Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Freight and Passenger Ferry Groups Study the Oceans for Signs of Whales and Dolphins

Ocean Watch Project Uncovers the Presence of Rarely Seen Species
Shipping News Feature

UK – As long as men have been putting to sea, the sight of a cetacean, whether whale, porpoise or dolphin, has always meant something special, perhaps a portent of good or evil, or simply a reminder of the vastness of the oceans and the mysteries beneath the surface. With the knowledge we have nowadays the presence and plight of the mammals under the waves has become increasingly important and has now led to specially trained crews studying the waters in OceanWatch, an inaugural nationwide survey of whales and dolphins, a project eagerly supported by Scottish freight and passenger ferry group Caledonian MacBrayne.

During CalMac’s nine-day survey, a total of 49 whales and dolphins, as well as a lone basking shark, were recorded. The data captured during the OceanWatch survey was fed through to cetacean conservation charity ORCA which has now compiled the figures and locations to further enhance understanding of the animals’ distribution around the British coast.

Those spotted included two rarely seen Atlantic white-sided dolphins near Rum and multiple sightings of harbour porpoises and minke whales around Eigg. The Firth of Lorne towards Colonsay proved a good spot for both common dolphins and more minke whales. Further common dolphins and harbour porpoises were spotted by crews as they sailed the Sound of Mull whilst the single basking shark was spotted off the south coast of Eigg.

The survey has been opened up this year to commercial and professional mariners, probably the very group with most opportunities to contribute data. Given its unique daily business of crossing Hebridean waters, CalMac was invited to take part and was only too happy to say ‘yes’ and crews on board MV Lord of the Isles, MV Lochnevis and MV Clansman all stepped forward to be trained by ORCA staff to spot the different types of whales and dolphins and to make notes of the species encountered, as well as co-ordinate plots of locations. Routes included Mallaig to the Small Isles, Oban to Colonsay and Oban to Coll, Tiree and Barra. Guy Dale-Smith, CalMac’s Head of Marine commented:

“Our Masters and crews were happy to lend their support to the survey. Our daily business of crossing these stretches of water puts us in an excellent position to be able to help with little additional effort required on the part of our ever vigilant bridge teams and crews. We are fortunate to sail through some of the most marine wildlife rich areas in the UK and it’s pleasing to hear that our crews made the most of the training given by ORCA and recorded so many whales, dolphin and porpoises, including some which are infrequently spotted around our coasts.”

CalMac’s involvement produced an ebullient reaction from ORCA’s Community Wildlife Officer Anna Bunney who said:

“We were expecting good results in the west coast area from CalMac and we weren’t disappointed. The west coast of Scotland is a diverse area for whales and dolphins, and the concentration around the Small Isles in particular was impressive. My colleague Lucy Babey and I did some training with the bridge crews of the three ferries back in mid-July and they were really enthusiastic. And the crews were quite surprised by just how much you could see when you know where to look and what you are looking for.

“On the training from Mallaig out to the Small Isles in mid-July before the start of the survey period we saw four minke whales and 25 harbour porpoises in a very short time which was amazing. The CalMac sightings are higher than in other areas which took part around the whole of the UK. Given the areas covered and the knowledge we already have about these animals, this is not entirely surprising, but it is also just as important for us to know that our knowledge remains current and there is comfort in knowing that the animals are where we would expect to find them.

“We’re really delighted CalMac has taken part in the survey and we were so well looked after by all crew on-board during the training; they really were so welcoming, enthusiastic and interested in our work. It was an absolute pleasure to sail with CalMac.”

Other shipping groups which joined in OceanWatch this year included Carnival UK (Cunard & P&O Ferries), NorthLink Ferries, DFDS Seaways, Brittany Ferries, Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, WightLink, the Royal Navy and P&O Ferries and collectively in the nine day study 271 sightings of cetaceans totalling 1939 individual animals were reported.

These reports included 16 different species of cetacean; harbour porpoise, common dolphin, striped dolphin, white-beaked dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, pilot whale, Minke whale, Sei whale, fin whale, humpback whale, blue whale, sperm whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale and northern bottlenose whale.

The link to OceanWatch above also offers the opportunity to participate in the project on a voluntary basis and there is also the option of joining the Orca charity or making a contribution.

Photo: A minke whale ‘sounds’.