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Whale and Dolphin Conservation Volunteer Project, Hebrides

1-2 Weeks from

minimum age

  • Live and work aboard a research yacht with fellow volunteers
  • Explore the scenic beauty of the Scottish Hebrides
  • Gain experience in marine conservation and cetacean monitoring techniques
  • Observe a range of cetacean species and birds along the coast

About the Hebrides Volunteer Project

Common Dolphin Swimming in ScotlandDuring 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.

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.

Volunteers observing whale in ScotlandIn 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.

Volunteer Expedition Locations

Please note that the information listed below 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.

Tobermory Expeditions

Volunteers sailing in the Hebrides

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:
These surveys will monitor 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.

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.

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.

Ullapool Expeditions

Research vessel in the HebridesUllapool 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.

These surveys 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.

Mallaig Expeditions

Research volunteers in the Hebrides

Departure in Mallaig 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.

Spring in the Hebrides is a wonderful time with nature awakening after the dark winter months. Sea birds are returning to land to nest and breed and seasonal visitors to our inshore waters are starting to arrive. Generally, the weather is more settled in spring which allows for easier conditions to survey. Plus, shore visits can be much more enjoyable before the mid-summer midge invasion.

Project Background

Common Dolphin in ScotlandDespite 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.

There 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.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Volunteer Project, Hebrides

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