust.