As the fins sliced through the choppy, current-swirled waters they were met with an eruption of excited gasps from the expectant crowds. After waiting on the shore for what felt like, and probably was, hours, our patience had finally paid off. The dolphins had arrived! Seemingly showing off their incredible hunting skills and prowess as they launched themselves out of the water and hurtled through the air, it was hard for me not to feel a sense of awe. In fact, it was equally as hard for me not to appreciate just how lucky we all were as we watched wild and free bottlenose dolphins, metres from us on the pebbly shores of Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth.
Reaching out to the open waters of the North Sea in the north east of Scotland, the Moray Firth is a vast stretch of water renowned for its rich and diverse wildlife and stunning vistas. With over 100 natural heritage sites designated to preserve and conserve, it is one of the best places in Britain to spot ospreys and otters, seabirds and seals, basking sharks, porpoises, whales and of course the ever charismatic bottlenose dolphin. An estimated 195 individuals can be found here and, like the resident dolphins of Cardigan Bay, they are just so captivating! Whilst I was in the area last month, I found myself spending the majority of the time with one eye on the water just in case a sneaky fin appeared. I managed to see so many of the wonderful creatures that call the Moray Firth home and it was amazing to see the richness of life living in and around the waters of the UK. However, it is not just wildlife that inhabits these waters; they also provide a very important location for industry and coastal development.
For the past 8,000 years, agriculture including fishing has played a key role in the development of the Moray Firth and trade in sea food has in turn resulted in the birth of many towns, along these shores and supported the communities of people who live there. From fishing and shipping through to more recent human enterprises such as oil exploration, tourism and renewable energy developments, these waters support a wide range of activities and contribute heavily to the Scottish economy. I saw just how much of a dominating presence such activities have in the local area during a trip along the coast to the little town of Cromarty, and the port of Invergordon. Overshadowed by oil platforms looming out from a thick layer of fog whilst ships passed by cutting through the water like scissors through paper, I felt dwarfed by the giant structures and it was humbling to see how much of an impact human development has had. However, has this come at the expense of the local wildlife?
In previous articles I have discussed the impact of shipping upon cetaceans, and in the Moray Firth, there is no doubt that the increasingly noisy world of coastal development poses a risk to the marine wildlife living there. With the deep waters of the Firth not only being a rich and important feeding ground for the bottlenose dolphins but also providing safe passage for ships, there is the potential for catastrophic injuries caused by collisions and noise pollution. Whilst collisions remain a rare occurrence, sadly the same cannot be said for noise.
Noise pollution can have a damaging effect upon cetaceans as they rely upon sound to navigate, find food, and communicate. In areas with heavy shipping traffic, there are concerns that if the animals vocalisations are drowned out then they may be unable to feed, leading to starvation and they could even suffer painful physical injuries to their ears. In 2012, a study was carried out by the Universities of Aberdeen and Bath to investigate the impact of ships in the Moray Firth on the resident dolphins. Two locations, Chanonry Point and The Sutors of Cromarty in the Inner Firth, were selected, both locations known to be important feeding grounds. Equipment was set up to record vessel noise and marine mammal vocalisations. At both sites, shipping traffic was proven to be the primary source of noise pollution, However, one was significantly louder than the other. It was determined that whilst such noise was present in the waters, they did not pose a significant threat to the population as they appeared to have become habituated to the noise. There was, however, concern that with the amplitude and frequency of the shipping noise matching that of the dolphins’ communication, there was the possibility that they could be drowned out and therefore unable to vocalise, interact and even fish. A small risk, perhaps, but still an important threat. It is not just shipping noise that presents a risk to cetaceans in north-east Scotland, however; oil and gas exploration also contribute.
Twenty-two kilometres out from the coast in the middle of the Moray Firth lies the Beatrice Field, an exploitable oilfield discovered in the late 1960s. Oil exploration is, by its nature, a noisy business and so the initial discovery may have had an impact upon the inhabitants of these waters. During the search for oil and gas deposits, seismic surveys are conducted along the sea bed which involves sending out intense low frequency sound bursts. Like vessel disturbance, such bursts of noise have the capacity to displace mammals and even cause them physical harm. Once oil has been discovered, further noise is created during the installation of pipes and vessels supplying materials. Even at the end of an oil facility’s life, it may continue to cause distress to the local wildlife as explosives are often used to remove equipment and other structures. The current facility at the Beatrice Field is being decommissioned in the near future, and so there may be a further impact on the environment, which will also continue when the recently approved offshore wind farm begins construction.
Oil is a sticky issue and it is not just the potential for noise disturbance posing a threat to marine life. In between watching for dolphins and seals at Chanonry Point, I found myself drawn to a number of signs decorating the nearby fence posts. The posters warned of an application for ship-to-ship transfers at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth offshore as opposed to being securely berthed at the Nigg terminal, where this practice currently takes place. Whilst this would potentially save money by reducing the need to dock, the question is whether this would come at the cost of the local wildlife?
Ship-to-ship transfers allow oil to be passed from one vessel to another and according to the application, 8. 5 million tonnes of it would be transferred each year. Such practices already take place in Scapa Flow in Orkney and, so far, there has been no catastrophic effect. However, it would be naive to assume that there would not be an increased risk of oil spillages if the Moray Firth transfers were given the go ahead. If a major accident was to occur, it could have a devastating impact upon both the people and the creatures that call the area home. Sea birds such as auks, puffins, razorbills and guillemots, cormorants, shags and sea duck, to name but a few could find themselves unable to fly or end up swimming coated in a thick layer of black oil. Marine mammals such as seals could suffer lung ailments or be unable to feed if fish stocks were affected. Even the local people who rely upon the tourist industry could suffer. In an area of natural beauty that is home to a diverse range of wildlife, it seems a shame to put them at risk. There is no doubt that proper procedures would be put in place to limit the risk and to date, ship-to-ship transfers have an excellent safety record. However, the question is, is it worth it?
The Moray Firth is captivating, stunning and awe inspiring. The Moray Firth Partnership exists to support the environmental sustainability, collaborating with locals and businesses to work to protect the diversity of the area. It is a vital organisation in terms of the preservation of the region. In a constantly developing world, we all need to adapt to survive and thrive; we just need to make sure that our gain is not at the loss of our natural world.