We're up on the West Coast of Scotland for another exciting Wildlife Officer Season with CalMac Ferries!
So here I am again on the West Coast of Scotland with CalMac ferries as their ORCA Hebrides Wildlife Officer – it must be springtime!
Although the huge gales we’ve had the last couple of days would beg to differ but that’s absolutely fine. I love hearing the storms raging outside whilst in the warmth of the office as I organize kit and plan the Wildlife Officer season, looking forward to a break in the weather at the weekend when I should hopefully get out!
As always I’m a little late to the party, having only arrived back in Oban on Sunday; in my absence the previous weeks have produced a couple of exciting sightings here. First there was the juvenile humpback whale at Dunstaffnage just outside Oban. This youngster, only about 7-8 metres long (an adult humpback whale can reach 18 metres), found itself in trouble near the shore and initially stranded itself in the shallows. This is a massive problem for a whale of such size as they are neutrally buoyant in the water but when they strand the huge weight of their body impacts upon their internal organs if they can’t refloat themselves quickly. Thankfully after about 5 hours near the shore it managed to free itself on a rising tide.
It sounds like it was a sad episode, but in one way it couldn’t have happened in a more suitable spot. It had stranded right next to the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). We work closely with them, some of their students and academics are ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors and we run our annual West Coast training courses each autumn here. There were plenty of experienced cetacean scientists to monitor the whale and of course British Divers Marine Life Rescue were also on the scene. It even allowed lecturers to hold their classes at the water’s edge. Eventually the whale made its way out to safer, deeper water. It isn’t unusual for humpback whales to pass along the West Coast on their annual migration between feeding grounds off Norway and Iceland and their breeding areas in the southern North Atlantic but this particular one was young and without its mother.
No more than a couple of days before I returned to the West Coast the infamous Jon Coe and his travelling companion, Aquarius, from the West Coast Community pod of orcas were sighted off Canna in the Small Isles. Sightings of members of this particular group of killer whales are sporadic and it is always great to know when they are back in their home grounds. So the season here starts with some tantalizing cetacean sightings and we go into our first survey of the season, across the Minch from Ullapool to Stornoway on Monday, with excitement and anticipation for what the coming months might bring.
As well as my work as Wildlife Officer engaging with the public on the many CalMac Ferries I will also be leading ORCAs Marine Mammal Surveys on the West Coast. We are grateful to CalMac and Scottish Natural Heritage for their support of our work here and are pleased to be able to expand the bridge survey program to two new routes this year: Ardrossan to Campbeltown through the Clyde, and Uig on Skye to Tarbert and Lochmaddy on the Outer Hebrides. That will take us to five dedicated monthly distance sampling surveys giving us extensive coverage across the CalMac network. Add to that the Wildlife Officer data that I am able to collect whilst I am guiding out on deck and it constitutes a significant contribution to the ongoing research on the West Coast marine mammal population and their habitats.
Some highlights of the programme in 2018 were groups Risso’s dolphins recorded around Islands in the Inner Hebrides, breaching basking sharks and minke whales seen from the MV Isle of Lewis on its way to Barra.
I just can’t wait to find out what highlight are in store this year!
ORCA Wildlife Officer – Hebrides