A humpback and two minke whales have recently been spotted swimming in waters where ship-to-ship transfers of millions of tonnes of crude oil could take place.
Concerns have been raised over plans to allow tankers to transfer 8.4 million tonnes of oil every year at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth, which is home to the world’s most northerly colony of bottlenose dolphins, as well as porpoises, seals and rare seabirds.
The firth is also a popular stopping off point for migrating whale and dolphin species.
Experts say the transfers pose a serious danger to the local environment though potential oil spills, dumping of ballast waters from foreign seas, noise pollution and cancer-causing fumes.
Concerned residents and campaigners gathered at a public meeting this week to discuss the plans, which will involve up to 3,500 vessel movements of tugs, pilot ships and tankers annually.
Five out of nine local community councils are opposed to the proposals, while nearly 17,000 people have signed a petition calling for the UK government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency to refuse the licence application from Port of Cromarty Firth (CFPA).
“This is clearly the wrong plan in the wrong place,” said a spokeswoman for pressure group Cromarty Rising .
“The advice we have received is that thousands of boat movements will be involved each year as ‘mother’ ships and ‘daughter’ ships are pushed together.
“There will then be sustained 24-hour periods of pumping crude oil and ballast water at high speeds, generating massive acoustic disturbance to very sensitive cetaceans.”
The group accused the CFPA of “gratuitous exploitation”.
But the CFPA has insisted it takes its environmental responsibilities “extremely seriously” while also remaining committed to generating income from the port.
A spokeswoman added: “We believe it is possible for environmental sustainability and economic growth to go hand in hand, and the port continues to demonstrate that.
“This week’s sighting of a humpback whale is further evidence that our waters attract aquatic and industrial life in equal measure, and that they can continue to co-exist as they have done over the past 40 years of port operations.”