Saving the Whales (and Dolphins): Adventures in Scotland, Part 5

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Director Kevin Robinson (left) and Theo (right). The ham in the middle is Jack Borrett.

When I was researching things to do in Scotland, I was intrigued to discover the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit in Gardenstown, next door to our temporary Scottish home of Crovie.

I contacted the “unit” by email before our trip and asked about the opportunity to learn about what they do. We were welcomed to visit. Although it took a few tries to connect once we were in Scotland (due to vagaries in weather and schedules), we found director Dr. Kevin Robinson and research assistant Theofilos Sidropoulos (Theo for short) in their office on the shores of the Moray Coast one afternoon and they were nice enough to talk to us for over an hour.

Let me set something straight. You may have misread the name of the unit as the “Crustacean Research & Rescue Unit.” No, they do not rescue hapless mollusks. They research and rescue cetaceans, which are whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Kevin founded the organization over twenty years ago. He explained that he got his start in the field by working in Inverness for a marine mammal organization. He saw the need for another organization that focused more on marine mammal strandings, and the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit was born. The Unit is a nonprofit organization that tracks the population of the farthest northern pod of dolphins in the world in the Moray Firth. They do this through scouting trips and by taking photos of the dolphins and identifying them by their dorsal fins. Despite dire predictions at first, Kevin said the dolphin population in the Firth is thriving.

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Gardenstown, Scotland.

The unit also conducts research. Kevin explained that their latest quest was to take skin mucus samples from minke whales. The samples can then be genetically analyzed. To take such a sample, the researchers must get close enough to a whale to reach it with a pole that has the sampler attached to the end. They need only touch the whale with the sampler (no skin pricks or pain involved), but that was proving easier said than done at the time of our conversation. Also, Theo is a student at Edinburgh University and said he was researching the effects of climate change on the environment and marine mammals.

And, of course, they respond to reports of strandings. They provide 24-hour veterinary response for sick, injured and stranded marine mammals. Kevin said that unfortunately, most of the stranded animals don’t make it. But it’s nice to know that someone is looking out for them.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we also learned the organization focuses on environmental education as well. They educate school children about marine mammals and present papers at scientific conferences, and the like. They even have a Facebook page.

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The sign on the path between Crovie and Gardenstown. One takes their lives in their hands at every passing. And it seems the sign has seen its share of rockfalls (or bullets!)

And if, like me, you have a secret desire to save the whales, you can do so by volunteering for the unit during the summer (May-Oct.). As long as you are able-bodied enough to get out in a boat and to walk along steep coastal paths, you’re in! Kevin mentioned that a woman in her seventies volunteered for them and for other organizations around the world. She ended up coming back to them for a second time when she was in her eighties because she so enjoyed her first experience. There are still openings available for this year.

The unit is working to raise funds for a new boat to help with their conservation work and to replace their aging vessels. Click here to donate. Their goal is to raise the funds by the end of July, so please act fast if you are so inclined. They are about three-quarters of the way there.

We left their office with a better understanding of life in the waters of the Moray Firth. Kevin and Theo were also nice enough to direct us to where we could see puffins and seals locally. (And we did!) I think it would be totally fun to come back there someday as a volunteer. We’ll see if the fates will allow for that.

Next up – Visiting Edinburgh in an hour-and-a-half!

 

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