From whales to seals, avid wildlife watchers are helping demonstrate the wealth and variety of marine life in one of Scotland’s estuaries.

The rich wildlife of the Firth of Forth has now been mapped by Heriot-Watt University scientists with the help of a 10,000-strong Facebook group.

Over two years, more than 450 people have reported sightings of species from otters to porpoises in the Forth through the Forth Marine Mammals page.

Humpback, minke and killer whales are among the marine animals that have been spotted, as are common bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises.

Marine mammal researcher at Heriot-Watt University Emily Hague used the citizen-collated data spanning between April 2021 and April 2023 to create an interactive map providing a better picture of the wildlife population.

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The Herald: Harbour sealsHarbour seals (Image: Sarah McDaid)

The map, which also includes data on when the sightings took place, also includes references to rarer visitors to the area such as basking sharks and otters.

Basking sharks, which are the world’s second-largest fish, are commonly found near the Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland but lucky wildlife watchers spotted them off the coast of Kirkcaldy in both 2021 and 2022.

Ms Hague said: “Thanks to the hundreds of people who post on Forth Marine Mammals, we’re able to show the wealth and variety of marine life seen from our shores along the Forth.

“Until quite recently the Forth was thought of as being pretty void of marine life, but this group of citizen scientists has helped prove that’s really not the case.

“This project has raised awareness about the Forth’s marine life among the people who work, live and visit our shores, but it will also contribute to science and marine policy that in future might help better conserve and protect this magnificent location.”

One of the group’s most prolific members is Ronnie Mackie, 69, who has a view of the Forth from his home in Kinghorn.

The recreational fisherman and local volunteer with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) is a frequent contributor to the group.

Mr Mackie claimed the excitement of spotting wildlife does not wear off and said: “I’ve always been a wildlife enthusiast and it’s still exciting to me when I spot a whale or dolphin in the Forth.

“Facebook groups like these are great because when you can alert people that something’s on its way, and it gives them the opportunity to head to the shore or a good viewing point to spot something.

“More people are becoming aware of all the animals that are swimming past us, and we set up a WDC Shorewatch site in Kinghorn where people can be trained in survey equipment. That’s also helped raise awareness.”

The Herald:

A Shorewatch is a 10-minute whale, dolphin and porpoise survey organised by trained volunteers at specific sites across the country.

It started at the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre in 2005 and has now expanded to sites across the country and is another example of vital contributions by citizen scientists.

Mr Mackie is now focused on keeping his eyes open for one of the smallest species of cetaceans – porpoise.

He added: “I don’t have a favourite marine mammal, but I’m very interested in porpoises at the moment.

“I think they’re underreported because they’re small and hard to spot. But I’m keeping my eye out for them now!”

Harbour porpoises have been confirmed from Queensferry Crossing to the outskirts of the estuary, but Ms Hague’s map shows a significant number of sightings between Burntisland and Kirkcaldy.

The map showcases marine mammal sightings go as far inland as Dunmore where a dolphin was spotted.

It also shows numerous confirmed sightings of a humpback whale swimming off the coast of Fife – many which were reported in December 2021.

A humpback whale created a buzz among locals and tourists at the end of 2021 as it passed by a number of coastal towns in the area.

Other rarer whale sightings included a number of reports of the third largest rorqual, the sei whale, that can reach up to 19.5metres (64ft) and weigh up to 28 tonnes.

Ms Hague added: “We’re incredibly grateful to everyone who has reported a sighting over the past two years.

“We encourage anyone visiting the Forth to keep their eyes peeled for its wonderful wildlife and report back to the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook page.”

Scots are being encouraged to join the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook page and to document their marine wildlife sightings.