Summer breaks are the opportunity for people to explore new areas and to relax in the sunshine. Mine however took a different angle, spending it in a small village in the north of Scotland. The north east Scottish coastline has a high biodiversity of marine mammals, and provides the perfect setting for innovative work in marine conservation.
The Banff-based CRRU (Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit) was set up in 1997, growing in size thanks to its unstoppable group of dedicated volunteers. Come rain or shine, they are working to improve our knowledge of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in our UK waters, from the ever-popular bottlenose dolphin to the lesser known minke whale.
So where do I start? My summer with the CRRU was a completely eye opening experience. It was my first volunteer experience in this field as a research intern, and I saw more species than I could possibly list; rare birds and marine mammals which people only dream of seeing. But I also felt like I made a difference. Even in my short time there. Not a single day there was ever the same, allowing me to develop different skills and learn different tactics for conservation.
The first few days I was there, a lot of our time was used to learn. Learning about the charity, how to collect data, about the species we would be working with and why what is being done is so important. This allowed the research teams to bond and learn how to work together quickly and effectively so when we finally found the animals we could complete the necessary data forms quickly, thereby causing minimum disruption to the study animals.
The rest of my time was spent between conservation, fund-raising, research and of course having fun! We would spend our days doing a variety of different activities, from beach cleans to watching gannet colonies from the cliff tops.
The charity has an unfathomable amount of publications on the work that they do, and their papers, research and data are used globally for the protection of the species studied. The charity’s science team works tirelessly throughout the summer in Scotland to collect data to improve current knowledge of the whales and dolphins of the Moray Firth. So far, their work has been invaluable to the protection of minke whales in north-east coastal waters resulting in recommendation for the first ever MPA (Marine Protected Area) for these coastal cetaceans in the UK.
Due to being a relatively small charity, the CRRU has limited funding, however. Currently all of their work is being carried-out from one of two small, rigid inflatable boats, but ongoing fundraising is being conducted for a new, much larger vessel which would allow the charity to continue its long-term monitoring studies. The current boats, first used in 2000, are becoming too old and are struggling to keep up with the increasing workload. The research team has a wide variety of work they are attempting to do from the boats when they meet their study species. Currently they are attempting to get biopsies from minke whales to allow them to learn more about what the whales are eating and evaluate the levels of pollutants in their bodies and the surrounding marine environment. They also do behavioural studies and attempt to do temporary tagging of whales so they can study their movements and diving behaviour, which is all very relevant to abundance estimates currently used to designate unfavourable whaling quotas to neighbouring whaling countries such as Norway and Iceland, that sadly still harvest these whales. The new boat will also be central to the CRRU’s emergency response teams for live-stranded whales and dolphins across Scotland. The larger boat will allow the rescue teams to carry more equipment and operate in often inclement and unfavourable sea conditions.
While I was with the CRRU, I was able to gain a qualification in Marine Mammal Rescue, which means I can now act as a volunteer Marine Mammal Medic, assisting in ongoing UK rescue efforts for sick or stranded whales and dolphins which inevitably get into trouble around the UK coastline each year. The course, which is made up of both practical and theory based sessions is run by the charity as a free service to interested volunteers. So far they have trained over 1,600 people in Scotland. They don’t do this work for the research but to look after the welfare of the animals. The CRRU have a 24/7 line for people to call if they find a stranded marine animal, and they operate the only dedicated specialist response team for whales, dolphins and porpoises in Scotland. For more information about the charity’s rescue efforts, Check out their website here.
Don’t just take my word for it – to me and many people who have joined the CRRU as a volunteer intern, this is an amazing opportunity with fantastic people who know so much in this field. So why don’t you try it out too? Summer placements are now being accepted for 2017 – click here to find out more.
If you would like to donate towards the new boat, you can also help by clicking on their fundraising page here.