Andy reflects on another busy Wildlife Officer season in the Hebrides!
These past couple of days of horizontal driving rain and gale force winds have certainly reminded me that it is October on the West Coast of Scotland and that the Hebrides Wildlife Officer season is sadly coming to an end. It seems like only yesterday that I started a new season back in March and the summer has flown by.
Last year was the first full season for our Wildlife Officer and Marine Mammal Survey programs with CalMac Ferries and was full of the excitement of new ventures and getting the logistics right. This year has been one of consolidation and also of starting to explore the many opportunities that the programs here offer the CalMac and ORCA partnership.
The mini-cruise that we undertook at the end of August on MV Clansman to the islands of Coll, Tiree and Barra is a fantastic example. Thirty keen passengers spent a whole day with myself and Jan, another ORCA guide, looking for marine wildlife and exploring the landscapes that we sailed through. They were rewarded for their efforts with common dolphins, minke whales and golden eagles. Plus, we all made great new friendships during the fourteen-hour sailing.
We also started two new additional survey routes; Ardrossan to Campbeltown, in the Firth of Clyde and Uig on Skye to North Uist and Harris on the Outer Hebrides. The Skye routes have been particularly good for both surveys and Wildlife Officering over the past couple of months with exciting sightings of literally hundreds of common dolphins, plus minke whales and Risso’s dolphins. The ferry even ha an encounter with a pod of orcas last month but unfortunately I wasn’t on board at the time.
We have yet to crunch the numbers with regards to sightings here for this year but anecdotally I suspect that they will be higher than last year for some species. We certainly seemed to have a very large number of encounters with minke whales during the middle of the summer. As you will know if you have read my previous blogs, Hebridean waters are some of the best in the world for a number of species. One of those is the minke whale and large numbers of these baleen whales frequent the islands during the summer months, feeding on herring and sand eels. It is not uncommon to find a large female minke with another juvenile feeding close by in our waters during the season.
It has been a quieter year for myself with regards to the other charismatic marine mega fauna that the region is famous for: the basking shark. I’ve maybe recorded a dozen baskers during my time on the ferries this summer, compared to 60-70 last year. Although I have to admit that those numbers were slightly skewed by a large aggregation of them in the Small Isles one Saturday last season. What I have enjoyed is a fantastic sighting of one breaching just off Hawes Bank seen from the Isle of Lewis ferry on the way to Barra in August. The ability of such a large, seemingly cumbersome, giant to launch itself clear of the water never ceases to amaze me. Basking shark research still has a long way to go but the current thinking is that this might be part of their courtship behavior and increasingly scientific study of the sharks in the Hebrides points to the region being an important breeding and socialization area, as well a major source of food for the species.
There have been some beautiful, mirror calm days, with harbour porpoise and their calves popping up everywhere. Days when we have been lucky enough to be visited by Risso’s and bottlenose dolphins. And the end of the summer and early Autumn has seen hundreds and hundreds of common dolphins coming into the Minch and the Sea of Hebrides which has been so dramatic to see for Calmac passengers and ORCA surveyors alike. But obviously the highlight of the season has to be the orca that were recorded on survey off Barra last month. Three of them surfaced at the stern of the ferry after being tracked down the side of the bridge by the survey team a couple of days after they had been spotted from MV Hebrides a little further north in the Minch. It is fitting that the species that everyone wants to see made an appearance right at the end of the season providing an exciting finale to a busy year.
That’s it for this season in the Hebrides. ORCA have continued to be part of developing a program here on the West Coast of Scotland that will provide interest for both visitors and locals as they travel on CalMac ferries, and not only raises important awareness of the outstandingly diverse but also fragile nature of marine wildlife in Hebridean waters, but at the same gathers vital scientific data to inform the policy making and legislation that allows us to protect our seas.
Thank you to everyone at CalMac ferries, particularly the staff in the Oban office and crews on the ships for their continued support this year. ORCA has a good, solid base of Marine Mammal Surveyors in the region now and we will be training another batch this Saturday at the Scottish Association of Marine Science here in Oban. But for now, in the words of the dolphins from the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy: “So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish.”
ORCA Wildlife Officer - The Hebrides