It has really started to warm up here the past couple of weeks in the Hebrides.
I am referring to sightings of marine mammals rather than the weather. The weather is currently “decidedly Scottish”, if you know what I mean.
But it seems that 80% of the sailings that I have undertaken recently have produced either minke whales or common dolphins or both. There certainly seems to be a large amount of minke whales in the area, and as is the norm at this time of year, a number of them are females with a youngster in tow. We are also starting to see much more breaching behavior from these whales. On Monday afternoon, as we approached Castlebay on Barra, whilst undertaking a survey on MV Isle of Lewis, we observed two whales as they breached out of the water, landing belly down and making massive splashes. Each whale must have jumped out of the water at least ten times each. The energy required to propel an adult minke in such a way – they can reach up to 10,000kg in weight and 9 metres in length – must be immense. And to do it time after time is phenomenal but it certainly isn’t the first time that I’ve seen this species doing this. It was interesting to see the time between breaches get longer and longer towards the end of the sequence and we speculated that perhaps the animal was getting tired.
We also had an amazing encounter with a group of at least ten Risso’s dolphins during the survey. When we first picked them up they were travelling in a chorus line. This is a formation that some species adopt when either hunting or sometimes when resting and involves travelling side by side in a line. They seemed to be resting as they reacted to the ferry quite late before breaking the formation and taking evasive action. It was heart lifting to see a very young calf in amongst the pod which can’t have been more than a week or so old. It is thought that the Hebrides is possibly a nursery ground for this species which generally frequents deeper water.
It isn’t just the mega fauna that are exciting us at the moment. Bird wise good numbers of Arctic skuas are being sighted in the area and lots of tiny storm petrels are starting to be seen in the Minch. Out around the islands, guillemot and razorbill fathers are on the water with their offspring, shepherding them through the first few weeks of life on the water.
There are increasing numbers of slow cruising basking sharks being sighted across the region which are always fantastic to see. In recent weeks the mighty fin whale has also been putting in an appearance; one was sighted close to Tiree a few weeks ago and a number of them have been recorded feeding off Tiumpan Head, north of Stornoway, in the past week.
But perhaps the most significant recent sighting has been that of the two bull killer whales: John Coe and Aquarius. These two orcas from the West Coast Community group have been seen a number of times over the past fortnight off Ardnamurchan, Canna, and Skye. I have to confess that I haven’t been lucky enough to see them yet. As always with these two I seem to just miss them. The other Saturday I turned up to work on MV Loch Nevis around the Small Isles and wasn’t surprised to hear the crew saying to me that John Coe (certainly the most famous ORCA this side of the Atlantic) had surfaced next to them as they took their tea break out on deck the evening before – c’est la vie! I suppose I will just have to keep looking. It’s a hard life looking for John Coe but someone has to do it!
ORCA Wildlife Officer – Hebrides