Good weather had been forecast for the week-end and we were looking forward to some extended viewing hours on top of our cliff. As we know however, the weather appears to be one of the most difficult things to predict and when we arrived at our survey site not long after first light, we were greeted by strong, freezing winds, thick (but high) grey cloud cover yet an uninterrupted and magnificent view out across the expanse of the northern Minch. The mainland of Scotland was laid out in front of us in all her glory and we could see Cape Wrath in the distance, nothing with a fin was going to be getting past us ... unless the wind knocked the binoculars out of our hands that was!!
And the animals didn't disappoint, with feeding minkes close to shore throughout the day, busy little harbour porpoises popping up all over the place and hungry basking sharks swimming languidly at the surface for hours on end, the fact that we couldn't feel our fingers anymore and had brain-ache from the whistling wind faded into insignificance.
More good weather was forecast, but thankfully we didn't come to Lewis for the weather so we were prepared for another, not so perfect (as far as the conditions are concerned) day. If only we had known when we set out that morning just how spectacular a day it was going to be!!!
The wind had dropped significantly, the cloud cover was thinner and lifting by the hour and again our panoramic view out over the Minch was awe-inspiring. The morning hours brought us more feeding minkes (one in particular who appeared to spend most of the day going backwards and forwards in the same spot - obviously a good take-out down there), more harbour porpoises and yet more basking sharks ... nice to see we'd chosen such a popular spot as our field site.
Settling in for the afternoon i got the call that Risso's had been seen in the bay around the corner and Tim had already mustered the boat - nothing more valuable than an on-the-ball skipper! Within minutes i was all aboard and we headed off in search of what was to be my first encounter with Grampus griseus from the Isle of Lewis. The fin of a Risso's is of a substantial size (they have been mistaken for orca before) which thankfully makes sighting them a tad easier than say, harbour porpoises, with their small triangular fin. We soon found some animals and turned off the engine, 5 animals in total, initially fairly well dispersed, in inter-changing groups of 2's and 3's. More than one of them came to check us out, and on several occasions we had individuals under the boat or popping out the water close by taking a sneaky peek at the strange creatures on top of the water. I'm sure the Risso's were watching us watching them! For such large animals they can be fairly elusive when they want to be but at the same time, they can be incredibly inquisitive and rather acrobatic and today was one of those occasions when you got to see both behaviours. From "where have they gone" to "Wow, did you see that", it was a humbling (and fascinating) few hours spent in the company of these magnificent creatures.The encounter lasted only as log as the dolphins wanted it to and when they regrouped for the final time and started heading south, we bid them a farewell and did not follow.
The day however didn't only belong to the the Risso's. Throughout the afternoon the odd minke and a fair few harbour porpoises were spotted in the background, and the bird life around that day is worth a mention in its own right.
In Gairloch (our other field site on the west coast of the Scottish mainland, which is across the Minch and south a bit - on a good day we can see the northern extreme of that survey area) the sight of a Great Skua is something to be celebrated and we would count ourselves lucky if we saw a handful during our entire time in the field. Whilst out on the water here however, they were our constant companions, at one point we had 10 of them hanging around the boat. Usually relatively solitary birds, these great skuas were showing high levels of tolerance for each other. Either they were jealous of all the attention the Risso's were getting or they'd worked out that humans were the route to an easy meal.
And so we decided to reward their patience! As we had to wait out the tides to ensure safe passage back into harbour anyway (the recent new moon has been providing us with tidal ranges of up to 4.5m) the skipper embarked on a spot of fishing whilst i kept a beady eye on the surrounding water for more fins. To say the fish were biting was an understatement. The rod only had to be lowered into the water and the mackerel were throwing themselves at the line; reeling it in seconds later up to 4 fish were hooked at any one time. The tiddlers were thrown back in and given the chance to live another day, the larger ones were coming home with us for dinner!! The skuas made light work of the scraps we tossed over the side and even a brave little fulmar (little compared to the skuas) threw his hat into the brawl for food.
And it wasn't over yet .... As we were heading back in, we spotted a minke whale in the distance and were so focused on it that we almost missed the other one coming up under the boat. This smaller individual was obviously feeding as it was moving rapidly on the surface, changing direction quickly and lunging at its prey - it became apparent that we weren't the only ones to have discovered the value of this particular ground.
And then the rains came ..... but after a day like today, who cares?!!!