A day in the life of a Marine Mammal Surveyor

Categories // Survey & Sightings News

A day in the life of a Marine Mammal Surveyor

ORCA Surveyor Ronnie McGowan talks about his experience surveying in the Hebrides one our new routes for 2018.

Sunday, 4.00 a.m. and the road from Glasgow to Oban is quiet, ninety miles through some breath-taking highlands scenery, from the banks of Loch Lomond to my destination, the ‘gateway to the isles’; a two-hour journey made more enjoyable by catching the sunrise over Scotland’s best known loch.

Oban is a bustling working port with a variety of sea-going vessels moored next to the unmistakeable black and red livery of the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet. This survey is on the MV Clansman which provides a life-line ferry service to the small islands of Coll, Tiree and Colonsay. Caledonian MacBrayne also serves up the best value breakfast anywhere round the British Isles. The bridge crew give a friendly welcome, “have yourselves tea or coffee”, they offer.

The engines come to life as Oban is left behind in the wake of the ship’s propellers. Our bearing is north-west, along the Sound of Mull.
Views from the bridge are stunning with Inner Hebridean islands to the south and Loch Linnhe ebbing and flowing northwards, eventually lapping the shores near the foot of Ben Nevis at An Gearasdan [Fort William]. With little cloud, good visibility and a Beaufort scale force 1, the prospect of sightings looks promising.

Sailing up the Sound is a pleasant way to spend Sunday morning, flanked by Mull on the port-side and Lochaline on starboard, the route continues towards Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of mainland Britain. The multi-coloured sea-front houses of Tobermory add to the picture post-card impression. Just before leaving this sheltered channel Andy Gilbert, ORCA Wildlife Officer, points out a sea-stack where a white-tailed eagle is nesting. These majestic birds seem over-sized when in flight and their white tail is a clear help for identification.

So far the sightings have been mainly seals and the odd common dolphin, but there is an ever present assortment of sea-birds; a flock of cormorants skimming the surface or skuas bobbing on the small ripples before diving for food. There’s never a dull moment on the water and the team of three volunteers and the Wildlife Officer remain vigilant, binoculars and recording tablet at the ready, as a small but measurable swell indicates we’ve reached the Atlantic.

To the north in the distance, the islands of Eigg, Rhum and Skye can be seen with the naked eye. On the approach to Coll we pass the nearby Treshnish islands with its puffin colonies, the unusual shape of the Dutchman’s Cap, Fingal’s Cave and the burial ground of the ancient kings of Scotland in Iona Abbey – as an evocative experience this coastal expanse is hard to beat. It was though, about to get much better.

The sailing time between Coll and Tiree, a Gaelic speaking island known as the ‘land beneath the waves’, is one hour and the waters surrounding both islands are rich in marine life and frequented by basking sharks. Skerryvore lighthouse, an impressive monument to Victorian engineering is a hazy outline on the south-west horizon. There were no sightings of basking sharks this time but approaching the pier at Tiree, by way of Gott bay, we were met with a frenzy of activity. From a distance the splashing resembled diving gannets but the magnitude and intensity of the movement suggested something on a grander scale. Coming into sharp focus and heading towards the Clansman was a pod of fifty common dolphins, arcing out of the water, plunging and disappearing under the hull, fore-and-aft, displaying no inhibitions, and providing an unforgettable spectacle. While the ship docked at Gott pier some of the dolphins continued to play at the north end of the bay while others headed in the direction of Skerryvore, capping a virtuoso performance. It’s an eight hour round trip from Oban to Tiree and as surveys go this crossing was productive.

The beer-brewing island of Colonsay is a few hours south-west of Oban. The late afternoon sun adds some glare, increasing the challenge of distinguishing what is and what isn’t sea life. What wasn’t so difficult to spot, however, were the minke whales in the vicinity of Colonsay. Observing those bulky mammals ease their way through the water was a final reward, bringing the evening to a satisfying conclusion. And so a setting sun saw our team bade farewell on Oban quayside, as we headed home in directions north, east, and south. It was a long day; it was a unique adventure.

Poor Andy had to stay put, to endure similar journeys over the summer months.