Find out what Wildlife Officer, Jess, has been up to over the last few weeks in the Hebrides!
The most southerly of my survey routes with CalMac Ferries this year is the crossing from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. This is a short thirty-minute crossing from one side of the Firth of Clyde to the other. Being sheltered from the North Atlantic by the Kintyre peninsula and its close proximity to land, led me to naively think that I wouldn’t see a huge amount of cetaceans on this crossing.
I was greeted by a friendly and enthusiastic crew on board the MV Argyle who told me that they see harbour porpoises almost every day so long as the sea state is calm enough. I thought this was too good to be true, but sure enough, over two days of crossings I saw more porpoises than I probably have in my whole life!
A harbour porpoise, taken from the MV Argyle in Rothesay, Isle of Bute A harbour porpoise, taken from the MV Argyle in Wemyss Bay
Harbour porpoises are the smallest cetacean we have in the UK, measuring 1.5 metres and weighing around 60kg. They are also the only species of porpoise to be seen in UK and European waters. The Gaelic word for harbour porpoise is Peileag and they are sometimes called ‘puffing pigs’ as they make a puffing sound when they surface. They are the most commonly seen cetacean in the Hebrides as they favour shallow, coastal shelf waters. They love munching on a variety of fish, shrimp, and squid and are known for being quite shy compared to their dolphin relatives.
A frequently asked question on the ferry is ‘What is the difference between a porpoise and a dolphin?’. Porpoises are generally smaller than dolphins, although from a tall ferry it can be difficult to get a sense of scale. The best way to tell from a distance is to look at the shape of the dorsal fin and the general behaviour and movement of the animal. Porpoises have a small equilateral triangle-shaped dorsal fin whereas dolphins usually have a taller and more swept back dorsal fin. Dolphins often leap out of the water, a behaviour confusingly known as ‘porpoising’ creating lots of splashes, whereas porpoise very rarely breach out of the water or ‘porpoise’ and usually are seen gently rolling through the water. Porpoises and dolphins can also be identified by the shape of their teeth, but it’s very unlikely you would see these on a live animal.
A model of a harbour porpoise skull showing their spade-shaped teeth. Porpoises tend to have blunt round heads and not much of a beak.
A model of a common dolphin skull showing their sharp conical teeth. Many dolphin species have long defined beaks.
As well as having a good chance of seeing porpoises, the crossing from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay is great for birdlife too, and I was treated to good views of eider ducks, black guillemots, shags, and gulls. The Isle of Bute is one of the most accessible islands in the Hebrides. It’s very easy to get to from Glasgow as the ferry port is inside the Wemyss Bay train station. Perfect if you want to get out of the city for a day and spend some time in nature and catch a glimpse of the cutest (in my opinion) of the UK’s cetacean species.
Other than the porpoise party in Wemyss Bay, my ferry crossings have been quiet in terms of sightings as it is still relatively early in the survey season and often rough sea states have hindered chances of seeing marine mammals. As a wildlife enthusiast, even just knowing there’s a chance of seeing amazing animals or finding signs of their existence can be almost as exciting as seeing them in the flesh, and I have spent much of my spare time out looking for wildlife!
This month I had a wonderful opportunity in my free time to embark upon an amazing trip to St Kilda. This incredibly exciting boat ride took me from Stein on the Isle of Skye, across the Minch, through the sound of Harris, and out into the open North Atlantic Ocean. St Kilda is the most remote archipelago in the UK and I spent the four-hour journey with my eyes glued to the sea, convinced we might spot the recently sighted Killer whales that meander through and around the Hebrides. But sadly the sea state was just too rough and in a tiny boat it was almost impossible to spot any cetaceans, especially has the swell felt like it was above my head at moments!
We did spot this cetacean skull on St Kilda, giving us a clue as to what could be swimming by us under the waves just out of view. Can anyone guess which species it may have belonged to? Finding the bones of cetaceans can be really exciting when you are beachcombing, but it is worth remembering that people need a special licence to be in possession of a marine mammal body part.
A fulmar on top of a cleat. St Kilda is also a paradise for bird watchers and it was wonderful to see some of the beautiful seabirds that I frequently see from the ferries on land getting ready to nest, including gannets which nest on the dramatic slopes and cliffs of the St Kilda stacks.
I even spotted the St Kilda wren hopping around the stones of the ruins of main street in Village Bay on Hirta, one of the most fascinating and atmospheric places I’ve ever been. Unique to St Kilda, the St Kilda wren is bigger and louder than our mainland wrens.
Moving to the Hebrides has given me some wonderful opportunities to explore the rugged landscapes of the West Coast, and I am excited to continue exploring both with CalMac on their diverse ferry routes and in my spare time. As well as travelling on the ferry crossings, next month I am hoping to try out some land-based surveys with the new ORCA OceanWatchers App (more details of this coming very soon…) and I will be able to tell you all about my trip to The Shiant Isles.
You can learn more about the Harbour porpoise here: https://www.orcaweb.org.uk/species-sightings/porpoises/harbour-porpoise
You can learn more about St Kilda here: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/st-kilda