Survey Summary: Teen Research Expedition 2

 The team in Tobermory Bay (minus Pippa who is taking the photo!)

The team in Tobermory Bay (minus Pippa who is taking the photo!)

Last week, the atmosphere on Silurian was buzzing with the arrival of six budding marine biologists full of enthusiasm to gain experience and get hands on with marine conservation. This survey was our second Teen Research Expedition which started on the 5th August, leaving from Tobermory Bay.

The week began with in-depth training in cetacean ID and an introduction to HWDT’s key research projects. We then covered the scientific protocol followed on board Silurian and the  volunteers learnt how to conduct both visual surveys and acoustic monitoring. Finally, before setting sail we practiced our mantra ‘SIGHTING, bearing, distance, heading’ on the boat’s moored close by, to prepare us for our survey ahead.

Out on the water, the team had no choice but to find their sea legs, as we headed around Ardnamurchan Point with quite a swell. Nevertheless, we still managed to put our training in to practice with eight sightings on our first day, including 10 harbour porpoises and a flash of a minke whale.

The following day we brushed up on our bird ID skills, before surveying the Sound of Sleat. The Sound provided shelter from the prevailing winds and we were treated to sightings of hundreds of Manx shearwaters, much to the bird counter’s delight. Amid the white caps we also caught glimpses of 12 harbour porpoises, in addition to a couple more minke whales. That evening whilst anchored off the Isle of Ornsay, we enjoyed a plankton party, peering down the microscopes at the tiny alien like lifeforms.   

 Plankton Party!

Plankton Party!

From Isle Ornsay, we headed back down the Sound, around Skye’s coastline to Loch Scavaig, one of the most dramatic anchorages in the Hebrides, with impressive views of the Cuillins. From here we nipped around the Isle of Soay before heading across to Rum.  Over the day we had a brilliant encounter with four harbour porpoises exploding from the water, with a burst of energy as they sprinted through the swell.

 Track lines for Teen Research Expedition 2

Track lines for Teen Research Expedition 2

Our most notable encounter however, happened at the end of the day, as we approached Rum, with a large triangular dorsal fin spotted cutting through the water. This fin belonged to none other than a basking shark! The team assembled on the fore deck with cameras, snapping photographs of the sharks distinctive fin and tail for photo identification research.

 A basking shark, seen on our approach to Rum

A basking shark, seen on our approach to Rum

That evening the team went ashore, to make the most of the showers on Rum, whilst half the team went to have a look at the impressive Kinloch Castle and meet some of the local population of red deer.

 Kinloch Castle, expertly captured by one of the team - Moray. 

Kinloch Castle, expertly captured by one of the team - Moray. 

 Another of Moray's fantastic photos - this time the red deer on Rum.

Another of Moray's fantastic photos - this time the red deer on Rum.

Thursday really challenged the team, with wet and windy conditions, however spirits remained high and surveying continued, minus a welcome lunch break inside. It was fantastic to hear, during a particularly wild moment at the mast, our youngest volunteer enthusiastically explaining that the importance of the research and data we were collecting, was what helped spur him on, and keep his focus.  

 Wet and windy... but we are still smiling!

Wet and windy... but we are still smiling!

Overnight the winds dropped, and we were greeted to mirror seas in our anchorage off Muck for our last day of surveying. The team, now well-rehearsed with the mantra, quickly got stuck in calling sighting after sighting as we spotted pods of porpoises leisurely travelling past us as we headed out towards the Cairns of Coll. This day was like no other. As we neared Coll, the distinctive whistles of dolphins were recorded on the hydrophone. Soon enough, we had common dolphins around the boat, inquisitively coming over to have a look at us, before heading off a little way to forage. This continued for twenty minutes or so, before we went back on transect, with a few dolphins in tow. Just as everyone was back on effort ‘SIGHTING’ was called as a minke whale, surfaced parallel with Silurian. All eyes around the deck as we went ‘with whale’, scanning the sea for the minke. It surfaced a couple more times, enough to get a quick photo, and then it was gone. As we headed back to Tobermory, we had three more sightings of common dolphins, encountering them just at the entrance to the Sound of Mull as they headed out to deeper waters. Quite a spectacle and a fantastic way to finish our survey!

 A fleeting glimpse of the minke whale, just long enough to get a photo. 

A fleeting glimpse of the minke whale, just long enough to get a photo. 

Over the week, the young citizen scientists travelled 180 miles, conducting 30 hours of visual surveying and 18 hours of acoustic monitoring. In total they recorded 55 sightings of marine megafauna, encountering 234 individual animals. Six different species were seen on the trip (not counting the birds); common seal, grey seal, harbour porpoise, common dolphin, minke whale and basking shark. Harbour porpoises were the most commonly sighted cetacean with 65% of the sightings attributed to this species. However, the highest number of mammals recorded were the common dolphins with 151 individuals counted. Between them, the team also recorded a staggering 2774 shearwaters over the week, accounting for 69% of the birds tallied (guillemots were the second highest with 700 individuals counted).

 One of the many common dolphins, that approached Silurian for a closer look. 

One of the many common dolphins, that approached Silurian for a closer look. 

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the teen researchers on this survey, we have added to the scientific evidence needed for change in Scottish waters. This survey has covered key locations identified for the protection of harbour porpoises, basking sharks and minke whales, strengthening our long term database, which is the largest of its kind for UK waters.

The crew would like to extend a massive thanks to the six young people that joined us on board for a week of sailing, surveying and smiling. We had a great time and were really impressed with your team work, positive attitudes and willingness to get stuck in. It’s exciting to know that you are the future of marine science, and we wish you all the best of luck in your applications to University. Hopefully we will see you again, back on Silurian in the not too distant future!

This trip was also possible thanks to funding from Scottish Natural Heritage, players of People’s Postcode Lottery through Postcode Local Trust, and the Robertson Trust.

If you are 16 or 17 years old and are feeling inspired to spend seven days at sea, working alongside scientists as marine mammal field biologists, why not join our Teen Research Expedition next year?  

Kick start your career in marine conservation, by keeping an eye on our website and social media pages for 2019 survey dates, soon to be announced.