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Scientists to study elusive beaked whales in Biscay – “Diver 2008 project”

29/06/2008 00:27:25 June 2008. A group of Europe's leading marine conservation and research organisations have joined forces to carry out further crucial research into some of the rarest and most elusive marine animals on the planet - beaked whales. The research programme, called "Diver 2008", will run for a month off the northern coast of Spain, within the Bay of Biscay - an area renowned for sightings of these mysterious marine mammals. The programme follows on from a successful first Diver project in 2006, which established an important research baseline.

Beaked whales

Beaked whales are a group of 21 whale species, characterised by their distinctive beaks. They are primarily found in offshore deep water canyons and as such are rarely within easy reach of researchers and whale watching enthusiasts, making them little studied. However, the northern Spanish coast has a number of these deep water canyons within 20km of the coast and past survey work by the Diver 2008 researchers from commercial ferries, has highlighted the importance of these canyons for a number of beaked whale species, including Cuvier's beaked whale, Sowerby's beaked whale and Northern Bottlenose whale.

The research is led by the UK-based ORCA (Organisation Cetacea), with the other UK partners including Marinelife and the Seamark Trust, along with Ambar from Spain.

Dr Kelly Macleod, Project Coordinator of the Diver surveys and Chairperson of the charity Organisation ORCA, explained the research aims and methods "The 5 strong research team, will focus on estimating the numbers of beaked whales within the area, identifying whether the beaked whales display particular habitat preferences and obtaining photos for use in later identification of individual whales".

Dr Kelly Macleod, added "The project is exciting because it offers a rare opportunity for scientists to study beaked whales at close quarters from a small vessel sailing along a series of pre-defined survey routes".

The UK charity Marinelife have provided 30% of the funding for the project and Research Director Dr Tom Brereton commented, "We are delighted to be contributing to this vital research project, which is a great example of collaboration within the marine research field."

Highly sensitive to sub-sea noise
The research is important and timely because beaked whales are known to be very sensitive to certain sub-sea noise and there have been numerous cases of mass stranding of these animals which have been linked to concurrent use of military sonar. Through Diver 2008, the researchers aim to generate the scientific evidence that will help underpin future conservation measures for these vulnerable animals, including advice on the impact noise pollution can have in certain areas of our ocean which can "appear" empty and far from shore.

The data collected through Diver 2008, will add to the knowledge base on beaked whales developed by Ambar, Marinelife and ORCA obtained through surveys on commercial ferries in the region. All three groups share this data and collaborate with other ferry researchers, through the Atlantic Research Coalition (ARC).

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