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.
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.
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.
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;
There is a post fieldwork report written by Exeter Univesity which you can download from the SNH website here.
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).
Macleod, K., Fairbairns, R.S., Gill, A., Fairbairns, B.R., Gordon, J., Blair-Myers, C.
presented to the IWC Scientific meeting
Stockin, K., Fairbairns R.S, Parsons, E.C.M., Sims, D. J. Mar. Biol. Ass. U.K.
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.
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.
Report to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
Department of Zoology, Aberdeen University
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.
Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, Mull
Leaper, R., Fairbairns, R., Gordon, J., Hiby, A., Lovell, P. and Papastavrou, V.
Reports of the International Whaling Commission 47: 505-511
Undergraduate Thesis. Royal Veterinary College, London.
Gill, A. and Fairbairns, R.
In Whales, Seals, Fish and Man (ed. A.S. Blix, L.Walloe and O. Ulltand),
Elsevier Science, Netherlands.
Fairbairns, R., Gill, A. and Sargent, T.
Report to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.