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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March 2008, 15:25 GMT
Fears over firth's rare dolphins
Jackie O'Brien
BBC Scotland news reporter

It was our second attempt at filming dolphins in the Moray Firth. Severe winds and high seas got the better of us the first time and the boat trip out of Buckie harbour had to be cancelled.

On the day Davey, the skipper of the Gemini Explorer, a survey boat hired by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, was up for the trip.

Gemini Explorer ploughs through waves. (Pic: Norman Strachan)
The Gemini Explorer ploughs through a heavy swell

He even brought his wife along, offering some private reassurance to cameraman Norman Strachan and I that we had nothing to fear from the closest thing to wildlife we had seen so far - the "white horses" we spotted on the waves as we drove into the fishing port.

How wrong we were.

Within minutes of leaving the safety of the harbour our sea legs were to be put to the test.

Norman, an islander by the way, seemed confident at first. He was filming enthusiastically as we headed for the Moray Firth, but within minutes the motion became too much.

We downed tools, took cover and assessed which side of the boat we should make a run for if sea sickness set in.

We didn't part with anything in the end and had to film most of our news piece in the safety of the wheelhouse.

The firth's rare population of bottlenose dolphins have made the waters their home - delighting tourists in the process.

But there's trouble on the horizon.

The population of bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth is only about 130 animals, so it is a very small and very vulnerable population
Sarah Dolman
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

There are plans to sanction oil and gas exploration within their habitat, which already boasts conservation area status.

Conservationists are on a collision course with the UK Government on the issue, with Sarah Dolman of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society leading the protests.

She said: "The population of bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth is only about 130 animals, so it is a very small and very vulnerable population.

"They are also isolated and so we are incredibly concerned about the prospect of having oil and gas licensing within their protected area, which the government just set up in 2005."

Using visual observations combined with underwater hydrophones to monitor their movements, the conservation group is taking stock to assess the true impact of fuel development.

Marine wildlife

Marine scientist Simon Keith is conducting the year-round survey.

He said: "This is the first time that a survey like this has happened in these waters.

"We are following lines pre-set in the sea to cover the area systematically from here to Wick and from here to Fraserburgh along the coast to the outer firth.

"First off, we want to see what species are out there because we get species of whales, we get species of dolphin and we get porpoises.

"Next is to find what particular areas of firth they prefer, and does that change across the year?"

It is also the first time the local marine wildlife has been surveyed in all conditions, although we were forced to take cover in the high seas on the day we went out.

Detailed scrutiny

Back on dry land the campaign against exploration is gathering pace, with calls for the government to reject exploration licenses in the Moray Firth.

In the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, Green MSP Robin Harper urged the government to nail its colours to the mast.

In response Environment Minister Mike Russell said a balance would have to be struck between the interests of the economy and protecting the natural environment.

He said: "The right way to take that forward is to listen to the bodies charged with that and then to come to our conclusions."

The UK Government said any application would be subjected to detailed scrutiny.

SEE ALSO
Fort's repairs to avoid dolphins
18 Feb 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Migratory salmon arriving 'late'
06 Jul 07 |  Highlands and Islands

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