24/7 - A group of Europe's leading marine conservation and research organizations joined forces to carry out crucial research into some of the rarest and most elusive marine animals on the planet - beaked whales. The research program, called "Diver 2008", after these animals' deep diving ability, ran during July 2008 off the northern coast of Spain, within the Bay of Biscay - an area with a number of deep water canyons which is renowned for sightings of these mysterious marine mammals.
The research was important and timely because beaked whales are known to be very sensitive to certain sub-sea noise and there have been numerous cases of mass strandings of these animals which have been linked to concurrent use of military sonar.
Dr Kelly Macleod, Project Coordinator of the Diver surveys and Chairperson of the charity ORCA (Organisation Cetacea), commented: "The team worked extremely well together during the research and had a number of opportunities to investigate these rare whales at close quarters. This has provided the opportunity to really correlate sightings of the whales with underwater features and will help map their preferred habitat".
This was a highly successful trip. During the study program, the research team recorded 120 sightings of whale and dolphins, including nine definite Cuvier's Beaked Whales, seven of which were photographed for future identification purposes. Other species seen included a pod of 13 Sperm Whales, globally endangered Fin Whales, many dolphins and another rarely seen beaked whale species - the Sowerby's Beaked Whale.
Jos Antonio Vázquez Bonales, Sightings Coordinator for AMBAR, said "We were able to take a number of high quality photo-identification images of the whales we encountered which will form part of a catalogue. The distinctive patterns of scratches and marks on the fins and bodies of these whales make each photograph like a fingerprint for that particular animal and will aid identification of the same animals should they be sighted again".
Analysis of the data is still proceeding and a full report will be generated later in the year. However, the top line results demonstrate the success of the project, providing a robust foundation to help underpin future conservation measures for these vulnerable animals.
Dr Tom Brereton, Marinelife Research Director, commented "Through the Diver 2008 project, we have made an important step forward in identifying the range and movements of Cuvier's Beaked Whales. This data is vital if we are to devise effective conservation strategies for these fascinating deep water animals."
The data collected through Diver 2008 will add to the knowledge base on beaked whales developed by Ambar, Marinelife and ORCA which is obtained through surveys on commercial ferries in the region. All three groups share this data and collaborate with other ferry researchers, through the Atlantic Research Coalition (ARC).
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