We have recently been treated to dramatic pictures of a humpback whale breaching in the Firth of Forth. It was a magnificent spectacle but unfortunately a fairly rare one as humpbacks are relatively uncommon here.
They were hunted to the brink of extinction around Scotland, but in recent years there has been an increase in the number of sightings. This is good news and a reminder of the richness of marine life in our seas.
Scottish waters are important for whales and dolphins, being home to or visited by 24 of the 83 cetacean species. We are lucky to host the UK’s most northerly resident population of bottlenose dolphins, in the Moray Firth, and the only resident pod of orcas, a group of eight known as the west coast community.
Whales are fascinating and their survival is important for global biodiversity. But they also have an economic value. They play a major part in our growing wildlife tourism industry, which is worth an estimated £127 million a year. Whale-watching on the west coast brings in around £8 million.
So it’s good to know there is an army of experts out there monitoring and analysing the activities of these fascinating creatures.
These include the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, which collects and reports data for all cetaceans, seals, marine turtles and basking sharks found dead on our coastline. There is also the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a group of volunteers on call 24 hours to help marine wildlife that is still alive when it comes ashore. A wealth of research is also carried out at Scottish universities and charities such as the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
Commercial whaling ended in most places with the international ban of 1986, though Norway, Iceland and Japan are notorious exceptions. It has been a thing of the past in Scotland for half a century, and the signs suggest whale numbers are finally beginning to recover. But though they might be more likely to dodge a harpoon now, whales today face an increasing number of other dangers.
I’ve never been lucky enough to see a live whale. Just a dead one, a young male sperm whale that washed up on the shores of the Forth after a suspected collision with a boat.
Sadly it’s a common fate. Whales also face harm from entanglement in fishing gear; pollution – studies of 21 pilot whales that beached in Fife in 2012 showed high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies; marine litter – post-mortems on stranded animals often reveal plastic bags in their stomachs; and noise disturbance from naval sonar and acoustic surveys of the seabed.
Then there are mass strandings, which remain largely unexplained. Just last month more than 400 pilot whales came ashore on New Zealand’s South Island at a spot notorious for strandings. Around 300 of the animals died.
There have been various theories as to the cause of such devastating events. Now research is under way to establish whether there could be a link with weather in outer space. Some experts believe magnetic anomalies and extra-terrestrial meteorological phenomena could disorientate the animals.
If they can establish a connection, researchers hope that observations of solar storms could serve as an early warning that strandings could occur. The results should be interesting.
We’ve banned whaling for the most part and given the animals official protection. Now we must to do more to minimise the impact of our actions on these majestic ocean giants.