Two hundred years on from the first recorded landing, researchers have compiled the first ever high-resolution map of the underwater seabed and reefs around Rockall.
On September 8, 1811, a Royal Navy officer with a small crew landed on the isolated North Atlantic islet and scaled the 19 metre high summit. From this initial claim Rockall has became Scotland's most westerly point, 187 miles due west of the St Kilda archipelago, despite counter-claims from other countries.
Until now, no detailed maps have existed of the shallow waters surrounding Rockall - famed for it's inclusion in the regular shipping weather forecasts - and the nearby Helen's Reef. However, a research collaboration between Marine Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), carried out this summer, has revealed a spectacular array of underwater reefs, pinnacles and ridges.
The survey took place in July aboard the Marine Research Vessel Scotia, with multibeam echo-sounder swathes of the seabed used to compile an accurate, high resolution map. Underwater video footage was also taken and specialist traps were used to assess fish distribution in the area.
Detailed Bathymetry of Rockall as revealed by multi-beam echosounder survey. Red areas are shallower, dark blue deeper.
Marion Harrald, Marine Scotland Science. Crown copyright 2011.Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said:
"The far flung islet of Rockall, out in the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean, forms Scotland's most westerly point and is more than 180 miles from the nearest landmass in the Western Isles. Over the decades this enigmatic rock has been the subject of international disputes over ownership, a magnet for adventurers and even a location for pirate radio broadcasters.
"It's fantastic that Scotland has reaffirmed our possession of Rockall through this survey, which enabled a new high definition map to be developed, uncovered amazing underwater features, as well as studies of the marine life found around Rockall and Helen's Reef.
"Using state-of-the-art acoustic technology the Scotia created a map of the area surrounding Rockall for the first time. This information will help to deepen our understanding of what is a unique and isolated marine ecosystem and give an insight into the varied species and sea life found there.
"The research forms part of an ambitious programme of surveys Marine Scotland is taking forward throughout 2011, in coordination with partner organisations, to improve our knowledge of Scotland's seas. All the new information gathered - including from the Rockall survey - will prove critical as we seek to strike the right balance between marine conservation and economic development."
Francis Neat from Marine Scotland, chief scientist in the Rockall survey team, commented:
"Rockall has a rich natural history and supports some very valuable fisheries. In the past we've faced ferocious weather conditions that have prevented survey work around Rockall taking place. However, this year we got lucky - the sea was calm and the quality of the data gathered is excellent.
"It's really incredible to finally be able to appreciate what Scotland's most remote marine ecosystem looks likes beneath the waves. Video footage of the reef area shows much is scoured bedrock interspersed with sand and boulders. The coral reefs tend to be found in the deeper areas on the bank, much of which has been recently protected from fishing activity.
"By using fish traps we also discovered the reef is inhabited by huge conger eels, ling and tusk. Fishing vessels catch squid in the deeper trench that runs between the rock and reef; a risky business due to the treacherous reefs, but the rewards can be substantial. Our goal is to support long-term, sustainable fisheries while ensuring appropriate marine conservation and the new data of the Rockall area will help us achieve this."
Rockall with fishing vessel in the distance by Colin Trigg, SNH, Crown copyright 2011Susan Davies, SNH Director of Policy and Advice, added:
"Rockall has always been a source of intrigue and mystery and because of its location it is a notoriously difficult place to survey. We're delighted we were able to seize the opportunity to collaborate with Marine Scotland Science on this work.
"Together we were able to collect valuable data for the first time and produce a detailed map of the sea bed directly around the Rockall reef. The underwater terrain of this commercially and environmentally important area was, up until now, almost unknown and this work has provided a great insight in that respect."
Rockall is a minuscule part of vast plateau of a submerged continent. This steep islet is around 10 metres across and 19 metres high. The first recorded landing was September 8, 1811, by Royal Navy officer Basil Hall, who led a small landing party from the frigate HMS Endymion to the summit.
The UK's ownership of Rockall (and the surrounding seas and continental shelf) has been disputed over the decades by Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands). The United Nations has committed to examine the competing claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Rockall is a renowned fishing ground and supports large stocks of haddock and monkfish. In the deeper areas on the plateau it also supports some of the most extensive coldwater coral reefs in the north east Atlantic.
Now that the new map is available, video imaging and more detailed analysis will be undertaken to identify the types of habitat and marine fauna present. This will build toward a better basis for the management of the area for both fisheries and conservation.