As the temperatures soared in Scotland during July this year, so too have the whale and dolphin sightings on board CalMac Ferries!
People often ask me on the ferries what the best time of year to see whales and dolphins is. July and August are usually great months to see them due to an increase in plankton (tiny plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain) and generally good weather conditions which make it easier to spot them. July 2021 certainly didn’t disappoint and the end of my fifth month as the Hebrides Wildlife Officer has given me something I’ve been desperate to see since I began my interest and journey with cetaceans, a breaching whale!
Setting off on the MV Loch Seaforth from Ullapool the weather conditions were sunny and calm and something inside me knew it was going to be a good day for sightings. The crew kindly let me know that over the week they had seen a lot of activity including 12 minke whales and lots of porpoise and dolphin sightings.
Over the return crossing we had eight minke whale sightings, one of which breached far in the distance and I managed, along with two passengers to catch this in my binoculars. The minke was too far away for a good photo and to be honest I was too excited to even try to get a shot, and instead I just decided to savour the moment, as it’s considered very unusual to see a minke breaching, and I didn’t think I would be lucky enough to see it again.
One of many Minke whales on the Ullapool to Stornoway crossing.
After such a brilliant crossing I was looking forward to heading down to Oban the following week to sail on the crossing to Barra via Tiree and Coll on the MV Clansman.
For this crossing I was joined by Peter Selway who is a trained ORCA Wildlife Officer too. Early in the morning as we sailed through the Sound of Mull I talked with Peter and the passengers about the species we were most likely to see that day. Minke whales, common dolphins, basking sharks, bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, and puffins were on our collective wish list. Although it was very wet and windy in the morning, we had a good sea state and got off to a flying start seeing harbour porpoise and a pod of bottlenose dolphins. This is the first bottlenose sighting for me this year, they were swimming and breaching, showing off their large chunky grey bodies.
The bottlenose dolphins in Scotland are big! Reaching almost 4 meters long!
As we approached Coll, Peter spotted an enormous splash in the distance. Everyone kept their eyes on the spot and sure enough a minke whale burst out of the water and landed down on its back, causing another huge splash. We were buzzing with excitement from this sighting, but wishing we could have been just slightly closer to experience this spectacle.
Things then became completely surreal when we later saw ANOTHER even closer breaching minke whale between the Islands of Coll and Tiree. The first we saw of it was a gigantic splash that seemed almost as tall as the ferry. It was the kind of sighting that gives you heart palpitations and there was a mad rush to make sure all the passengers were in position ready to see it breach again.
By the time the whale breached again we were further away. Peter managed to get this picture of the minke whale turned up-side-down in the air, just about to make another huge splash onto its back. Humpback whales are famous for their aerial breaching displays, but the minkes are not known for being particularly acrobatic.
So why do whales breach?
There are many theories around why whales breach. A widely believed theory is that it could be a form of communication between whales, making a loud sound to convey information to other whales, whether that be ‘I’m over here’ or ‘don’t get in my way’.
It is also thought that it is an effective way of removing parasites and tiny animals hitching a lift on the whale’s skin. Barnacles and whale lice can attach themselves to whales and although they do not cause harm, they can cause extra drag resistance when swimming and could be a little itchy and irritating for the whale.
Some people think that breaching can be a form of fun for the whales. Usually most animal behaviour has a survival function and so animals ‘having fun’ isn’t often considered an option when scientists try to unravel the mysteries about why animals do certain things. But whales are highly social mammals and playful and inquisitive behaviour has been observed in many cetacean species. It’s frustrating that we can’t just ask the whales what they’re up to, but I quite like that despite all our modern technology and advances in studying whales, we still are not 100% sure why they breach. The fact that it remains a mystery is exciting to me, these animals have been the subject of mystery and folklore for so long and I think it’s wonderful that some aspects of their lives are still a secret. There is so much to learn about them and so much we can learn about ourselves from them, and it was fantastic to share these sightings of these unique animals with enthusiastic passengers.
There was also a lot of bird activity on this crossing suggesting that there may have been a lot of fish and prey around which is likely to be why we had so many good sightings. A beautiful adult gannet. Photo by Peter Selway.
We saw huge groups of shags gathered around Tiree and Coll. Photo by Peter Selway
As we returned through the Sound of Mull it was getting darker and colder, but we still spotted several harbour porpoises and common dolphins. We ticked almost everything off our sightings wish list on this crossing. The only species we had hoped to see but didn’t manage to was the basking shark. Tiree and Coll are thought to be the best places on the west coast to see them and this should be the time of year when the sharks start to gather here, but worryingly there hasn’t been much shark activity this month. I have made it my mission to see a basking shark in August so hopefully next month I will be able to report back on lots of shark action!
Two happy Wildlife Officers after two breaching minke whale sightings!