It has been approximately one month since I took up the position of Hebrides Wildlife Officer with ORCA and CalMac Ferries. This exciting job meant relocating to the West Coast of Scotland, which I think is one of the most fascinating places in Britain. The wildlife is spectacular and the scenery is incredibly atmospheric, and it is steeped in history, folklore, culture, and stories.
Whenever anyone asks me ‘Where’s a good place in the UK to see whales and dolphins?’ my first answer is always ‘The Hebrides’.
That’s because it has a myriad of underwater habitats including deep water close to land, coastal and shelf waters, sheltered, quiet sea lochs, and tidal currents, which provide so many animals with homes and food sources. Speaking of food, the basic level for almost all marine food chains is plankton. Phytoplankton (tiny marine plants) bloom when cold nutrient rich water is pushed higher up the water column into what is known as the euphotic zone, the higher levels of the sea where the sun’s rays can reach and photosynthesis can take place. This means the phytoplankton can photosynthesize and bloom, creating food for hundreds of tiny marine animals, which then attract larger animals to eat them such as fish and crustaceans, which then attract larger predators such as cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). This happens in the Hebrides because warm currents from the south-west and gulf stream mix with the cold coastal waters of the west of Scotland and push nutrients to the surface, making the perfect soup of plankton food that supports so much life, from tiny invertebrates to huge marine megafauna.
Here’s a picture I snapped of a group of bottlenose dolphins that are able to support themselves year round on the rich food availability in Scotland. This was taken on the East coast of Scotland in North Bewick next to Bass Rock, a stunning seabird breeding colony famous for nesting gannets. The bottlenose dolphins in Scotland are thought to be some of the largest in the world, with chunky bodies reaching almost four meters long to help them survive in the cold water.
I am currently working remotely from home due to the COVID travel restrictions. So what does a Wildlife Officer do when their access to wildlife is somewhat limited?
I have had lots of time to learn about CalMac’s Marine Awareness Programme, a fantastic programme combining citizen science and education and community engagement, my favourite things! You can find out more here to see how CalMac are working with multiple organisations, including ORCA, to record marine mammals and seabirds from their ferries and inspire their passengers and local communities to become involved and learn more about the marine life on the west coast. You can also keep an eye on the CalMac website and social media pages for updates and blogs from me. I have spent a lot of time researching the amazing routes and destinations that the CalMac vessels sail to. Some of the main routes I will be working on include:
Uig, Isle of Skye – Tarbert, Isle of Harris and Lochmaddy, North Uist.
Mallaig – The Small Isles, The isles of Rum, Eigg, Canna, and Muck
Oban – Castlebay, Barra, via Coll and Tiree.
Ullapool – Stornaway, Isle of Lewis
Weymiss Bay – Rothesay, Isle of Bute
And of course, I have been researching the cetaceans that live and use the Hebrides. Twenty-three species of cetacean have been recorded here, that’s more than a quarter of all the world’s species. The most frequently seen is the harbour porpoise, and the density of harbour porpoises in the Hebrides is thought to be the highest in Europe, with around 5,000 of them living here. It’s also a minke whale hotspot, the second most frequently seen cetacean here, followed by common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins. Some people are treated to occasional killer whale and humpback whale sightings too, and the deeper waters, especially around the outer isles, can throw up some real surprises like sperm whales and even Cuvier’s beaked whales!
This is me on route to Waternish Point, a brilliant spot to see harbour porpoises and minke whales from land. However, the path turned into a knee-high bog from the recent wet weather, so that, plus a herd of excitable cows, meant I didn’t make it all the way to the point! I plan to return with my waders, or maybe after a few days of sunshine.
When I first began volunteering with ORCA as a Wildlife Officer in the Bay of Biscay in 2015 we recorded all our sightings on handwritten forms. We then had to type them up into a digital format in the evenings. It could be very hectic in Biscay as animals pop up just minutes apart, so we would be frantically trying to write down GPS coordinates and the sighting details such as species, numbers, and behaviours. When I returned to do a paid position in Biscay as a Wildlife Officer in 2017 we were lucky enough to record all our sightings on Loggers, mini touch screen computers that saved us so much time out on the surveys and from typing long into the night in our cabins. But this season I am going to be trialling collecting all our sightings data from the Hebrides on the new ORCA OceanWatchers App! I find it amazing how the technology of recording wildlife has changed even in the time I have been working in conservation and that people can now scientifically monitor our natural world with their mobile phones! That’s the beauty of citizen science, you can now reach into your pocket and send off information that can have a direct positive effect on the wildlife around you, just by making people aware of its presence and abundance and therefore providing evidence for its protection.
Here’s me and my partner in crime Becky in 2015, back when our hands ached from writing down all the survey data from the hundreds of common dolphins that visited us in the Bay of Biscay.
During April I am planning to do a few tester trips out on the ferries (COVID restrictions depending), getting to grips with the routes and trying out the ORCA OceanWatchers App for the first time. So hopefully in my next blog, I will be able to report back with some cetacean sightings! Some migratory species such as the minke whales have already been spotted returning to Scotland having spent the winter in warmer waters, so fingers crossed for calm sea states and a whaley good survey season! Yes, I whaley did write that pun ……TWICE!