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Orcas' Hebridean overture

By Penny Bunting - 07 May 2014 7:43:0 GMT
Orcas' Hebridean overture

The 'West Coast Community' of killer whales is at risk of extinction; West Coast orca pod image; Photo by N. Van Geel/HWDT

An endangered group of marine mammals will be monitored this summer by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), as the charity celebrates its 20th anniversary. The UK's only known resident population of killer whales is at risk of imminent extinction, but HWDT hopes that, during its new season of pioneering marine research expeditions, fresh information can be collected about these fascinating creatures that will help secure their future. The conservation status of the killer whales - five males and four females known as the 'West Coast Community' - is believed to be critical, as no calves have been seen within the group for several years.

HWDT works to protect marine animals such as these by enhancing knowledge and understanding through education, research and engagement with local communities. Its research data is used to inform policy makers and generate recommendations for effective marine management.

The charity is recruiting volunteers to work alongside marine scientists in surveys running from May to October, to gather crucial data on whales, dolphins and porpoises - collectively known as cetaceans - and basking sharks in western Scotland's seas. The expeditions will be carried out from HWDT's specialised research yacht Silurian, previously used in the filming of the BBC's acclaimed series, The Blue Planet.

"Our 2014 surveys offer an excellent volunteering opportunity to help ensure the long-term survival of Scotland's remarkable cetaceans and basking sharks, while learning new skills and exploring some of the most wild and remote corners of Britain," said Eva Varga, HWDT Operations Manager.

With cetaceans facing increasing stress from human activities such as climate change, entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, underwater noise and habitat degradation, the findings will strengthen knowledge of species' distribution, habitats and behaviour, and will be used to strengthen future conservation action.

Volunteers will live and work onboard Silurian for up to 12 days, receiving training and working with scientists - conducting visual surveys, acoustic monitoring using hydrophones and specialist software, and identification of individual cetaceans through photography of their dorsal fins. They will also assist with the day-to-day running of Silurian.

Over the past 10 years, Silurian has travelled more than 61,000km from Islay to Cape Wrath and west of the Western Isles. This area is one of Europe's most important habitats for cetaceans, with the long and complex coastline, interaction of currents and wide variety of habitats combining to provide a rich and diverse environment for marine life.

The range of species regularly sighted is astonishing: minke whales, orcas, basking sharks, dolphins and porpoises are just a few of the animals known to inhabit these waters. In fact, 24 different species of cetacean have been recorded in the region, including several national and international conservation priorities.

HWDT's research has revealed, along with the killer whales, a resident population of 55 bottlenose dolphins and Europe's highest density of harbour porpoises. Two feeding and breeding hotspots of basking sharks have also been discovered. Sightings of this amazing creature - the second largest fish in the world, after the whale shark - are increasing.