Survey ships using high-tech sonar to scan the seabed as part of plans to build offshore windfarms off Scotland’s east coast could be responsible for the recent spate of whale beachings, conservationists warned today.
Seismic surveys could be disorientating the whales and driving them to their deaths on the beaches of Fife and Angus, Scotland, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said.
A number of vessels have been carrying out the high-tech scans in the Firth of Forth and North Sea in recent weeks.
Seventeen pilot whales died after a mass beaching in the East Neuk of Fife earlier this month.
A second pod of 24 pilot whales was spotted in shallow water by Cellardyke around the same time but returned to sea without beaching.
The mass beaching occurred just a day after a minke whale was found dead near the Bell Rock Lighthouse, off the coast of Angus.
Last week there was another death, with a 40-foot Sei whale washed up on the shore at Arbroath.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) said that sonar, being used in seismic surveys to map the ocean floor to find the best places to site windfarms, could be causing the whales to become disorientated and swim dangerously close to land.
The WDCS claims the loud, low-frequency pulses used to chart the ocean depths interfere with the sonar whales and dolphins use to navigate.
British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which coordinated the rescue attempt on September 2 after the pilot whales beached between Anstruther and Pittenweem, agreed that seismic surveys can disorientate whales and other sea creatures.
British Divers Marine Life Rescue spokesman Stephen Marsh said there had been a lot of seismic survey activity in the Firth of Forth and that a larger survey by the survey ship Polarcus Adira had been due to start just two hours after the mass beaching in Fife was discovered.
Although Mr Marsh said the surveys could not be blamed directly for the deaths, all the companies carrying out surveys around the Firth of Forth agreed to stop until the whales had safely returned to sea.
Seismic surveys use large air guns to create loud, low-frequency sounds underwater. The seabed can then be mapped by timing how long it takes the soundwaves to bounce off the seabed and the direction they travel in. They can take several weeks to complete.
Danny Groves of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said more had to be done to limit noise pollution in seas and oceans to protect marine wildlife.
He said: “It is too early to determine what may have caused these recent standings in Scotland and, if a post mortem is not carried out soon after the death of a stranded whale, the reason for a stranding may never be known.
“Standings are often the result of an individual being old, sick, or injured in fishing gear or collision with a boat. Sometimes the animals may seek to help a sick or injured individual and become stranded themselves as a result, which is often the case with pilot whales for example.
“But excessive noise in the water can kill whales and dolphins. They live in a world of water and sound. They feed, communicate and find their way around their world using sound.
“If you introduce high levels of unnatural noise into that world, then they will suffer.”
He added: “Strandings can occur as a result of underwater noise from high-powered military sonar and seismic surveys for oil and gas deposits.
“Amazingly, there are currently no accepted international standards regarding noise pollution in our seas.”
Any company wishing to engage in seismic surveying must receive consent from the Department of Energy and Climate Change and follow guidelines from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNNC). The JNNC says that compliance with their guidelines will reduce the risk seismic surveys to any endangers species to “negligible levels.”
The conservationists’ came as academics from St Andrews University’s Sea Mammal Research Unit begin a new project to monitor the whale population off the east coast of Scotland.
They will deploy three buoys between St Andrews and Stonehaven to record whale calls and the sounds of other sea mammals.
A number of other theories about why the whales have been beaching have already been put forward, including an underwater seaquake on Aug 30 and a solar flare recorded on August 31.
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