Earthwatch writer and editor Rob Stringer leaves behind his day job to discover how old and new traditions are helping to conserve the natural beauty of the Hebrides, Scotland.
The yell of “Sighting!” brings us all to the front of the deck to look for what we'd probably already missed - a compact curve of the back, glimmering briefly in the sun's glare, and a triangular fin with a straight leading edge. It was most likely a harbor porpoise - one of several that we've seen in the vicinity. Sailing amid extraordinary rugged cliffs, isolated heaths, tranquil villages and the occasional deserted yellow-sand beach, we're monitoring marine mammals in Scotland's inimitable coastlines of the Hebrides: a hotbed of bloody history and outstanding biodiversity.
During a shore visit, the volunteers see a colony of puffins.
The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) is a NGO whose primary aim is to investigate the distribution and abundance of whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, working to safeguard their conservation for the future. The project is funded by Earthwatch.
Learning the ropes
Working from the Silurian, a 16 meter ketch, I'm one of a team of five Earthwatch volunteers who are giving up 12 days to discover their sea-legs, while scanning the surrounding waters, sometimes placid, often choppy, for a fin belonging to any one of the 24 recorded species known to inhabit the area. More often than not, with years of practice, it's the skipper who makes the initial sighting - noting a brief splash several hundred meters away, which compels a flurry of activity as we decide between binoculars and cameras, before logging into the ship's computer the animal's species, position, and distance from the boat. The hydrophone trailing 100 meters behind the boat should also help to verify the sighting, recording the high-frequency clicking of porpoises, which falls beyond the human range of hearing.
Although all marine mammals are currently protected under UK legislation, their habitats, and the food chains they rely upon, are not. Cetaceans have been known to get entangled in nets - known as “bycatch” - and needing to breathe at the surface, have eventually died. Other serious threats to the species include “ship strike,” when they collide with passing boats. Having collected data on these mammals since HWDT was established in 1994, scientific officer Oliver Boisseau notes that the Trust is at the stage where "a fairly good case" is being drawn up for the nomination of certain regions as Marine Protected Areas.
A rainbow arcs over Tobermory, home to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.
With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, HWDT is also making findings that may relate to less immediate threats than human interaction, such as climate change.
"There does seem to be a slight trend with warmer water influx in the area," says Boisseau, "reflected in the prevalence of certain warmer water species, such as common dolphins, at the cost of certain colder water species, such as white-beaked dolphins that seem to be largely avoiding the area or are at present in much lower numbers. And this is even borne out with the presence of certain fish species, such as sand eels, that are an important food source for not just marine mammals but birds as well, such as the puffin. Perhaps climate change is one cause for that warmer water influx but it's too early to say at the moment."
From our expedition alone we see tangible evidence of the suspected temperature shift, making two separate sightings of common dolphins - in one instance a group of seven or eight spend several minutes playing at the bow - compared with one distant sighting of two white-beaked dolphins. We also see a lone basking shark, its mouth characteristically wide as it concentrates on grazing, apparently barely noticing our boat. The sighting of the warm water creature is uncommon in May, and Boisseau confirms that there has indeed been a "recent influx" of this species. More unusually, last year, a humpback whale was spotted from Silurian in the same waters, while a group of around ten killer whales - thought to be the UK's only resident orca pod - are also recorded to inhabit the area, although sadly their conservation status is believed to be critical as no calves have been observed since research began almost two decades ago.
It is this exceptional biodiversity that is driving a marked increase of human visitors to the Hebrides.
"There's more tourism now, on Mull in particular," notes Tim Wear, our skipper for the expedition, who worked for seven years as a creel fisherman, fishing for prawns, lobsters and crabs off Skye, Loch Dunvegan and Loch Bracadale.
"It's birds on Skye. There are parts of Skye where you get regular whales but the water is rougher. Mull's geared itself up much better with regards to sealife and birdlife, and on Skye there are RIBs [rigid-inflatable boats] going out to look at dolphins and whales. It's an important part of the economy, and it's growing, and fishermen will take people out as well if there's a buck to be made."
Indeed, visitors come from near and far to see the charismatic animals in such an awe-inspiring and varied environment. Two of the six volunteers on this expedition have flown from North Carolina, USA, while a third often resides in his house at the north end of Skye, which we sail past during the voyage. Here, he assures us, correctly as it turns out, that we'll see minke whales - the second smallest baleen whale - although sightings of the species have waned in recent years.
Volunteers scan the waters surrounding Silurian.
"This is my stomping ground really," says Gordon Thompson, 58, who is retired from the Bank of England. He arrives a day late, having been stranded in Sicily due to volcanic ash, and is grateful to be in more familiar territory. "I was born and brought up, in my initial years anyway, on the Clyde coast, and we used to come up to this neck of the woods on holiday. I know it very well, and any chance to actually do some sailing around the islands I try and take."
Thompson confesses to preferring "cooler climates than most of the Earthwatch projects are based in," substantiated by his routine of a daily swim in Hebridean water where most of us would fear even dipping a toe. He is an eager advocate of the citizen science model: the notion that anyone, regardless of experience or education, should be able to help further conservation efforts.
"When I took early retirement, I specifically wanted to concentrate on anything that wasn't sitting behind a desk, but also to do volunteer work for conservation. As well as Earthwatch, I go on work camps for the National Trust for Scotland, repairing footpaths and doing dry stone dyking, and it has taken me to St. Kilda which is one of the most amazing places in the UK."
Like all volunteers in the group, Thompson found he had to accept that our experience wouldn't necessarily entail a panorama of hospitably energetic bottlenose dolphins leaping out of the water like they might in some of our, frankly, optimistic expectations. In terms of conservation, it's equally important to determine where cetaceans aren't, as well as where they are. Instead there would be hours spent simply standing on deck, sometimes enduring fierce winds, icy rain, and thankfully, just the slightest bout of nausea-inducing lurches and sways of the boat.
However, as sure as we knew our efforts were contributing to essential research, we were also continually certain to stumble upon some fascinating wildlife. With several eagles - golden, and the reintroduced white-tailed species - and two island encounters with herds of wild deer, a new thrill is, sometimes literally, just round the corner. One shore visit sees a colony of puffins, ambling comfortably around our feet, practically oblivious to our presence, while further round the path, over a thousand guillemots stand noisily clamoring on a steep rock-face, many with turquoise eggs guarded closely at their feet.
Twenty-four species of cetacean (the order of marine mammals containing whales, dolphins and porpoises) are known to inhabit the Hebrides.
The experience is “mind-blowing” for Sarah Egholm, 32, who won a two-month placement working for HWDT through Vodafone's World of Difference program, which allows successful applicants to work for their favorite charity. Egholm was unemployed for two years and discovered the opportunity in November 2009 through an ad at her employment center. Contrasting the technological advancements of her benefactors, she spends our visits to shore darting about each island, placing pinhole cameras, homemade from baked bean tins. She compares the Hebrides to her home in Essex.
"The difference is cultural, environmental; it's just a huge shock to the system. I come from a place where there's high density populations, overcrowding, crime, pollution, commercialism in your face 24 hours a day, whereas here you've got the wild elements around you and it's just it makes a big difference to me as a person to be in an environment like this. I feel much happier."
Among such geographical grandeur and stunning animals, the fervor is understandable. When we're not looking out for cetaceans, sharks, sunfish or seals, we're surveying the skies and water surface for birds. Kittiwakes and tysties are regularly observed bobbing on the wavelets, even miles from land, while skuas circle above, and gannets drop like bombs into the briny, only to reappear a little better fed. We count each species and log our findings every half hour.
"We'd like to tie in our work with other concerted research efforts," says Boisseau "and for our data to feed into a much more rigorous assessment of bird numbers for example and fish stocks in the area, and that would be a collaborative project with other institutions and universities. In general we're just keen to continue collecting the baseline data. There's a lot of interest nowadays in renewable energy, for instance wind power, tidal energy and wave power, and people are looking at the Hebrides as a potential site, so we have that baseline data that we can make available to the decision-makers."
Working in harmony
And this is the crux of the research. Not to alienate development or cause conflicts of interest, but to work collaboratively with old fishing traditions as well as new developments, to maintain a sustainable ecosystem. Conservation efforts in the area are indispensible for protecting the future of this breathtaking environment, and in turn, for creating an experience summed up by volunteer Thompson, who undergoing four seasons-worth of weather in just two weeks, barely spent a minute below deck.
"I would say that if the weather's nice, and we've had some pretty good days despite it being cold, there is nowhere more beautiful on Earth than the western isles of Scotland."
Feature by Rob Stringer, who joined the Earthwatch expedition Whales and Dolphins of the Hebrides in May 2010.
Writer Rob enjoys the natural beauty of the islands.