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Unprecedented effort to protect Orcas with citizen science: the 2019 Orca Watch event results are out!

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For ten days in late May, tourists, wildlife enthusiasts and local businesses around Caithness, Orkney and Shetland support Orca Watch, a citizen science project organized by the Sea Watch Foundation now in its 8th year, hoping to catch a glimpse of killer whales otherwise known as orcas, and any other species of cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) visiting the  waters of the Pentland Firth.

They stand endlessly from cliff tops and from the John O’Groats ferry decks, collecting sightings, behaviour, geographical positions and photographs of orcas and any other cetacean  species which passes by.

The idea of organizing this event started with Colin Bird, Sea Watch’s long-standing Regional Coordinator for North-East Scotland, and was influenced by concerns over the possibility of underwater turbines installed in the Pentland Firth. This initiated the first seasonal watch in 2012 to gather information on how orcas use this area and what might be the consequences of such an installation.

Without knowing how orcas or other cetaceans use the Pentland Firth, or which role they play in the ecosystem in the area, it is impossible for scientists and conservationists to know how to develop plans to protect them” says Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli, Sightings Officer and lead organizer of this year’s Orca Watch event.

The Sea Watch Foundation in collaboration with eight other organizations (Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Scottish Natural Heritage, John O’Groats Ferries, Pulteneytown People’s Project, RSPB Orkney, Sanday Development Trust, High Life Highland Countryside Rangers, and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust) aims to change that with a research project that enlists the help of citizen scientists from all around Scotland and its offshore Isles.

During the 2019 Orca Watch, hundreds of volunteer observers spent almost 200 hours (100 more than in 2018) collecting 122 sightings of seven different cetacean species, stationed at 30 land watch sites (main site at Duncansby Head, Caithness) and aboard one vessel (operated by the John O’Groats Ferries) around Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland. Orca sightings were also sent in from the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides.

LOCATIONS OF CETACEAN SIGHTINGS (N=122) COLLECTED DURING THE 2019 ORCA WATCH EVENT (MAY 17-26). COPYRIGHT: SEA WATCH FOUNDATION.

Species seen includes orca, Risso’s dolphin, humpback whale, harbour porpoise, short-beaked common dolphin, minke whale, long-finned pilot whale.

This looks like being the best Orca Watch event of the last few years”, reported Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli.

Harbour porpoises were the most commonly sighted species during Orca Watch. This species was recorded 46 times (38% of all records).

The Orcas were the second most commonly sighted species during Orca Watch, with 27 sightings (22%). Groups varied in size from a single individual to a group of 10 with an average group size of 3. Sightings were distributed around Orkney and Caithness, with few sightings also reported from Sutherland (Handa Island) and from the Outer Hebrides (Isle of Lewis). Orcas were first spotted on May 17st from Hoxa Head (Orkney) and on May 19th they were sighted off both Handa Island and Gary Beach, Isle of Lewis. On May 20th they were sighted from three different location around Orkney (Buwick, Hoxa Head, Lidell) and then in Caithness on May 21st during the morning ferry ride onboard the Pentland Venture (John O’Groats Ferries). After two days of bad weather and no further sightings morale seemed low. However at dusk on May 24th they were finally sighted at the Stacks of Duncansby and remained in the area through May 25th and 26th. Two known orcas were also sighted on May 26th from Burwick and Duncansby and from onboard the John O’Groats ferries. They are commonly referred to as “Hulk” and “Nótt”, which are orcas that are known to travel between Iceland and Scotland on foraging trips.

Image: Robert Foubister

Minke whales were the third most abundant species recorded during Orca Watch, with 26 sightings being made, accounting for 21% of all records.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be that amazing! – spending the whole day watching them swimming off Hoxa Head as the light started to fade was something I am not going to forget easily” said Christina Worth, a Sea Watch Volunteer Observer, who sighted the orcas during her land-watch off Hoxa Head.

Other interesting sightings from this year’s Orca Watch week included a humpback whale sighted off Nista Skerries, Uyea, a lone common dolphin encountered on May 21st off Gletness, Shetland, and many close encounters with minke whales sighted off Duncansby Head”, added Chiara.

We are very pleased with the amount of information we have gathered during this year’s Orca Watch and our immense gratitude goes to our lead volunteer organizers from all of the groups (particularly Anna Jemmett, Lucy Baldwin, Steve Truluck, Rob Lott, Karen Hall, Emma Neave-Webb, Colin Bird, and Karen Munro), to all our network of volunteer observers, regional coordinators, to our partners and to all the local businesses that have pitched in, offered generous discounts and taken great care of all our Orca Watchers”, concluded Chiara.

For more information on the work of the Sea Watch Foundation visit their website by clicking here.

News

Top 12 Dive Destinations in Oceania – Part 2

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Oceania has a fascinating mixture of well-known romantic destinations and wild, remote dive spots that few people ever get to visit. It is a region of contrasts with enough dive destinations and cultural highlights to satisfy even the most adventurous divers. In part II of 12 great places to go diving in Oceania, we take a deep dive into some of this region’s most famous and little-known islands. Get inspired for your next dive trip to Oceania here.


French Polynesia

French Polynesia’s Society Islands have a stellar list of dive destinations, including Tahiti and Moorea. Between them, they offer easy coral reef diving and calm, turquoise lagoons with friendly stingrays and blacktip reef sharks. You can also swim with humpback whales, tiger sharks, lemon and nurse sharks there.

This beautiful nation’s best-known dive spots, Fakarava and Rangiroa atolls, are just a short flight away from the Society Islands. Both of these huge atolls offer exciting pass dives with hundreds of grey reef sharks and resident dolphins.

For a completely different dive experience, visit the Marquesas Islands. This island group is the farthest from any landfall on Earth and has a unique underwater world that hosts unusually large mantas and melon-headed whales.

And if that all sounds like too much effort, go Bora Bora scuba diving instead. This ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ has fantastic diving, and you can spend your downtime relaxing with champagne lunches on deserted islands.


The Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands are a haven for more than 1000 reef fish species and numerous prized critters, plus dolphins, sharks, rays and six species of sea turtle. Hosting hundreds of wrecks and remote hard coral reefs, there is something for every diver there.

The Russell Islands host some of the best-known dive sites in all of the Solomon Islands. There, you can glide between the walls of a crevasse that cuts through an island, immerse yourself in wreck diving at White Sand Beach, swim through a halocline at Custom Caves, or go in search of pygmy seahorses.

For the best wreck diving, make sure you visit Iron Bottom Sound. This stretch of water hosts around 200 ships and more than 600 aircraft wrecks from World War II. It is a wreck diving mecca that offers excellent tech-wreck dives.


The Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands is a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls that few people know about. As the fifth least visited country in the world, these islands offer remote diving among exciting deep wrecks and vibrant coral reefs.

Bikini Atoll is the main dive destination in the Marshall Islands. Made famous by US atomic bomb tests in the 1940s, this atoll hosts numerous deep wrecks that offer incredible tech diving.

As well as some of the best tech-wreck dives imaginable, the Marshall Islands also have thriving hard coral reefs without any dive crowds. There are pinnacles, drop-offs, channels and shallow coral gardens to explore, busy with colorful reef life.


The Cook Islands

When it comes to warm welcomes, it’s hard to beat the Cook Islands. From the moment you arrive, you will be drawn into one of the friendliest nations in the world and won’t want to leave.

This wonderful country is a perfect place to get your Open Water Diver certification or take your family diving. Rarotonga is the main destination for tourism and is a charming island with fresh markets, cafes, restaurants, and resorts tucked away among the palms. There are around 25 dive sites just offshore and gorgeous beaches for laid-back surface intervals.

Nearby Aitutaki has fewer visitors, yet it hosts around 22 dive sites, with many still being discovered. It is a great place to dive among remote coral-covered landscapes and forget the rest of the world exists. Whichever island you choose, the waters are warm and full of colorful reef life.


New Caledonia

New Caledonia is one of those wish-list destinations known for its spectacular diving, crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life. Unlike some remote destinations in Oceania, New Caledonia has modern infrastructure that makes it easy to explore at your pace – by car or island hopping with regular domestic flights.

There are over 100 dive sites scatted around New Caledonia, offering a tempting mix of deep drop-offs, thrilling drift dives, wrecks, and easy reef diving. Most diving is conducted at the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, a vast 1500 km-long reef that encloses a UNESCO World Heritage lagoon. Within the lagoon, you can explore coral-encrusted walls, channels, and easy dive sites in shallow waters.

New Caledonia’s extensive marine reserves ensure these dive sites are teeming with life. For the best chance to see mantas and sharks, visit from April until September.


Vanuatu

Vanuatu is the perfect place to reconnect with nature, offering untouched rainforests, natural swimming holes and excellent scuba diving.

Pristine reefs abound in Vanuatu, with many dive sites accessible simply by walking off the beach. Million Dollar Point is one of the most unique dive spots and hosts an array of machinery and equipment dumped by the US after World War II. The SS President Coolidge, a former World War II troop carrier, and the 1874 three-masted Star of Russia are excellent wrecks to dive.

The amount of marine life at Vanuatu’s dive sites is staggering. As well as rainbow-hued corals and countless reef fish, there are sea turtles, sharks, rays, and numerous pelagic fish. You can also go swimming with dugongs there.


Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, home to more than 850 known languages and hundreds of different tribes. It is unlike anywhere else in Oceania.

Along with the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea has some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world, including at Kimbe Bay. This special bay was once ranked as the most beautiful reef by National Geographic.

The nearby Witu Islands are a great place to go critter hunting and drift dive among schools of tuna and barracuda. Milne Bay is the home of muck diving and offers excellent shallow muck and reef diving with numerous critters.

There are seamounts busy with reef sharks and exciting walls at Fathers Reefs, and you can dive in the shadow of jungle-covered fjords at Tufi.


Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for SSI (Scuba Schools International), wrote this article.

 

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Marine Life & Conservation

MCS call for better protection of UK’s Marine Parks

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On the 14th May the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) announced a consultation on byelaws to protect and manage 13 offshore MPAs. This follows the banning of bottom-towed fishing gear from four offshore MPAs, including Dogger Bank.

These first four byelaws – effective from 13th June 2022 – are a win for the Marine Conservation Society’s ongoing Marine UnProtected Areas campaign.

The campaign is calling for protection, at long last, of England’s offshore MPAs designated to protect the seabed which is vital for absorbing and storing carbon, buffering the effects of climate change, and supporting biodiversity.

When damaging fishing gear like bottom trawls and dredges are permitted to fish in these MPAs, the health of the planet is compromised; preventing the recovery of ecosystems already lost to decades of exploitation and limiting the seabed’s ability to store carbon and combat the effects of the climate crisis.

Today, the Marine Conservation Society is releasing new research, outlining 16 ‘critically important’ sites for protection. Half of the 16 critically important MPAs experienced disturbance (seabed trawling) on over 90% of the total ‘protected’ area.

Just 5 of the 13 proposed byelaws from the MMO are sites deemed ‘critically important’ in the Marine Conservation Society’s newest analysis.

By analysing fishing data, carbon storage potential, habitat sensitivity and MPA conservation objectives, the charity has ranked the remaining offshore sites in need of legislation from ‘critically important’ to ‘important’.

Of the sites identified as ‘critically important’, the South-West Deeps (East) Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) received the highest score of all sites, making it the most critical for protection. This site – approximately 190 km southwest of the Land’s End peninsula – has not been included in the latest consultation.

The area is vital for carbon storage and is a biodiversity hot spot, experiencing a summer plankton bloom each year bringing wildlife to the area. The Marine Conservation Society’s analysis found that, on average, the area experiences over 5,000 hours of bottom trawling each year. The site has the potential to store up to 1.7 million tonnes of organic carbon; the same amount of carbon as that emitted by over 1 million return flights from London to Sydney.

Frith Dunkley, MPA Researcher at the Marine Conservation Society, said:“Many of the sites of critical importance for protection were not initially designated for their carbon storage potential. However, this added element makes ocean protection even more vital. The huge volumes of carbon which can, and should, be stored by these vast Marine Protected Areas could be put at risk by countless hours of fishing, where vessels indiscriminately drag nets along the seabed. As we face twin climate and biodiversity crises, it’s of the utmost importance that we allow these sites to recover.”

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, MPA Specialist at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “Our new analysis represents a clear path for the Government to take in protecting our seas. We’ve found 16 sites of critical importance. It’s disappointing to see that just 5 of the 13 proposed byelaws being consulted on now are those we’ve identified as critically important. The four byelaws, due to be in place from 13th June, are a step in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go to achieve protection of 40 sites with management measures as promised by UK Government by 2024.

Join the charity’s call for government action by signing the Marine UnProtected Areas petition, pushing for a further 16 byelaws to be put in place.

For more information, and to read the charity’s Marine UnProtected Areas report from January 2021, please visit www.mcsuk.org.

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