Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Playing laser tag with dolphins

  • Written by  Helen Taylor
  • Published in Wildlife
A bottlenose dolphin in the waters of Coll island in the Hebrides A bottlenose dolphin in the waters of Coll island in the Hebrides (Image: Martin Prochazkacz)
17 Apr
2018
Pioneering laser photography is being used by scientists on the west coast of Scotland to assess the health of the area’s marine life 

The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), established in 1994, is carrying out research into the health of whales, dolphins and porpoises using photogrammetry – the science of taking measurements from photographs.

Silurian, the trust’s specialised research yacht (click here to track the vessel at sea), has been collecting data on cetaceans (the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises) since 2002. It was even used during the filming of the BBC’s Blue Planet series. Its photo-identification research has so far catalogued 230 minke whales, some of which have been returning to the same area for more than ten years.

Photographing a minke whale from the Silurian (Image: HWDT)Photographing a minke whale from the Silurian (Image: HWDT)

Over the last 15 years, Silurian has travelled more than 100,000 kilometres while surveying Hebridean waters from Islay to Cape Wrath and west of the Western Isles. Data collected onboard forms the largest continuous database of its kind in the UK, comprising over 6,000 hours of underwater sound recordings, and over 30,000 animal records. The current series of expeditions into the waters of Scotland take place until October this year.

The new technology works by pointing two lasers attached to the main identification camera 10cm apart onto the side of an animal at the same time a photograph is taken. ‘From those two dots on the image we can work out all sorts of things,’ says Lauren Hartny-Mills, science officer at the HWDT, ‘the health of the animals, how well they’re doing, how big they are, and whether they’re fully grown adults or younger animals. It will also help us look more closely at marks and scars and determine how those have been caused, whether by interaction with debris in the environment or natural markings from other animals.’

Minke whale in the Hebrides (Image: HWDT)A minke whale in the Hebrides (Image: HWDT)

Fiona Manson, a marine specialist at Scottish Natural Heritage, said: ‘The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust is making an important contribution to marine conservation in Scotland. We’re excited by the innovative techniques being used to find out more about the health of wildlife in Scotland’s seas.’

The Silurian research yacht (Image: HWDT)The Silurian research yacht (Image: HWDT)

Because cetaceans are such long-lived animals that reproduce slowly, scientists at the Trust say it’s important to monitor population dynamics and composition, as any changes in health or behaviour may take a long time to show. Other issues facing cetaceans, as well as interactions with man-made objects such as marine plastic and fishing gear, are underwater noise (which interferes with their echolocation) and the accumulation of pollutants in their systems.

For example, in 2016, a member of the West Coast of Scotland killer whale pod was found to have one of the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) pollution ever recorded in the species after she was washed-up on the Isle of Tiree in the Hebrides.

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Polar

Seismometers buried in the Ross Ice Shelf have revealed that…

Wildlife

A tightening of restrictions on the insecticides known as neonicotinoids…

Wildlife

Bonnethead sharks, the second smallest member of the hammerhead family,…

Nature

There’s more than enough plastic in the world. That’s why,…

Wildlife

The recent discovery of more than 200 million termite mounds…

Geophoto

The new year still remains a popular time to set…

Wildlife

After decades battling environmental crises that threaten to rob the…

Climate

As another new year beckons and the fight to protect…

Geophoto

A half century has passed since the ‘Earthrise’ photograph – widely believed to have…

Wildlife

Are howler monkeys being adversely affected by ingestion of pesticides containing…

Tectonics

Why unprepared tourists are putting themselves at risk in order…

Geophoto

The majestic and mighty polar bear is in danger of…

Wildlife

Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…

Wildlife

A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…

Climate

Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…

Wildlife

Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…

Wildlife

The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…

Oceans

Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…

Geophoto

With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…