School children boost conservation bid

They are tasked with monitoring marine life in the mammal-rich waters off Scotland’s west coast.

Now conservationists are celebrating after 10,000 school children have taken part in educational programmes run by charity the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT).

The Trust has been inspiring children to cherish their marine environment for more than 15 years, with over 200 schools taking part in the charity’s educational programme since 2005.

“Connecting young people to their marine environment is crucial if we want them to help protect it. It’s so heartening to experience the children’s energy, enthusiasm and awe when learning about whales and dolphins,” said Pippa Garrard, HWDT’s education manager.

“Our sessions are so important as they spark passion and interest in the local environment and encourage conversations about the actions that we can all take to help protect it, now and in the future.”

Players of People’s Postcode Lottery have supported the charity, raising £80,000 through four grants since 2017 to support the development and delivery of new and immersive learning experiences that bring the marine environment to life for children in coastal communities.

The Trust’s latest creative project – funded by People’s Postcode Trust and Sea-Changers – has been to launch the best of their education sessions online, working with schools and home educators across Scotland and England.

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Based around the Trust’s research expeditions, these digital sessions introduce the amazing diversity of whales, dolphins and sharks in Scotland, and give children a glimpse into what it is like to work at sea, studying and protecting ocean giants.

“As an inner-city school with kids keen to find out about the ocean, the lessons really bring the experience into the classroom. An inspiring and rewarding experience. Thank you,” said teacher Lisa Perrie of Sunnyside Primary School in Glasgow.

Prior to the pandemic, every year school groups would join the charity’s crew onboard their research vessel, Silurian, as she was temporarily transformed into a floating classroom.

The famous yacht has now visited communities on most of the larger Hebridean islands – Mull, Skye, Islay, Lewis, Harris, Uist, Barra, Coll, Tiree and the Small Isles – as well as some of the largest towns along Scotland’s west coast, such as Oban, Mallaig and Ullapool.

Raising awareness and aspirations for green careers features at the centre of the charity’s education strategy. Each year, the Trust runs dedicated research expeditions for 16- and 17-year-olds on board Silurian, which featured in the seminal BBC Blue Planet series.

These young adults gain hands-on experience monitoring marine life, including collecting data as part of the Trust’s long-term citizen science project, which informs local and national conservation efforts.

Anyone can help the charity monitor marine life, by reporting their sightings of cetaceans – the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises – and basking sharks online.

The Trust also offers guided field trips for schools, so that younger children can take part and experience the thrill of spotting seabirds and marine mammals from land.

“Local wildlife is not only amazing to see, but each species also has an important biological role to play.

“By protecting whales and giving marine ecosystems the chance to recover, we can improve the health and resilience of our seas and in turn the climate and planet for us all,” added Ms Garrard.

“We’re really proud to support the next generation of ocean ambassadors and look forward to when Silurian can once again become a floating classroom and set sail for island schools.” 

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The area around the Hebrides, and other west coast hot spots, has made Scotland a world-class whale and dolphin location. To date, 23 of the world’s estimated 92 cetacean species have been documented, with many being of national and international conservation importance. As well as clocking up more than 6.000 miles for the HWDT, the Silurian has logged more than 10,000 basking sharks and found some of Britain’s resident killer whales.

More than 1,000 volunteers have been trained in the acoustic and visual field survey techniques used onboard.

Citizen scientists also take part in monitoring NATO war games off the west coast for any effect on cetaceans. Based on the Isle of Mull, HWDT has been leading the way for the conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the waters of western Scotland for two decades. Data is provided to the Scottish Government to inform protection measures for minke whales, Risso’s dolphins, harbour porpoises, and basking sharks across Hebridean seas.

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