Survey records highest number of dolphin species

The Trusts specialized research yacht Silurian with Common Dolphins.
The Trusts specialized research yacht Silurian with Common Dolphins.

Record numbers of three dolphin species off Scotland’s west coast were recorded by conservation charity Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust in its marine research expeditions in 2016.

From the trust’s specialized research yacht Silurian, volunteers and scientists recorded 2,303 individual common dolphins, 42 bottlenose dolphins and 94 Risso’s dolphins – the figures for all three species being the highest ever recorded in its annual survey seasons.

Average annual figures documented over the previous 14 years were 463 individual common dolphins, 14 bottlenose dolphins and 12 Risso’s dolphins. For common dolphins, these records range from 0 individuals encountered in a couple of the earlier field seasons to 1,862 during the 2007 season.

Dr. Lauren Hartny-Mills, science officer of Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, said: “The reasons for the high number of sightings of these charismatic dolphin species – and the broader effects on the marine environment and other species – remain unclear. But the intriguing findings highlight the importance of on-going monitoring and research – to strengthen our understanding of what is taking place in Hebridean waters, and to ensure well-informed conservation action.”

The latest findings were made in a research season lasting from May to October 2016, as part of the trust’s unique long-term citizen science project monitoring whales, dolphins and porpoises – collectively known as cetaceans – as well as basking sharks in the Hebrides.

These annual research surveys depend on paying volunteers, with 71 welcomed aboard in 2016 – working with marine scientists on visual surveys and acoustic monitoring with underwater microphones or hydrophones, and identifying individual cetaceans through photography.

The Isle of Mull-based organisation now holds data from more than 95,000km of survey effort. It aims to pass the 100,000km milestone during 2017, and it is currently recruiting volunteers to support this by working as citizen scientists onboard Silurian for periods of almost two weeks from April to September.

Alison Lomax, director of Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, said: “The impressive range of species documented in our at-sea surveys last year is a powerful reminder that Scotland’s west coast ocean environment is home to remarkable marine life. Long-term scientific studies of this globally-important habitat and its inhabitants are crucial if we are to ensure a secure future for the Hebrides’ spectacular cetaceans.”

The charity is the only organisation collecting long-term data on such a large scale on Scotland’s west coast, and its volunteers and scientists have now recorded more than 12,000 cetaceans.

For details of how to take part in forthcoming surveys, contact volunteercoordinator@hwdt.org, call 01688 302620, or visit www.hwdt.org.