Highlights of the Hebrides

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Highlights of the Hebrides

Looking back on the 2021 Hebrides Wildlife Season, common dolphins have been a constant companion alongside highlights such as breaching minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, and lots and lots of puffins.

My final crossing with CalMac Ferries was on board the MV Hebrides from Uig to Tarbert on Harris in the morning and Lochmaddy on North Uist in the afternoon. There were no breaching whales, or huge bait balls of fish, or unexpected rarities like killer whales or humpbacks, and the weather was rainy and misty, yet it turned out to be one of my best crossings. Despite the cold wind, low visibility and wet weather, the sea was calm and silvery. I was joined by some very knowledgeable and happy passengers who sprang up on deck when they heard there was a Wildlife Officer on board to help them spot animals. It wasn’t long before we started getting common dolphin and harbour porpoise sightings racking up on the survey app. Although I have now seen more porpoises and common dolphins than you can shake a stick at, watching passengers react to their first encounter with these animals never stops being an absolute joy. When you see these animals on an almost weekly basis, it is really nice to be reminded by others how incredibly special those sightings are, and I went home with a spring in my step... and really damp socks.

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Here are our first Wildlife Mini-Cruise passengers who were very excited to see so many common dolphins breaching and bow riding on a return crossing from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist. They even spotted an otter at Uig harbour before they embarked.

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A statue at Lochmaddy Harbour, giving passengers a hint at what they could see on their crossing to Skye.

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In my penultimate week in the Hebrides, I gave a talk at Waternish Community Hall on Skye which was a fantastic way to round up the season and it was great to see many local people interested in learning about and protecting their local marine life.


Survey Results

With the help and company of many enthusiastic CalMac passengers and crew, in 2021 I have completed 119 surveys over 41 return crossings using the new ORCA Ocean Watchers Mobile App. It was an unusual start to the year as the country was still very much in lockdown and restrictions meant I was unable to get out onto the ferries until May. But it was definitely worth the wait and when tourism made a slow and careful return in Scotland the ferry passengers were all the more excited and appreciative to be out and about.

2021 Sightings Summary:

Minke whale:                    22

Harbour porpoise:           84

Common dolphin:          211

Bottlenose dolphin:           4

Unidentified dolphin:      30

Unidentified cetacean:     3

White-beaked dolphin:     2

Total: 358 individual marine mammals recorded from 17th April – 12th October

Sea birds: Northern gannet, arctic tern, common tern, shag, cormorant, puffin, razorbill, guillemot, black guillemot, Manx shearwater, arctic skua, fulmar, greater black back gull, kittiwake, herring gull, storm petrol, red-throated diver, eider duck, great northern diver,

Other marine wildlife: Barrel jellyfish, Lion’s mane jellyfish, common seal, grey seal.

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Common seals resting on Skye.

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A barrel jellyfish, taken on the MV Bute. The bell of a barrel jellyfish can grow up to 90cm wide and they can weigh up to 35kg! They also contain the same amount of calories as a digestive biscuit! So although they are a big snack for some animals, they are not particularly nutritious.

 This survey season started in uncertain times, and much of my time was spent working from home. Here’s me on my very first sailing with CalMac back in April when I was unable to interact with passengers. Thank goodness it wasn’t too long to wait before I was able to chat away and share the wonderful wildlife of the west coast with others. The season has flown by and I’ve seen new places, new animals, and spent hours with new people (a real novelty after the last year and a half). A couple of firsts for me have included white-beaked dolphins, breaching Minke whales, and bow-riding porpoises! Thank you to everyone at CalMac and ORCA and a special thank you to all the ferry staff who came and had a chat out on deck, gave me hints and tips about good wildlife spots, reported their own sightings, and brought me tea and cakes in the wind and rain.