The Hebrides includes some 550 islands and covers a sea area of over 40,000 km². An area of outstanding natural beauty, it has diverse land and seascapes and abundant wildlife. Due to complex tidal streams, varied topography and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, Hebridean waters are the most productive coastal area in the UK and contain a rich diversity of marine life. Nearly a third of the world’s species of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) have been reported in these waters making the Hebrides one of the most important habitats for cetaceans in Europe.
Prior to 1990, there was very little known about the cetaceans of the Hebrides. To address this The Mull Cetacean Project was set up in 1990. Over the years the project grew to encompass a wider area and more diverse range of issues and in 1994 the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) was established.
HWDT is dedicated to enhancing knowledge and understanding of Scotland’s whales, dolphins and porpoises and the Hebridean marine environment through education, research and working within local communities as a basis for the lasting conservation of local species and habitats.
Specifically, HWDT: 1) conducts long-term monitoring of cetacean distribution, abundance and habitat use; 2) educates a wide range of people about the marine environment with a focus on cetaceans; 3) works within local communities to ensure long-term sustainability of the marine environment.
HWDT pioneers practical, locally-based education and monitoring of cetaceans in the Hebrides. We conduct long-term monitoring of distribution and habitat of the cetaceans in these waters. The aim of this monitoring work is to provide those who manage Scotland's marine wildlife and habitats with information they need to achieve effective conservation of the area’s extraordinary biodiversity. This monitoring work also provides the materials for our work in environmental education, helping to raise public awareness about the wildlife which exists in this unique region.
Our wide-ranging monitoring activities focus largely on studies of harbour porpoise, minke whale and bottlenose dolphin. The primary emphasis of this monitoring is the study of cetacean populations through visual and acoustic surveys conducted from our research vessel Silurian. Coverage from these surveys has been most intensive in the Argyll Islands area. Among our other activities we work with local tour operators who collect data from their vessels, maintain a network for recording sightings made by the public, respond to reports of dead or stranded cetaceans, and maintain collections of photographs of the natural markings of cetaceans for identifying individual animals over time.
We deliver our education programme to communities in the Argyll Islands area and plan to extend this to the Highlands, Lochaber, Skye and the Western Isles in the following years. We teach local people about the area’s marine species, and related issues such as threats and conservation. The primary focus of this work is conducting programmes for school children and teachers. In addition we have delivered courses for adults, organised and attended events, and presented talks to a wide variety of groups. Through our website we reach a wider, even global, audience. The Trust maintains a visitor centre and shop in Tobermory, Mull which attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Significant projects have included our range of NADAIR projects. In 2000, The Nadair Trust (Nature and Sustainable Development in the Argyll Islands) secured Heritage Lottery Funding for 28 individual heritage-based projects throughout the Argyll islands. All the projects focussed on the sustainable development of the outstanding natural, archaeological, historical, cultural and geological interest of the Argyll islands whilst protecting existing jobs and creating new employment opportunities. HWDT contributed three projects as part of the Nadair Programme. With the success of Nadair 1, a second round of HLF and supporting funding were secured for 38 projects in 2005, including a further two HWDT projects. HWDT’s projects, which contributed to Nadair’s aims were:
- To conduct long term research into the distribution, abundance and behaviour of Hebridean cetaceans,
- To educate a wide range of people about the marine environment, especially cetaceans, and
- To work with west coast communities towards a sustainable future for our seas.
NADAIR 1: The Marine Interpretation and Education Project was developed to generate a broader understanding of, and a greater level of responsibility towards the marine and coastal environments of the Argyll islands. Interpretative materials were produced for all ages and sections of society. As part of the project, pupils at more than 75 schools learned about the marine heritage of their region and the sustainable use of the sea’s resources, as well as about whales, dolphins and other conservation priority species.
The Marine Life Monitoring and Marine Outreach Project combined the acquisition and operation of the sailing vessel Silurian as a monitoring platform and as a “floating classroom”. This enabled the HWDT Education Team to visit schools around the islands and Argyll coast delivering marine education at all levels. Groups of school children and other community groups were invited on board for workshops and presentations to learn about their marine heritage. In tandem with this, a monitoring programme was developed to survey the waters around the Argyll Islands for cetaceans and other priority species.
The Community Sea Life Sightings Project encouraged members of island and coastal communities in the Argyll Atlantic Islands to develop an active interest and involvement in the marine life in their waters, whilst at the same time building a useful body of information relating to sightings of cetaceans in the area. The public reported sightings of a variety of marine species; a series of workshops was also held to discuss the diversity of marine species and how to recognise them, and identification packs provided. An excellent response was received over the three year project roll-out, from boat operators, fishermen and fish farmers amongst others. This provided a vast amount of information for collation and dissemination to help further knowledge of the marine environment of Argyll.
Under NADAIR 2, a further two HWDT projects were included:
Marine Biodiversity and Marine Environmental Training Programme: In this, HWDT undertook more detailed investigations and monitoring work using Silurian as a monitoring platform. Projects were linked directly to actions identified in the Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAPs) and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP). HWDT worked with partners, and projects included investigating “hotspot” areas in more detail, identified during NADAIR 1. Surveys have also included assessment of potential conservation threats. The sightings programme was widened. Photo- identification images of priority species such as bottlenose dolphins, minke whales and killer whales were collected and catalogued. HWDT delivered training weeks to students, community groups, organisations and the public providing instruction in identification, survey techniques and data analysis.
Marine Education Project: Our Marine Education Project built on the education work carried out in NADAIR 1. All the Argyll Atlantic Island area high schools and some of the Argyll coastal mainland schools were visited by Silurian and a land-based educational team. Follow-on visits were made to the Arygll Atlantic Island area primary schools. Marine education field courses and workshops were delivered to a range of people including local community organisations and individuals, students, marine users and volunteers from the local area to further afield. Continuing development of web-based educational resources also took place giving access to a wider audience from schools to teachers and the wider public.
During the period of Nadair, HWDT grew to become the 4th largest private employer on Mull and Iona contributing a significant amount to the local economy. HWDT would like to thank HLF, SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage), AIE (Argyll and Islands Enterprise), WWF and all its funders during this period. HWDT is now in the process of raising funds to expand its monitoring and education work to other parts of the Hebrides and the West of Scotland, using the experiences it has gained during a unique programme of activities undertaken in the Argyll Islands.
To find out about our reseach findings, please click here.
To find out about our education and outreach programme, please click here.