Cetacean Conservation Volunteering in Scotland

Sail the Hebridean Sea in Scotland aboard research vessel Silurian and assist with dolphin and whale monitoring activities. Volunteers will collect visual and acoustic data on the various species of cetacean found in the area.

We have places for volunteers to join throughout the year.

Individuals, groups and students doing research all welcome.

Cost including accommodation, food, training by researchers and boat fuel starts from £950

A basking sharkThe SilurianA volunteer out at seaAn orcaA pod of common dolphinsA beautiful view of the research vesselBottlenose dolphinsA minke whale Common dolphins leaping from the waterThe Silurian on a sunny dayObserving a minke whale Volunteers on board the SilurianWhite beaked dolphinsLoving the Hebrides!The Silurian at sunsetSeals along the shoreStunning sceneryOrcas

About the Project

Watching out for CetaceansDuring the expedition you will live-aboard the research yacht Silurian, exploring the Hebrides while collecting visual and acoustic data on the various species of whale, dolphin and porpoise (cetacean) found in the study area. Images will also be collected during encounters for Photo-ID analysis; Photo-ID is a tool used to identify individuals using distinguishable marks on their dorsal fins. 24 species of cetacean – nearly a third of the global total – have been recorded in the Hebrides. However, the most commonly encountered species, and target of specific research include:

The minke whale; researchers have documented approximately 122 individuals in the area using Photo-ID. Some return to the same areas annually while others are just passing through. 

The harbour porpoise; some of the highest densities of porpoises in Europe are found in the Hebrides. They are fairly elusive cetaceans, rarely approaching vessels or leaping clear of the water. 

The bottlenose dolphin; Scottish bottlenose dolphins are at the most northern extent of the species’ range and are consequently the largest. Photo ID suggests that Hebridean waters host one of the UK’s three resident populations. 

Volunteers spot a seal

The white-beaked dolphin;  we have been investigating population structure differences between east and west coast Scotland white-beaked dolphins, in particular the differences between vocalisations. This research will contribute directly to how this species is managed in UK waters.

Common dolphins are seasonal visitors, recorded mainly between April and October, in groups sometimes containing several hundred individuals. Research suggests that common dolphin numbers have increased in the Hebrides in recent years; in fact the encounter rate aboard Silurian has almost doubled in the last decade. Common dolphins are very inquisitive and will actively approach boats and play in the bow-wave.  

The species outlined are the most commonly sighted; however we also have annual encounters with Orca, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins and sunfish (towards the end of summer).  In the Hebrides, the occasional humpback whale, sperm whale, sei whale, bottlenose whale and fin whale have also been recorded, although the chance of seeing these is very small.

Minke Whale

In the study area, basking sharks are frequently encountered between May and October and are seen in high numbers around the islands of Coll, Tiree and Hyskier. Research conducted shows that basking shark sightings fluctuate greatly between years; further research will help us to understand basking shark distribution in the Hebrides – fast emerging as one of the most important areas for this second largest fish in the world, with unusual behaviours such as courtship and breaching regularly observed.  The data collected aboard Silurian will allow for a better understanding of cetacean species, both locally and internationally.  The resulting information will feed into more effective conservation strategies’, ensuring the Hebridean marine environment is safeguarded for future generations.

Project Background

Despite the EU labeling the Hebrides as one of the last 'wild' coastal environments and one of the best examples of Atlantic maritime coast in Europe, very little was known about the cetacean species found there until research began in the mid-1990’s.  Since then, researchers have been monitoring the area, recording encounters (alongside other environmental factors) and taking images for analysis.

The Silurian anchored in a secluded bayThere are many threats faced by cetaceans in the area.  Entanglement from ghost gear and/or static fishing gear (creel ropes) is an issue, alongside general marine litter and ingestion by marine life. Noise pollution is also an issue in the Hebrides, with research dedicated to realising the impact of Acoustic Deterrent Devices (deployed by aquaculture sites to scare predators off) on porpoise displacement. Pollution is an issue, recent studies into PCB contamination reveal that European cetaceans are some of the most contaminated in the world, leading to low reproductive rates (among other things). It’s believed that this might be the reason that the West Coast Community of orca – a highly vulnerable population, numbering only 8, found off the west coast of Scotland and Ireland – has never reproduced successfully. Depletion of food stocks and habitat degradation are yet more threats faced by cetaceans locally.  

Free Time for Volunteers

Sailing on board the Silurian whilst being a dolphin and whale research volunteer is a truly fantastic way to explore the west coast of Scotland. Anchoring each evening in secluded island bays will give you the opportunity to hop ashore and explore the otherwise inaccessible vast beaches, rugged cliff tops and abandoned villages. A whole wealth of British wildlife will also be revealed from carnivorous plants to beautiful orchids and rare bees to majestic eagles.

Dates and Costs

Orcas swimming in Scotland

Tobermory Expeditions - 2019

Our Tobermory expeditions allow for the monitoring of the Southern Hebrides (Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Gigha and the slate isles) alongside the Argyll Isles (Mull, Iona, Staff, Treshnish, Tiree and Coll) and the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck).

Early-season surveys:
This early-season survey will monitor for the resident populations of porpoise and bottlenose dolphin, alongside noting the arrival of our seasonal visitors. Spring is a fantastic time to visit the Hebrides with the arrival of thousands of nesting seabirds. Shorter daylight hours also mean shorter survey days, this coupled with one of the shorter duration adds up to a perfect introduction to the Cetacean Monitoring Programme.

13th to 19th April 2019: £950
21st to 27th April 2019: £950
6th to 14th May 2019: £1150
18th to 25th May 2019: £1050 - Fully Booked

Mid-season surveys:
These surveys will monitor Hebridean seas during the height of the summer season so you can hope to expect sightings of seasonal cetacean visitors (minke whale, common dolphin) as well as basking shark. The hours of daylight are at their maximum so expect long days on survey effort.

14th to 25th July 2019: £1450
13th to 24th August 2019: £1450

Teen Team Surveys:

Teen Team Surveys provide a fantastic experience for younger environmentalists (aged 16-17), with participants gaining the fundamental skills required to forge a career in marine conservation. The protocol during the Teen Team Surveys is exactly the same as the Cetacean Monitoring Programme, however, there will be more staff provision to offer insight and support.

27th July to 2nd August 2019: £995
5th to 11th August 2019: £995

Research volunteers in the Hebrides

Ullapool Expeditions - 2019

Ullapool is on the Scottish mainland, far in the north-west (where the ferry to Stornoway departs). With departure from Ullapool, these surveys will allow for the exploration of the more northern parts of our study area - which are frequented by some of the rarer species recorded in the Hebrides (white-beaked dolphin and Risso's dolphin). Areas covered include the Outer Hebrides and the seas off Northern Skye.

This mid-season survey will monitor some of the most productive areas of the Hebrides. At this point in the field season we will be monitoring sightings of seasonal visitors such as minke whale and common dolphin. The hours of daylight are at their maximum so expect long days on survey effort.

13th to 21st June 2019: £1250
23rd June to 4th July 2019: £1450

Kyle of Lochalsh Expeditions - 2019

Departure in Kyle of Lochalsh (where the bridge to Skye meets the mainland) allows for the monitoring of the Small Isles, Skye (and its surrounding islands, including the Sound of Raasay – the deepest inshore waters in the UK), Barra, South Uist and the Inner Minch.

These surveys will monitor Hebridean seas during the latter parts of the summer season so you can hope to expect sightings of both seasonal cetacean visitors (minke whale and common dolphin) as well as resident species (porpoise and bottlenose dolphin).

27th August to 7th September 2019: £1450
15th to 23rd September 2019: £1250

Please note that the information listed above is a general overview and subject to change - the area surveyed will be at the discretion of the crew who will join you aboard and the weather conditions at the time.

Volunteers making observations from the deck

Price includes:

- Food and beverages (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks - except for alcoholic and soft drinks)
- Accommodation aboard Silurian (pillows and bed sheets and duvets provided)
- Insurance while aboard
- Lectures and training by researchers
- Scientific supervision
- Ocean-going adequate waterproofs
- Research contribution
- Fuel for the boat
- Crew for the boat

Price excludes:

- Travel expenses to and from the rendezvous point (Tobermory, Kyle of Lochalsh and Ullapool)
- Travel insurance
- Personal expenses (telephone, souvenirs, etc.)
- Meal on the last evening of the expedition (volunteers and crew usually go out to a restaurant together)
- Alcoholic drinks (beer, wine, etc.)

Food, Lodging, Travel and Climate

Dinner time aboard the Silurian

You will spend the duration of the project living aboard Silurian, a fully-equipped research yacht.  Silurian has surveyed thousands of nautical miles of Hebridean waters since being purchased in 2002; spending the field season monitoring as far north as Cape Wrath, as far south as Kintyre and as west as the St. Kilda archipelago.  Prior to joining the team, Silurian was used as a filming platform in the BBC series The Blue Planet.

Silurian can accommodate up to six volunteers and has a crew of three: Skipper, First Mate and Science Officer.  Silurian is a hard-working research vessel, not a luxury cruiser, although participants find her a safe and comfortable living environment. There are three volunteer cabins in the forward section of the vessel. Each of these contains two berths and a small amount of storage space for personal belongings. Two of the cabins have bunk style beds and the other cabin has a twin double berth.  Participants have access to their own toilet and shower room. Internet access during the project is variable, but more often than not inaccessible.  There is a large saloon space in the heart of the boat where most time will be spent in the evening eating and socialising. The galley is very well equipped for a yacht, with fridge and freezer space.

Both volunteers and research assistants will be responsible for cooking on a rotation basis, though meal plans are typically set out by the crew.  Enough food to last the duration of the expedition will be loaded aboard Silurian prior to the rendezvous.  Local island meat, bread and rolls are sourced.  Fruit and vegetables are sourced from local companies too.  A whole variety of different diets can be catered for aboard, simply let the researchers know if you have any requirements.  Water is limited and volunteers are encouraged to conserve as much as possible during the expedition.  The dishwashing and general cleaning of the house are further shared duties.

The Silurian

Travel in Scotland

As the duration of the project will be spent aboard a research yacht, there will be no need for transport during the expedition.  In the evenings, volunteers may have the opportunity to venture ashore to explore the many Hebridean islands, however many of these are uninhabited, let alone have roads! 

There are three rendezvous locations for this project: Tobermory (on the Isle of Mull), Kyle of Lochalsh (on the mainland where you’ll find the bridge to the Isle of Skye) and Ullapool (the most north-western town on the Scottish Mainland).  All are accessible via public transport links.

If flying, it is advised that you fly into Glasgow for Tobermory rendezvous and Inverness for Kyle of Lochalsh and Ullpool rendezvous.  However, you will be able to access all locations by flying into both Glasgow and Edinburgh, with public transport links to all.

Climate in the Hebrides

Wrapped up warm on board The west coast of Scotland, while outstandingly beautiful, is not known for its tropical climate and rain is prevalent throughout the year. Even on bright, sunny days the added wind chill of being at sea can affect the temperature dramatically, so please bear that in mind when packing your equipment. Sea-faring waterproofs are provided, designed for use offshore, they are effective at keeping the west coast weather at bay. The sea is a highly reflective environment and you are therefore advised to bring sunscreen and sunglasses for protection from the glare, even when it's cold enough for a woolly hat! Midges are prevalent in west Scotland during the summer months and, although they are likely only to be encountered during evening shore leave, they can be very irritating. It is advisable to bring insect repellent for trips ashore.

Volunteer Requirements

No experience is required as full training will be provided on board.  Volunteers should be aged 18+ (16+ if joining a teen team survey), and comfortable living aboard a yacht and maintaining survey effort in all weather conditions. Good eyesight and hearing is important to undertake the data collection during the survey.  The Hebridean islands are the remotest parts of the UK and so access to medical services is limited, if you suffer from a serious condition you may want to consider a project closer to civilisation.

Background and Interactive Map

Below is an interactive map showing the location of the project:

About the Hebrides

View of the Hebrides coastlineThe Hebrides includes some 550 islands distributed over approximately 40,000 square kilometres, encompassing all inshore waters found off the west coast of Scotland.  There are a wide range of marine habitats of international importance: rocky reefs, cold water corals, turbulent tidal streams and deep-water channels.  Complex oceanography is a result of interactions between the Atlantic Ocean and the Celtic and North Seas, coupled with complex undersea topography – the result is an area rich in biodiversity.  The area was classed by the EU as “On land, the coastal landscape is magnificent, featuring sea cliffs and stacks, wonderful white sandy beaches, moorlands, mountain ranges, sea lochs, salt marshes and machair (a rare coastal environment exclusive to the north and west of Scotland and Ireland)."

During the volunteer expedition, the route travelled will be dependent on weather conditions and also areas where survey effort is lacking.  Each evening we will anchor in a different location, usually off one of the many remote islands in the area.  Opportunities for shore leave and exploration will be available each evening once the survey work is complete.   Each of the Hebridean islands has its own unique character and is steeped in Highland history, tradition and culture.  What is most evident within the Hebrides is the dramatic variation in the Scottish landscape; the west coast of Scotland indisputably possesses truly spectacular scenery, the last true wilderness in the UK.

Volunteer Testimonials

Rod White tells about his experiences volunteering with the project in the past years:

What inspired you to join the project?Volunteers on boat in Hebrides

I first heard about the work of the trust on BBC radio Scotland. It appealed to me because I care about the environment, love the West Coast of Scotland, enjoy adventures, sailing, bird watching and wildlife. A voyage here satisfies all these parameters. To sail in the wonderful scenery off the Scottish coast is a privilege. Lots of people come by car or ferry to explore this area but seeing it from the vantage point of a yacht is special. Anchoring in wild places accessible to only a few makes this experience unforgettable.

What was your most memorable moment?

It has to be the sighting of a pod of nine orca in June of this year. We stayed with this group for half an hour watching them in their passage south in the Sea of Hebrides. The excitement on board was electric. This is often top of the wish list of those coming on board, however, while there are always plenty of sightings on every trip, orca are one of our rarer spotted species here on the West Coast. Having said this, I have never returned home disappointed. There is always some enchanting experience which touches your heart and makes you feel very privileged to have been there.

What’s the biggest challenge of the survey?Volunteers together eating on boat

This varies from person to person. For some it will be their first time aboard a small yacht, where living quarters are shared and cosy. For others it will be the limited showers! Others will be well out of their comfort zone. Very quickly the supportive camaraderie aboard allays any misgivings, with help always at hand. Crew and volunteers soon develop into a solid team with a shared goal. The education aboard is excellent and soon brings novices up to speed where everyone feels their contribution is appreciated. Shared duties such as cooking and cleaning help solidify the sense of teamwork on board.

What’s the most valuable thing you have learnt?

Since 2015 I have been on seven trips aboard Silurian and I have met a varied bunch of people of different ages and backgrounds. It is lovely to see folk from abroad, some of whom have travelled thousands of miles to join the team. I have learnt how many wonderful people there are in the world. Mobile coverage is poor in some remote areas and being free from constant communication is a great antidote to modern life. 

Doing surveys onboard

One of the wonderful things about the Silurian is the mixture of age groups. I am an older volunteer and it is rejuvenating to mix with the younger folk. Likewise I think they realise that the wrinklies can still be fun to have around. I am filled with admiration for the drive and ambition of many of the volunteers and crew, who make the challenges of long working days and Scottish weather on-board a breeze.

Best advice for aspiring volunteers?

Don’t hold back. You will have a wonderful adventure and meet a group of like-minded people, some of whom will be friends long after the voyage is over. In addition it is great to be part of a team undertaking solid scientific work which is helping to safeguard our precious environment. You will learn a lot, not only about cetaceans and visual and acoustic monitoring techniques, but you will also become proficient in identifying sea birds and other wildlife.

Archie Gooding, from the UK, joined the project as a volunteer for 1 week in June 2018:

The experience was brilliant. The people were very friendly and useful and allowed everyone to have a good experience and learn something. Nothing could really be improved upon as the whole experience was amazing.

Ian Brunt, from the UK, joined as a volunteer in September 2017: 

I absolutely loved my recent time volunteering. There was almost nothing that I could wish to have changed except perhaps having even more sightings, but that Sunset on boatwould have just been greedy. The boat, people, weather, scenery and wildlife were all I could have hoped for.

The boat itself was great and although my friends cannot image spending so much time on board in (in relative close quarters and with so many other people), I was was extremely fortunate that all of my fellow volunteers (6 of us in total) were all interesting people, easy to get on with and keen to be involved in every aspect of the survey and running of the boat. The three crew (skipper, 1st mate and science officer) were also extremely knowledgeable, interesting and enthusiastic people who were always happy to explain things, answer whatever questions we had and allow us to try things on the boat (such as visiting the crows nest or helming/steering). It was definitely a sad day when the survey finished for us and I was not alone in being prepared to remain on board for another survey if we could have.

As part of the on-survey effort, we were involved in a number of roles that were undertaken in rotation – 2 hours on (30 minutes per station) and 1 hour off to relax, read, sleep, take photo’s, make a brew, etc. The survey effort involved being on lookout and recording seals, whales, dolphins, birds, lobster creels, rubbish and shipping as well as monitoring the environmental conditions and monitoring/recording signals from the hydrophone. 

Dolphins in Hebrides

After the day's surveying we anchored in a small bay or harboured up and all gathered for tea and biscuits (or cake!) to review the day, followed by an excursion to shore for anyone who wished to go. We all then took turns in adding to the ship’s blog and preparing an evening meal which we all ate together which was great (the selection of fresh ingredients on board by the way was amazing – and most of it sourced locally where possible). The rest of the evening was then various mixes of presentations/discussions about what we’d seen or were likely to do the next day, asking questions, more tea and chatting and sometimes games to play. After the days efforts, which were surprisingly tiring (especially with all that sea air), most of us had reasonably early nights (which suited me absolutely fine).

The weather during our time on board was also amazing and so so much better than we could ever have hoped for. There were many days where we could easily have been in the Mediterranean. From our time on board we covered a large part of the northern Hebrides and crossed the Minch between Lewis and the Scottish mainland a number of times. We saw Minke whales and porpoises and various species of seals and dolphins, besides a variety of bird life including three Golden Eagles flying together.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time volunteering. I got to see some amazing scenery and wildlife (including improving my knowledge and recognition of sea birds, which was one of my original goals), spent time with interesting people who were as interested and excited as I was, learned so much about cetaceans and their environment (including how to spot and rapidly and accurately record them) and in some small way, add to the knowledge of all these amazing animals and assist in their protection. Thank you so much for putting me in touch with this project – besides the information that I helped to obtain I know that I personally got so much from my time there.

Onboard ship at project in Scotland

Adam Jenkins, from Australia, volunteered in July 2017:

I had a great time on the project. It was well-run, the staff were very competent, friendly and helpful, and I learnt a lot and made some new friends.  I was happy that they also catered for my dietary requirements (I'm vegan).



Priscilla Marsden, volunteered in September 2016:

I had a brilliant time on board Silurian. The crew were very knowledgeable and happy to share their knowledge and looked after us very well. Although the weather was not particularly good for spotting mammals, we saw several different species including a large group of harbour porpoises, when all the books say they are only seen singles or in pairs. Silurian herself is a lovely boat and felt very safe and secure. The evenings were spent playing various games and eating a variety of meals prepared by different people each day. The combination of beautiful scenery and wildlife sightings was added to by one evening being able to see the Northern Lights, a first for me. Overall an excellent experience, one which I would happily repeat.

The Silurian at sunset “For those of you who want to do more than just read about adventure stories out on the far seas, I urge you to leave the world as you know it behind, and take the plunge” September 2015

“An “alternative holiday” doesn’t even begin to describe my experience upon Silurian.  From breath-taking views, the vast knowledge and presentations given to us by our scientific officers, to the evening trips ashore” September 2015

“Volunteering aboard the Silurian is something you can do on different levels. It can be a holiday with a difference; it can be an educational opportunity; it can be the first fleeting step towards a fully-fledged career in conservation. First and foremost, though, it is a contribution. Come and do this ….if you want to contribute in a small but lasting way to something that is real, concrete and tangible” August 2015

“On our last evening on the sea I can’t help but believe that the Hebrides of Scotland have lured us in with their danger, wilderness and raw beauty. I know I don’t want to go home!” July 15

“My heart is gladdened by being able to help in the meaningful and important research work that we carry out aboard Silurian and the HWDT.” May 15

“These islands here in the Hebrides are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. “ July 2015

Volunteers on board the SilurianHow to Join the Project

If you are interested in joining this project, you will need to fill out the online application form (you can also print it out and send it to us by post) – to secure a placement on the project, please complete and submit the form including your application payment of £155. If for some reason, your application is not accepted, we would reimburse this payment fully. For those who are accepted, 25% of the final payment is due within 14 days of being accepted and the balance payment is due 6 weeks before arrival. Once your place is confirmed, you will receive a pre-departure package with all detailed information on your project, suggested items to bring etc.

Apply Now

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