The first minke whale of the Hebrides Wildlife Officer season has been spotted this week!
Perhaps the most exciting moment of the past few weeks was yesterday when, from the bridge of the MV Isle of Lewis, I spotted a distant minke whale on our approach to the north-western side of the Isle of Mull. It had been a difficult ORCA Marine Mammal Survey for a number of logistical reasons and we had travelled all the way from Barra without any sightings. I was actually looking for harbour porpoise as I knew that we were coming up to porpoise territory and I was determined to find at least one for the new team member who hadn’t seen anything on her first survey. There in the distance, through my binoculars I spotted a dark object briefly break the surface of the water, too big to be a porpoise. It did this twice and when eventually the animal surfaced properly, to take a breath, and the characteristic back of a minke whale rolled through the water, I realized that I had initially been looking at the rostrum, or top jaw of the whale, showing as it lunge fed.
It isn’t that the minke whale is the largest, most acrobatic, or even charismatic of whales. But here in the Hebrides they are part of the regular movement of animals into our waters as the sun starts to shine and spring moves on. As I have been Wildlife Officering on the outside decks of CalMac Ferries over the last month the question always comes up about what can be seen. I reel off the possible different dolphin and bird species and finish off with the minke whale – stating that they aren’t here yet but should start to turn up any day now! I can now say, they are here or at least a few are. Over the last week a handful of sightings have been reported in spots around the islands which suggests that there is probably enough food for the small number of the early vanguard to remain in the area. My excitement is partly due to the fact that they are the region’s largest, regular, marine megafauna but it is also down to the feeling of satisfaction that comes after a period of anticipation that has finally come to conclusion.
The minke whale that I saw was feeding close to the Mull coast. During the warmer months these whales visit the Hebrides to feast on shoals of herring and sand eels. Many are returning whales and a number of them travel into the area with their young. They are a long way from the explosive harpoons of the whalers off Iceland and Norway (although it is likely that it is members of this same population that are hunted further north) but that doesn’t mean that coming into coastal waters aren’t without risk for them. Minke whales here are susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear including lines for lobster and prawn creels. It is estimated that there are thousands of kilometers of creel lines in the region. In the worst case scenario serious entanglement can result in the death of the whale. Work by Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and St Andrew’s University estimate that 22% of minke whales recorded by them in the region have evidence of entanglement scars. The highest rate of entanglement is around the head and mouth suggesting that it is possible that this takes place during feeding. Last season Hebridean Whale Cruises, a wildlife watching boat from Gairloch in Wester Ross, encountered a minke whale in the Minch that had rope entangled through its mouth. British Divers Marine Life Rescue attempted to find it in order to disentangle the whale but unfortunately, despite the cooperation of local boats, the whale wasn’t seen again. This joint cooperation is indicative of the relationship that exists between wildlife watchers, conservationists, and fishermen within the Hebrides. In 2017, in collaboration with local NGO’s, the Scottish Creel Fisherman’s Federation produced a handbook for fisherman outlining ways to mitigate entanglement and how to deal with it when it does occur.
What is certain is that this region is an important feeding ground, nursery and area of socialization for these small baleen whales and that we have to do everything that we can to help them live in our increasingly busy local waters. The data that we collect on CalMac vessels will contribute to that task over the coming years. But there is one way that you can easily contribute: in 2019 there is expected to be a government consultation launched into a proposed Marine Protected Area in the Sea of Hebrides that will help to protect not only minke whales but also basking sharks. Keep your eyes out for the consultation and make sure that you have your say. I will definitely have my say, as well as enjoying welcoming the whales back to the region and showcasing them to CalMac passengers over the coming months.
ORCA Wildlife Officer – Hebrides