Public Engagements to Puffing Porpoises

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Public Engagements to Puffing Porpoises

See the latest from our Wildlife Officer in the Hebredies and find out about the launch of the CalMac Marine Awareness Project. 

It was fitting that the launch of the CalMac Marine Awareness Project in Oban on 27th March was the same week as the start of the CalMac Easter season and the beginning of the summer timetables. 

Partners of the project gathered at the Scottish Association of Marine Sciences campus at Dunstaffnage to herald the start of the program, discuss future collaboration and present the program to interested parties and members of the public.  Amongst the 14 partners from the world of conservation were organisations from marine mammal conservation, seabird monitoring, benthic and coastal science, and shark conservation, as well as statutory bodies like SNH and Marine Scotland. CalMac’s Managing Director, Robbie Drummond, opened the event and presentations were given by Klare Chamberlain, CalMac’s Environmental Manager, JNCC who are currently developing seabird monitoring from the ferries, and ORCA who run Marine Mammal Surveys and their Wildlife Officer programme with CalMac. 

I had to swap my fleece and binoculars for a shirt and jacket and come in from the cold to make my own presentation at the launch.  In the past I have mentioned how animals are easier to deal with than people but the reality is that my job is all about the interface between the marine world and the public and that is what I actually love so it was no great chore and it was heart-warming to see so many like-minded people, working for the same ends, in the same room.  A number of the partner organisations including Co-Coast, RSPB, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, and the Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network had stalls in the ‘break-out’ area where people could find out more about the work of the individual groups. 

A couple of days prior to the launch, I was also indoors when I joined CalMac for their annual visit to Hermitage Primary School in Helensburgh.  These youngsters are the future of our wildlife and environmental protection and their enthusiasm to hear about the wildlife of the region was inspiring.  It was wonderful to hear that they were also going on to do a project on marine plastics and undertake beach cleans.  At the end of the session their teacher asked them what they had learnt.  Two students put their hands up.  One said that she had learnt that there were 90 species of cetaceans worldwide, another said that he had learnt that oystercatchers (which they regularly see on these coasts) prefer cockles and mussels to oysters.  For me this was proof that they had engaged and I left very happy!  

A day later, I was back in my fleece and binoculars and out on the MV Lord of the Isles as it filled in on the Oban-Coll-Tiree run; a very busy MV Isle of Mull on Good Friday; and to the Small Isles on MV Loch Nevis on the Saturday.  The weather was generally clear and dry so lots of people were taking advantage of it for the Easter break.  As a result of calmer seas I have started picking up harbour porpoise sightings. 

These are one of my favourite cetaceans.  They are certainly the most common in the region with up to an estimated 37,000 on the West Coast alone.  These small animals; only an average of 1.6 meters in length and not reaching any more than 75kg in maximum weight, are the smallest of all marine mammals in the North Atlantic.  They are not the most acrobatic or showy of cetaceans and they quietly go about their business with almost a disdain for our presence.  For a coastal whale watcher they are your bread and butter animal.  When nothing else of any size appears on the distant horizon and you are ready to throw the towel in after a long day, invariably a small dark equilateral triangular fin will break the surface of the water, most often heading away from your vessel as they certainly aren’t known for bow-riding, and the heart will warm with the knowledge that if nothing else appears you can at least record a porpoise.  To me they seem almost like old friends. 

Historically fishermen in Newfoundland lived side by side with these porpoise and held them in high regard and dubbed them “puffing pigs” due to the puff like exhalation of air that can be heard when they surface close to a silent boat.  I have also seen reference to the similar name of “puffers” being used historically in some West Coast communities.

That anthropomorphic sense of their disdain for us is probably rooted in science by the fact that due to their small size and body mass, a high metabolism, combined with our cold waters, they really don’t have time to socialise with boats as they need to feed constantly in order to keep enough energy flowing through the body to survive.  Unlike the larger dolphin species, which seem to have the luxury of leisure time as they play and socialise around us.  I think that my love of them is also prompted by my championing of the underdog and if ever there was one amongst the larger European marine fauna it is the harbour porpoise. 

Not only do they live on a metabolic knife edge and their conservation fortunes vary massively from region to region but as the smallest marine mammal they have a lot to contend with.  Our own West Coast Community of killer whales here in Scotland predate on other marine mammals, particularly porpoise.  Research in recent years has emerged to show that bottlenose dolphins also regularly attack porpoise and the Scottish Marine Strandings Network Scheme report that 40-60% of their recorded porpoise mortality is due to internal trauma caused by bottlenose dolphins.  In the North Sea grey seals have also been recorded actually predating on harbour porpoises off the coast of the Netherlands.  Add to this the fact that they are particularly susceptible to entanglement and bycatch in gill nets and that several thousand die this way each year around the UK, I tend to have a soft spot for the often beleaguered harbour porpoise. 

On the west coast of Scotland we have a strong population and it is a very important habitat for the species.  As a result there is an ongoing proposal to designate a Special Area of Conservation from the Northern Minch south as far as the Sound of Jura for harbour porpoise.  It is essential that areas like we have here on the West Coast, that are strongholds for these animals, are protected and remain just that. 

Perhaps next time that you are close to the ocean and it is a millpond flat day (the best for porpoise observation) scan the water and keep an eye out for a tiny dark fin to break the surface as its back quietly rolls through the water and maybe you too might fall in love with this lovely wee animal.

Andy Gilbert
ORCA Wildlife Officer – Hebrides