A team of twenty scientists and students from Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland are currently onboard the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer carrying out a multidisciplinary study of cetaceans, megafauna and birdlife around the areas of the Goban Spur and Porucpine seabight in the Atlantic Ocean.
The survey team, led by Dr. Joanne O‘Brien from the Marine Biodiversity Research Group of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) will be at sea for just under two weeks (24th February – 5th March). “This is a unique opportunity to explore offshore waters across a range of disciplines, and gather data from many previously un-surveyed areas of Ireland’s marine territory. It also provides an excellent training ground for marine undergraduate and post graduate students out at sea,” explained Dr. O’Brien.
Also participating in this survey are members from Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, University College Cork, Queens University, Belfast; University of Aberdeen, National University of Ireland Galway, Birdwatch Ireland, Sligo Institute of Technology and MEER Consultancy.
The Cetacean team are researching key habitats and activity of baleen whales and offshore bottlenose dolphins. “Visual and acoustic surveys are being carried out, in which the team have successfully taken a skin sample from an offshore group of bottlenose dolphins for DNA analysis as well as adding a number of individually recognisable animals to the photo-id catalogue” said Conor Ryan from GMIT.
The images will be compared with existing photo-identification catalogues held both nationally and internationally. This helps scientists to understand the extensive migration patterns of the whales and dolphins in the Northeast Atlantic and their seasonal visits to the Irish and UK coastlines. “During this research cruise, we have proven that the collection of darted tissue samples of cetaceans, for genetic and chemical pollutant analyses is feasible in offshore waters,” said Mr Ryan.
Marine scientists will carry out a systematic analysis of CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) sampling at set locations in order to explore relationships between the temperature of the water, primary productivity and top predator presence of marine mammals along the continental shelf habitat.
The megafauna team will also be conducting a visual survey of basking sharks. They will attempt to deploy tags to monitor their movements. Where possible, mucus scrapings will be collected to determine the genomics and DNA of each of the species.
The seabird team aims to characterise the seabird species and populations at the most southern part of Ireland’s marine territory. The information gathered will contribute towards the Irish national biological database and can be used to inform management towards the conservation of offshore bird species. So far the team have found largest concentrations of birds towards the top of the shelf edge where they benefit from increased food availability from upwellings. The highlight of the survey thus far was a sighting of a black-browed albatross, normally found in the Southern Ocean.
Samples of the Mauve Stinger jellyfish Pelagia noctiluca are also being gathered to investigate the prevalence of the bacterium Tenacibaculum maritimum which has serious economic implications for fin-fish aquaculture, while also providing further insight into the biological factors influencing ecosystem functioning.
Finally, the Plankton team are taking samples of phytoplankton, zooplankton and krill from depths of 3000m. This information is important to develop an understanding of what forms the basis of the food chain which supports cetaceans, seabirds and other marine megafauna in these habitats.
The Cetaceans on the Frontier III survey is supported under the Marine Institutes’ competitive ship-time scheme, funded through the Marine Research Sub-programme of the National Development Plan 2007–2013, as part of the Sea Change strategy.
Follow the Cetaceans on the Frontier III blog here, where the survey team are givingdaily updates and showing photos of their expedition www.cetaceansonthefrontier3.blogspot.com