Whale research vessel sets sail to protect marine mammals around the UK and Ireland

A unique, non-invasive whale research boat leaves port this week to carry out vital survey work around the coast of the UK and Ireland.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) state-of-the-art vessel Song of the Whale (SOTW), berthed in Ipswich, sets sail tomorrow (Tues) for Plymouth, from where it will embark on a three-week survey studying beaked whales along the edge of the continental shelf off the west coast of Ireland and Scotland from September 15.

These deep-diving whales are particularly vulnerable to the effects of man-made ocean noise pollution, which may affect their ability to navigate, communicate and locate mates, prey or predators. In extreme cases it can lead to stranding and even death.

The scientific team is working to help develop improved methods for detecting beaked whales acoustically, enabling scientists to study their distribution and abundance in order to better mitigate against threats to them and their deep water habitats. Beaked whales spend very long periods underwater and so are difficult to spot at sea. The team has been working on systems to pick up and distinguish their high frequency vocalisations.

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

Anna Moscrop of MCR said: “The team on Song of the Whale will be carrying out much-needed research as still relatively little is known about beaked whale distribution and habitat use in this area. It is particularly important for us to learn more about these vulnerable species in order to be able to inform conservation measures to better protect them from activities which have the potential to disturb them, such as deep water oil development in the future.”

SOTW’s team of nine sailors and scientists will use towed hydrophones to help document all marine mammals encountered during the voyage, but will focus particularly on elusive beaked whales such as Sowerby’s and Blainville’s beaked whales and northern bottlenose whales. They may also encounter rare blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales as well as basking sharks and several species of dolphins.

Robbie Marsland, UK Director of IFAW, said: “We are delighted that Song of the Whale is continuing its vital non-invasive whale research work around the UK, gathering information that will help us better protect whales and dolphins.”

This project will add to data already collected by the SOTW team during 2008. This survey looked at beaked whale distribution and habitat use around the Azores and Canary Islands, with the aim of developing improved non-invasive methods to survey beaked whales and use modelling to predict their habitat use.

It is also hoped the data collected on the upcoming research leg will contribute to studies on the impact of climate change on marine mammals around the UK.

In recent years SOTW has carried out a variety of projects, including collaborating with governments in Mediterranean states on studies of sperm whale distribution and abundance. To find out more on SOTW’s work or enquire about chartering the vessel for a project, research survey or expedition visit www.marineconservationresearch.co.uk

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