July 12, 2008

Underwater Exploration of Remote Island Reserve

By John Ross

THE secrets beneath Scotland's most remote national nature reserve are about to be revealed for the first time by an underwater investigation.

The uninhabited island of North Rona lies 47 miles out in the Atlantic, further offshore than St Kilda, and its isolated location makes it the least visited nature reserve in the country.

It is an important breeding habitat for grey seal and seabird colonies, especially of the European storm-petrel and the larger Leach's storm-petrel. And beneath the waves north-east of the Butt of Lewis, a rich variety of marine life inhabits an array of reefs, caves and gullies.

Despite its designation as a reserve, the underwater environment here has remained largely unexplored. But next week, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which owns the island, will begin a survey project to map and record the marine life in the seas around North Rona.

Dylan Todd, who is co-ordinating an initial eight-day sweep, said: "We'll be gathering a huge amount of information on the rich and diverse marine life surrounding North Rona in order to develop a management plan to help protect the area.

"We expect to find kelp forests extending as deep as 35 metres, and areas of open rock supporting rich marine communities of sponges, anemones, soft corals and ascidians."

Information from sea caves used by grey seals for shelter will be passed to the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews, while rock samples will be sent to the British Geological Survey for full analysis.

The first stage of the survey will build up a detailed map of the sea floor around the island using sonar. Over the first eight days, the group's survey vessel, Ocean Explorer, will criss-cross the marine Special Area of Conservation, collecting data to determine the layout of the seabed, including the reefs and sea caves.

The team will also spend time on the island, which has a small hut maintained by the Sea Mammal Research Unit for use by research teams and other occasional visitors.

The next stage will be a full undersea survey using a remotely operated vehicle to explore the nature and wildlife on the reefs around the island.

North Rona is the most northerly island of the Outer Hebrides ever to have been regularly inhabited. It is said to have been the residence of Saint Ronan in the 8th century. After long periods of habitation, the island was eventually deserted in 1844.

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