A day in the Life of a Hebrides Wildlife Officer

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A day in the Life of a Hebrides Wildlife Officer

Killer Whales and Alaskan Cyclists. A Typical Day in the Life of the Hebrides Wildlife Officer?

A new Wildlife Officer route trialled; reports of killer whales in the Clyde; the return of swallows and common terns to the region; engaged passengers from all over the world - an average day for the Wildlife Officer? Well, obviously orcas in the Clyde is far from typical but in many ways Saturday was a normal day for the Hebrides Wildlife Officer.

I had arrived at Kennacraig terminal in plenty of time for the ferry and spent an hour photographing black guillemots, grey herons and great northern divers in the glorious sunshine. It wasn’t long after I was on board the MV Isle of Arran and on the way to Port Askaig in Islay when I received the first message that orcas were being seen off Wemyss Bay in the Clyde, an hour south of where I was. I couldn’t believe that it was only the previous Saturday that I had been working down there. If I hadn’t been on ship then I would have been straight in the car and heading down to find them.

It was another ORCA Wildlife Officer who had first informed me. I know Heather well as I worked with her on the Britanny Ferries ship the Pont Aven in the Bay of Biscay last year. This season she was working in the same region but on the Cap Finistere. She lives in Glasgow, it was her week off, and there she was watching orcas feeding in one of my areas of work, the Clyde! I can’t complain really as I have been very lucky with my orca sightings all over the world and I was really pleased for her. After another encounter with them from the Cap Finistere a couple of weeks ago she was certainly having an orca year! This is Heather’s account of time that she spent with them at dusk:

to my utter delight I spotted them, just off Dumbarton Castle! The iconic orca dorsal fins, tall and black were breaking cleanly through the water, flashing in the sunlight. I am not ashamed to say I had a minor meltdown in the hard shoulder of the M8! Keeping to the deep water channel, the orcas travelled right up the Clyde to the Erskine Bridge, were they milled around for a while before their long trek back out into deep water. I followed them back down the river…….All the way along I saw more and more people pulling over, or running out of their houses to watch these incredible animals swim by. Back in Greenock, watchers of all ages were out until dark, watching the orcas disappear into the sunset, back out to sea.

These six orca were from a group normally seen around Orkney and the Shetland Islands. Throughout the day they were seen hunting seals and they clearly had a youngster in tow.

Perhaps just to rub salt into the wound another friend who operates a wildlife watching business on Islay told me later in the day that I had also missed 9 bottlenose dolphins cruising past Bunnahabhain whisky distillery in the Sound of Jura by about an hour.

But that’s the highs and lows of wildlife watching. It isn’t predictable, you get really lucky some days, and then just miss out on the action on others. Yet either way Saturday was a stunning, sunny day and the Hebridean Islands were basking in their full glory. The route which runs from Kennacriag to Islay to Colonsay to Oban, twice a week during the summer season, looks like it will be pretty good for wildlife sightings as it passes through some great habitats. Lots of passengers from all over the world joined me on deck and I spotted my first swallow of the season and enjoyed the common terns which have just arrived back in the region after overwintering off the coast of West Africa.

I was overjoyed to get back to the office this week and find an email waiting from a couple from Alaska that had spent time out on deck with me that day, whilst taking the ferry between islands as they cycled around the Hebrides. They were on their way from Islay to Oban before catching the ferry to Castlebay on Barra and starting to cycle the length of the Outer Hebrides. Their lovely email said; “Thank you for sharing all your expertise in local marine and bird life - it enriched [our] experience greatly!”, and I don’t mind saying that that warmed my heart.

That really is why we do the job of Wildlife Officer: to engage the public in the wildlife that we love and hopefully in doing so they will be further engaged to want to support the protection and conservation of our marine environment. It’s all in a day’s work for an ORCA Wildlife Officer.

Andy Gilbert
ORCA Wildlife Officer – Hebrides