This summer Earthwatch launched Dolphins and Whales of Moray Firth, a programme of highly successful expeditions in collaboration with the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit (CRRU), a small Scottish charity co-founded and run by Dr Kevin Robinson and his partner, Nina Baumgartner.
The rich, productive waters of the Moray Firth support an abundance of marine wildlife which makes this area of the North Sea particularly outstanding. Over the past ten years the CRRU has encountered some astonishing creatures in these waters, including leatherback turtles, oceanic sunfish, basking sharks, swordfish, walruses, a whale shark and even a polar bear carcass in 1997. The area also supports grey and common seal colonies and nationally important concentrations of seabirds such as gannets, razorbills and puffins.
Based in the picturesque fishing village of Gardenstown near Banff, Aberdeenshire, Earthwatch volunteers helped Kevin's research team monitor the three most common species occurring in these coastal waters - the charismatic bottlenose dolphin, the enigmatic minke whale and the shy, diminutive harbour porpoise, all of which are regarded as a conservation concern.
Shipboard surveys using rigid inflatable boats and photo-identification data were used by volunteers to further understand the relationships between wild cetacean populations and their habitats in the outer southern Moray Firth. The use of such surveys allows relatively fast abundance estimations to be made, even for poorly marked cetacean species such as the harbour porpoise.
These methods allowed the team to predict the density of animals and their relative abundance within the study area. In addition, photo-identification techniques for species such as the bottlenose dolphin and minke whale were used as a powerful tool for assessing key populations crucial to our understanding of their life history, occurrence, intra-group affiliations and general ecology.
Earthwatch volunteers are considered fundamental to the application of this project work. Through participation as central members of the research team, they provide the manpower necessary to support the researchers in all aspects of this study. Their findings can be used to inform both local and international policies regarding cetacean management.
In addition to the research work, volunteers had the unique opportunity to learn and apply the theory and practice used in the rescue of small cetaceans from the CRRU's experienced rescue team. As the only full-time emergency service for stranded whales and dolphins in Scotland, the team is on call 24 hours a day to act and advise at the scene of a whale or dolphin stranding. Earthwatch volunteers practised the drill on an inflatable training whale which, when filled with water, weighs two tonnes - as much as an adult pilot whale.
In stormy weather volunteers attended lectures on subjects varying from photo identification to birds of the area. They also went on a number of tours arranged by the research team, including a visit to a distillery and Loch Ness, watching Osprey diving for salmon in the Spey, walking around Troup Head - one of the only two gannet colonies on mainland Britain - a spectacular location with gannets, razorbills and puffins all spotted on the cliffs. The entire area is paradise for bird-lovers and when teams couldn't get out to sea there was always a huge diversity of birds to watch.
Eight Earthwatch teams joined Kevin and Nina from May-October this year, in what Kevin has described as "the most amazing summer season ever." They recorded an incredible total of 291 encounters with 27 bottlenoses, 149 harbour porpoises, a record 114 minke whales, one Risso's dolphin, as well as two oceanic sunfish and three basking sharks. The CRRU's first minke whale paper will be published in the forthcoming Special Cetacean Edition of the Journal of the Marine Biological Association UK.
US volunteer Elane Osborn said: "I chose the expedition because of a life-long love of the ocean and a desire to do some small thing in the way of healing the damage that's been done to it. Your work, I truly believe, has that power, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to play the miniscule part I played while there. I had a fantastic time and have not had that much fun in far too long!"
Gary Haskins, one of the project staff, added: "I feel so proud and fortunate to have been part of something special that has managed to incorporate, educate and often inspire many people."
The last word goes to Kevin himself: "Innumerable and humble thanks to all our wonderful Earthwatch field assistants, with whom we shared so many incredible experiences, the memories of which will remain ever strong in our minds and hearts - thank you guys for all your support!"
To find out more about expeditions running next year, visit the expedition page Dolphins & Whales of Moray Firth. Kevin is giving a free lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Thursday 23 November. For further details, see Sharks, Seals & Cetaceans - At Risk In Our Seas. Meanwhile, for some breathtaking photography of the area by Roberto Isotti, see http://www.crru.org.uk/others/gamrie.exe
Photo credits © Jennie Woodford