Sea Life Surveys has been successfully operating specialist wildlife trips around the rugged islands and clean seas of the west coast of Scotland for over 36 years.
How it all began...
It was the mysterious minke whale which first gripped naturalist Richard Fairbairns' imagination and brought Sea Life Surveys into existence.
Inspired by a close encounter with this magnificent creature in 1982, he took the first tentative steps towards investigating the little-researched cetaceans of the Inner Hebrides. With advice from whale biologists Vassili Papastavrou and Jonathan Gordon, he created the research organisation, Mull Cetacean Project. The aims of the project were to investigate the cetacean populations over an area of 300mi2 to the north and west of Mull using only benign methods to study their behaviour (particularly that of the minke whale) and their place in the ecosystem of the area.
Funds for this work were to be raised by the introduction of commercial whale watching holidays and day trips run by Sea Life Surveys. Data collection was to be carried out from the whale watching vessel by Richard, a crew of student volunteers and paying members of the public under supervision.
The Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust
In 1994 the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust was created, which has now taken over much of the education and conservation activities of the Mull Cetacean Project. Research activities of Sea Life Surveys continue to focus on the minke whale and cetaceans in the area which complements further studies by the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust.
A New Generation
More recently the company had been under the direction of Richard's son, James. James continued to take the company from strength to strength, offering a range of day trips and package holidays, with success being highlighted with a GOLD Green Business Award in 2013 & 2015 by the Green Tourism Business Scheme.
Sea Life Surveys today
In August 2016 Sea Life Surveys was acquired by Staffa Tours. By harnessing the strengths of both businesses, we hope to continue our growth and continue to operate at the high standard that our customers have become accustomed to.
In 1992 a new computer program called LOGGER was provided by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for the collection of sightings and environmental information during our surveys. Data are collected on board using the laptop computer which is linked to other instruments on the boat. During a trip, LOGGER is constantly collecting data, recording our survey route and environmental data such as water temperature, depth and wind conditions. Other information such as weather, sea conditions, number of passengers etc. is fed in manually. When whales and dolphins are encountered, the species, number and behaviour is recorded.
This project has resulted in a database of over 5000 sightings and supporting environmental information. These data are then analysed to investigate how the whales and dolphins are distributed throughout the survey area and to highlight important areas for feeding and breeding. Constant monitoring of our survey area is essential for conservation. It provides information required for protecting animals and habitats against harmful activities such as pollution.
Minke Whale Photo-Identification
In collaboration with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, Sea Life Surveys have been conducting a photo-identification study of minke whales since 1990. Over 100 whales have been identified and catalogued, many having been seen year after year.
Photo-identification is a technique used to recognise individual whales and dolphins. Every whale and dolphin encountered is photographed and these photographs are analysed for identifying features such as notches and scars on the dorsal fins or bodies of the animals.
Minke whales migrate to warmer waters in the winter months but return to the coastal waters of West Scotland every summer to feed on the plentiful fish. The results of this study have shown that many whales return specifically to the coastal waters of Mull each year and appear to be seasonally resident in the area. This highlights the importance of this area for the minke whale.
This project is also gathering evidence that suggests that marine litter is a real cause of concern for our local whales. Nine of the catalogued whales have encountered marine litter. Two of the whales have plastic strapping wrapped around their rostrums. The looped plastic straps have become trapped in the baleen plates of the whales and are cutting into the flesh on the rostrums. This could affect feeding behaviour since the baleen plates are used to sieve prey from the water.
Globally, an estimated one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics. Plastics pose a particular threat to the marine environment because they float on the surface of the sea or within the water column. Plastics can be transported for miles across the sea and will remain in the marine environment for many years.
Minke Whale Surfacing Behaviour
One of the few behaviours that can be collected (if time & weather permits) quantitatively in the field is the rate of surfacing. Whales and dolphins breathe air and so must come to the surface regularly. The rate at which they surface represents their respiration rate which depends on their levels of activity. Surfacing patterns give us clues as to what the whale is doing - travelling, resting or feeding. Measuring surfacing rates could be particularly useful in assessing whether or not whales are being disturbed.
Data on surfacing patterns is also essential for correctly interpreting many types of visual surveys such as those conducted by the International Whaling Commission to estimate minke whale populations.
Precise recordings of surfacing rates have been collected from individual minke whales off Mull since 1989 by Sea Life Surveys.
Basking Shark Satellite Tagging Project
Scottish Natural Heritage and the University of Exeter have joined forces with an exciting new tagging project which will help to solve some of the mysteries about basking shark behaviour.
There are a number of questions we hope this work will help to answer;
- How long do basking sharks remain feeding in certain areas in Scottish waters?
- How are the sharks using these areas which are important to them for feeding and potentially breeding?
- Where do basking sharks go after their summer feeding in Scotland's seas?
- Do the sharks remain in deeper waters off Scotland over winter?
There is a post fieldwork report written by Exeter Univesity which you can download from the SNH website here.
Harbour Porpoise Research
The harbour porpoise, one of our most frequently encountered species, is particularly susceptible to entanglement in fishing nets both around the UK coastline and worldwide. Increasing concern over this problem has led to the development of pingers (acoustic alarms), which make nets more 'visible' to porpoises.
During 2002 and 2003 we assisted with research into the effects of these pingers on porpoise behaviour and monitoring porpoise distribution using porpoise click detectors (PODs).
Reports and Publications
Spatial and temporal distribution of the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in relation to undersea topography and seabed sediment off the Isle of Mull, Scotland.
Macleod, K., Fairbairns, R.S., Gill, A., Fairbairns, B.R., Gordon, J., Blair-Myers, C.
presented to the IWC Scientific meeting
Effects of the diet and seasonal cycles on the dive duration of the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
Stockin, K., Fairbairns R.S, Parsons, E.C.M., Sims, D. J. Mar. Biol. Ass. U.K.
Photographic and strandings data highlighting the problem of marine debris and creel rope entanglement to minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and other marine life in Scottish waters.
Gill, A., Reid, R.J. and Fairbairns, B.R.
European Research on Cetaceans 14 (ed. P.G.H. Evans, R. Pitt-Aiken & E. Rogan),
Cork: European Cetacean Society.
Some observations of the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) feeding behaviour and associations with seabirds in the coastal waters of the Isle of Mull, Scotland.
Gill, A., Fairbairns, B.R. and Fairbairns, R.S.
European Research on Cetaceans 13 (ed. P.G.H. Evans, J. Cruz & J.A. Raga)
Valencia: European Cetacean Society.
Photo-Identification of the Minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata off the Isle of Mull, Scotland. An update.
Report to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
The use of geographical information systems to investigate the spatial and temporal relationships between minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) distribution and seabed topography/sediment type off the Isle of Mull, Scotland.
Department of Zoology, Aberdeen University
Assessment of relative abundance and distribution of the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) using data collected from a whale watching operation.
Fairbairns, R., Gordon, J., Hiby, A., Leaper, R., Lovell, P. and Papastavrou, V.
European Research on Cetaceans 10 (ed. P.G.H. Evans)
Kiel: European Cetacean Society.
Investigating the feasibility of a long-term ecological study of the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) on the west coast of Scotland.
Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, Mull
Analysis of data collected from a whale-watching operation to assess relative abundance and distribution of the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) around the Isle of Mull, Scotland.
Leaper, R., Fairbairns, R., Gordon, J., Hiby, A., Lovell, P. and Papastavrou, V.
Reports of the International Whaling Commission 47: 505-511
Respiration rates of minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) on the west coast of Scotland.
Undergraduate Thesis. Royal Veterinary College, London.
Photo-Identification of the Minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata off the Isle of Mull, Scotland.
Gill, A. and Fairbairns, R.
In Whales, Seals, Fish and Man (ed. A.S. Blix, L.Walloe and O. Ulltand),
Elsevier Science, Netherlands.
Range tracking of the minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, off the Isle of Mull 1994.
Fairbairns, R., Gill, A. and Sargent, T.
Report to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.