Whales and warships off Scotland | WWF
Whales and warships off Scotland

Posted on 07 October 2015

Blog from research ship studying the impact of huge naval exercise on whales and dolphins

Tuesday October 13 – Farewell Silurian
Today it was time to say our goodbyes to the good ship Silurian, its crew, my fellow researchers and our temporary life at sea after an amazing week searching for whales and warships in the waters off the west coast of Scotland, writes Aimee Leslie, WWF Global Cetacean and Marine Turtle Manager.

The Silurian will now head for the shipyard to be worked on over the winter so it's ready to start researching again come the 2016 summer season. Meanwhile, we are all heading back to our usual 'landly' lives. But we take with us so many experiences, memories, and beautiful images of landscapes and animals, and so many natural gifts, as well as a deep sense of responsibility to act on what we’ve seen and learnt.

During our research trip, we encountered 125 common dolphins, 29 common seals, 16 grey seals, 137 harbour porpoises (more than in any previous Silurian surveys in 2015) as well as one stranded minke whale and another sneaky individual that only one of us saw. Additionally we counted 324 fishing creels during our lengthy journey and a huge number of sea birds.

We travelled 302.5 nautical miles and surveyed for a total of 51 hours, 40 minutes and 14 seconds! And now we go home to our families and loved ones - vowing to continue to help conserve cetaceans and the marine world in whatever way we can.
So farewell, Silurian! See you next year!

Sunday 11 October – A sad encounter
As much as we wanted to see minke whales, it was a relief we didn’t have encounters during the massive Joint Warrior military exercise that was underway, particularly when we could hear naval sonar on the hydrophone. But alas, the crew was informed of a stranded whale that had been found two days ago off the coast of Skye. I went there with them to help with the sample taking. It was a sad experience.

A single female minke whale, apparently still in her youth, was surrounded by oily reddish waters in between rocks on a beach. Around her neck were signs of entanglement, adding another individual to the statistic that 50 percent of stranded minke whales exhibit such scars.

The animal was too bloated to be able to take any blubber samples. But baleen and skin were taken for lab analysis once we get back to shore. This encounter was a reminder of the reason why we are here, the importance of these monitoring efforts. So it was a good thing that we were able to document the event.

On a lighter note, nature has blessed us again. As night fell, we headed off to shore to stretch our legs after dinner, and as the dinghy moved across the darkness of the ocean fluorescent green strokes appeared on both sides of the vessel.

I put my hands in the water and as I slowly waved them ripples of bioluminescene from marine organisms spread their amazing light. A small miracle of life: a somewhat smaller and more watery version of the northern lights. And another remarkable end to another very good day.

Friday 9 October: In the last few days, we have sailed over 120 nautical miles around the Hebrides from Tobermory to Muck on the first day, then on to South Iust on the second, and to Skye on the third.
Happy to report that we've seen lots of common dolphins, a few harbour porpoises, and some common and grey seals. But we’re still waiting for our first official whale!
It’s certainly not for want of trying. We’re out on the ocean from 9am – doing 4 half hour shifts before a one hour break. And it’s tiring work, scanning the ocean for whales and dolphins as well as rubbish and fishing gear. Or indeed inputting the data from the spotters into the computer.
But it’s also an amazing, inspiring experience.  Sure the whales will appear soon enough.

Wednesday 7 – Is that Superman?

Latitude: 57 18’.179 N 
Longitude:  007 13’.138 W Anchorage: Molla A’ Tuath, South Uist

The day started with a surprisingly beautiful morning, although it was still fresh despite the blazing sun. It was Ted’s 60th birthday, and Kerry made it extra special by decorating the cabin. Ted brought along some of the gifts he received and opened them with us during breakfast. What a great way to start the day.

Afterwards, John and Brian got the boat ready while Kerry explained to us about the different type of boats and birds we were likely to see - a lot of new species to identify, particularly for someone from the tropics like myself.

I was up first on lookout duty, and only a few minutes in a common dolphin popped up on the right to say its hellos. And the next sighting wasn’t just one, but a whole pod of about 5 dolphins that came and swam behind the boat, riding the waves we made. Then a minke whale seems to have caught us by surprise, surfacing behind us and gliding away with only one of us having glimpsed its fin. We waited for a while to see if it would honour us with another view, but sadly it was gone.

A few more dolphins and birds later, we had our first sighting of some warships. They were off in the distance, but there were clear sonar sounds on the hydrophone. This situation causes mixed feelings, because as much as you want to see cetaceans, you don’t want them to be exposed to these harmful soundwaves, which I could hear as distinct whistles when it was my turn to listen on the hydrophone.

At one point, we suddenly changed direction in order to pick up some birthday balloons that were floating on the water. Surely they hadn't organised a balloon delivery for Ted's big day? And indeed they hadn't. The balloons were actually a surprise gift from the ocean. Or rather an unwanted gift to the sea from someone's birthday party. Luckily, we were there to retrieve them. Kerry said they were not the first they'd picked up in these waters. And they came in handy, as we used them to decorate the cabin on Ted’s special day.

At the end of the day I was happy to get my feet on solid ground when a small group of us took the dinghy to the small island behind our anchorage. Although short, it was a lovely walk on Scottish grass, with a view of the Silurian in the bay. When we returnd to the dinghy, our first mate John sacrificed his feet, by getting wet, so the rest of us didn’t have to. We happily rowed back to the boat and sang happy birthday through the kitchen window, while Ted cooked us dinner.

After a lovely supper, we headed back out onto the deck, and oh what a surprise to see the most amazing light show on earth. The universe decided to reward us with a wonderful view of the northern lights with curtains of green dancing lights along with a tinge of pink every now and again - and all from a sailboat in Hebridean waters. In the background, lovely instrumental Scottish music completed the idyllic scene, and it did seem that the aurora borealis was dancing to its rhythm.

October 7, 2015 will be a day to remember. You do a small thing for the nature, and it gives you so much more back. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, the undeniable beauty and power of the environment we live in is a reminder of our role and responsibility within it. The more blessed we are, the more we should give back; and at the same time, the more we give, the more we receive. The powerful positive circle of life, no matter who or where you are…

Tuesday 6 October: Our first day was intense! We began with an early breakfast and then some last minute shopping and our last real shower for a week. Then it was time to learn the ropes.

Training on board the Silurian kicked off with the species we might encounter and how to identify them visually and through sound. Then came computer data input training and familiarizing ourselves with the database and how to use the hydrophone.
Afterwards our skipper, Brian, gave us the safety guidelines and we were told what the schedule would be – 30 minute shifts with two people at the mast covering 90 degrees each, with the responsibility of shouting "sighting!" if you spotted anything. But the responsibility doesn’t end there – you also have to describe the species, its location, distance from the boat, where it was heading and what it was doing.
And we’re not just keeping our eyes peeled for whales and dolphins. Litter and fishing gear are also going to be recorded during the survey. Definitely a lot of information to take in!
Finally, we were off and only a few minutes after leaving Tobermory, we saw our first harbour porpoise. Four hours later we had seen 8 harbour porpoises, 6 common dolphins and 3 seals. But no warships yet…
And just as I was starting to think that my day was done, dinner duty! Cooking for nine in an unknown kitchen could have been daunting but thankfully I had a great partner in John from Belfast. By 7:10pm dinner was served and wine was flowing…and so was the conversation, ranging from how to resolve the whaling issue to how to reduce our plastic consumption.
None of these are easy issues to tackle. But there was no sense of doom and gloom since there is nothing more motivating than a group united by ideals, and better yet, ideals in action.

Monday 5 October - There is always a thrill to heading out to sea to study whales and dolphins, but it’s more intense this time because I’ve never been on a research trip in Scottish waters and because this is going to be a very unusual trip – as I’m just as likely to see warships as whales.

Indeed, that’s the point of the mission – to monitor the impact on whales and dolphins of a massive military exercise, know as Joint Warrior, off the west coast of Scotland.

It’s being run by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), which surveys 40,000 km2 of ocean around 550 islands each year and is supported by WWF-UK. I’m part of a team of six volunteers and three crew and we’re hoping to see some of the 24 species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) that have been spotted in the area.

And to see whether the military manoeuvres are disrupting the behaviour of the whales and dolphins around the island of Tobemory, which I finally reached after catching a flight, train, ferry and bus.

Back in 2010, the HWDT observed worrying whale behaviour during the last Joint Warrior exercise, which could have been caused by naval sonar.

The research team saw two minke whales moving in the same direction at high speed, regularly leaping clear of the water. This behaviour – known as ‘porpoising’ – is rarely seen in undisturbed whales. At the same time, HWDT recorded constant military sonar on its underwater microphone.

The west coast of Scotland is well known for its minke whales, which migrate to the area in the summer months to feed in the rich and productive waters. Decreases in minke sightings have already been reported off the coast during naval activities.

This trip should provide more data on any adverse impacts of the exercise, particularly the use of naval sonar, which has also been linked to strandings of whales in the past. It should also demonstrate whether mitigation measures have been put in place and whether they’ve had any effect.

The Joint Warrior is a multinational exercise involving numerous warships, aircraft, marines and troops from the UK, NATO and allies. Given the concerns raised about the impact on whales during the last exercise, HWDT has worked with the UK Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy to introduce measures to mitigate the impact but environmental concerns remain.

This survey should cast more light on this – and help to provide insights that can be used to protect other whale and dolphin populations around the globe.

And I can’t wait. Not just to help with the critical research but also to catch sight of some of the species that live in the area, including harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, minke whale, and white beaked dolphins; the latter particularly vulnerable to these kind of sonars.

For the next week, my home will be the Silurian – a 16m long sailboat that weighs 32 tons and was built in 1979. Now dedicated to cetacean conservation, the ship was previously used to film part of the BBC's remarkable documentary "The Blue Planet".

I’ll be sending thoughts from the Silurian whenever I can.

Aimee Leslie onboard the Silurian whale and dolphin research ship off Scotland
© Aimee Leslie
Common dolphin off the Hebrides, Scotland
© Kerry Froud/HWDT
Aimee Leslie with a stranded minke whale in the Hebrides, Scotland
© Aimee Leslie / WWF
Sails of the Silurian research ship studying whales off the west coast of Scotland
© Aimee Leslie / WWF
Route taken by the research ship studying possible impact of naval exercise on whales and dolphins off the Hebrides in Scotland
Team searching for whales and warships
© Kerry Froud/HWDT
Spotting dolphins from high up the Silurian's mast
© Aimee Leslie / WWF
Silurian research ship in a bay in the Hebrides Scotland
© Aimee Leslie / WWF
Northern Lights from the Silurian research ship off Scotland
© Kerry Froud/HWDT
Aimee on board the Silurian
© Kerry Froud/HWDT
Common dolphins in the Hebrides, Scotland
© Kerry Froud/HWDT
Team on the Silurian searching for whales and warships
© Kerry Froud/HWDT
Warship off the Hebrides, Scotland spotted from the Silurian research ship
© Kerry Froud/HWDT