Whale research vessel sets sail to survey marine mammals in the North Sea

Tuesday, 1 November, 2011
Ipswich, UK
The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW - www.ifaw.org) state-of-the-art vessel Song of the Whale (SOTW) will set sail from Ipswich, UK on Monday, November 7, 2011.  The unique, non-invasive whale research boat will carry out vital survey work for 20 days, focusing particularly on harbor porpoises—Europe’s smallest ‘whale’—in the North Sea.

IFAW’s SOTW team uses non-harmful research methods such as photo-identification and passive acoustics with underwater hydrophones to find out more about marine mammals and how they can be protected.

The latest survey will investigate the presence and distribution of harbour porpoises over the Dogger Bank and UK, Dutch and German waters.  The area is a candidate for marine protected area status* and more research is needed to establish current trends in porpoise distribution in offshore waters of the North Sea and to provide baseline data for reducing activities in the area with potential to disturb their natural behavior and movement.  These activities could include fisheries and offshore renewable developments.

There is a general lack of data on the population, distribution and migration patterns of harbour porpoises in the North Sea and on their current conservation status.  However, their status has been of concern for many years due to issues such as accidental bycatch in fishing gear and strandings.

Patrick Ramage, Global Whale Program Director, IFAW, said: “Over two decades, IFAW has been a pioneer in supporting and conducting conservation-led cetacean research, and this exciting project brings together international government and NGO stakeholders to study a potentially critical habitat, at a time of year when there is currently very little data.  

Having led the development of acoustic detection and survey techniques for diminutive and difficult to study porpoises, we are excited to be coordinating the survey and hope it will lead to further international cooperation to protect European porpoises and their habitat in the future.”

The IFAW survey is being carried out with additional support from several partners – ASCOBANS (the Agreement for Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas), Wageningen IMARES (Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies) and WWF UK, along with planning and coordination with German and Belgian groups.

A further aim of the project, with funding from ASCOBANS, is to allow people from across Europe to take part in a combined visual and acoustic survey.  This will include training in the process, equipment setup and operation and passive acoustic data collection.

The SOTW team’s previous projects have included research into highly endangered blue whales in Iceland, surveys of sperm whales in the Mediterranean, research into distribution of harbour porpoises and a survey looking for critically endangered monk seals off West Africa (Morocco and Mauritania).  The team has also worked off the east coast of North America and the Bay of Fundy in Canada, supporting IFAW’s campaign to save the North Atlantic right whale, which is highly endangered and threatened by ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

SOTW is managed and operated by Marine Conservation Research Limited (MCR) on behalf of IFAW.

The Dogger Bank survey team will be comprised around 10 individuals, including six MCR-IFAW SOTW staff and four participants expected to come from the Netherlands, Germany and UK.

Members of the research team are available for interview in advance or during the survey and after SOTW returns to port around November 28. 

Notes to Editors –

*Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Natura 2000 site.

IFAW has operated a dedicated whale research vessel since 1987. For the past two years, Marine Conservation Research Ltd has been managing and operating RV Song of the Whale on behalf of IFAW. SOTW staff have a wealth of experience and expertise in marine conservation and specifically the study of marine mammals. R/V Song of the Whale was purpose-built by IFAW for research and conservation projects and has travelled more than 70,000 miles conducting projects since it was launched by IFAW in 2004.  

About IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

To find out more on SOTW’s work visit www.ifaw.org or to enquire about collaborating with IFAW or about chartering the vessel for a project, research survey or expedition visit www.marineconservationresearch.co.uk


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation