Whales and dolphins: the hidden treasures beneath our waters
Survey advances conservation of vulnerable species
Leatherback turtles, beluga whales normally found in the Arctic, and white-tailed tropicbirds have all been recorded off the Irish coastline in what is among the biggest-ever nature surveys globally.
The €2.7m ObSERVE survey has identified hundreds of bird, whale and dolphin species in Irish territorial waters, shining a light on a hidden world hundreds of kilometres offshore and at hidden depths.
The survey, conducted over two summers and two winters across a three-year period, used underwater microphones located 1.8km below the surface and ship surveys to identify shale and minke travelling offshore.
It also utilised aerial surveys to identify sea birds and cetaceans - or whales, dolphins and porpoises - with a special aircraft skimming the ocean surface at heights of just 75 metres above the waves, travelling almost 40,000km over the three years.
Experts said it is among the biggest-ever surveys conducted anywhere in the world, covering more than 420,000 square kilometres in what is called the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Led by UCC and GMIT, and funded by the Government, the ObSERVE survey was designed to improve the knowledge and state of understanding of protected offshore species.
Junior Minister Sean Canney said it would help shape future regulation and advance the conservation of vulnerable species.
Some 100,000 sea birds were recorded at sea during the summer, swelling to 300,000 in August and September as hatchlings took to the wing and breeding migratory birds passed through. It also discovered the white-tailed tropicbird, normally found in Bermuda, and determined there were just under 50,000 breeding pairs of gannets - up from around 30,000 some 20 years previously.
Key findings include the recording of 20 species of cetaceans, with some 2,200 sightings. Some 380 sperm whales were found using acoustic detection, species of the beluga/white whale were found with 12,000 minke and baleen whale species found to be the most common.
Sound recordings were also made of rarely seen beaked whales - deep-diving offshore species poorly known to science, while the endangered blue whale was also recorded.
The survey will also help inform if areas of the ocean are off-limits to potentially harmful activities, such as offshore fossil fuel drilling.
The data will be made available to the public and researchers.