This is my kind of field work. Ok, it’s not the tropical, glamorous type of research – shorts, t-shirts, iced water and sun cream, rather it’s as many thermal layers as you can squeeze into, hasty spoonfuls of porridge and always having your thermos, ginger nuts and wet weather gear handy.
But for three days on the trot now, on arrival at our land-based watching point as well as at the harbour from which we launch Tim’s boat, RV Puffin (excellent research vessel), the Risso’s have been out there in the big blue (or the big grey might be more accurate..) to greet us.
The scene was true gun powder grey yesterday when Tim pointed out a fin from the shore, as soon as we stepped out of the car at the harbour. We jumped into the boat. The morning started off well with wandering Risso’s dolphin mum and calf pairs spread out along the rocky lush coastline, just a few miles north of Stornoway.
Despite the dark choppy sea, the endless monotone grey clouds, general air of dampness and the distant watercolour mountain vista of the mainland on the horizon (none of which are conducive to photographing largely grey animals!), I was eager to improve my very amateur photography skills. Whilst the dolphins were in no hurry, their erratic surfacing patterns meant we remained on full alert, with our cameras firmly attached to an eye to enable swift action at first sight or sound of a dolphin breaking the waters surface. With aching arms, we photographed as many animals as we could. Once satisfied we'd photographed as many as we could, we moved on towards Tiumpan Head.
The Head came into view and several nosey fulmars circled RV Puffin to check us out. After much splashing on the horizon, and more deliberation about which species were leaping clear of the water, we had more than 50 common dolphins approach at high speed and began to play flamboyantly around the boat.
We spent some time enjoying their company as they bow-rode and leapt about us. When we tried to leave them, they followed with even more enthusiasm! Chuff, chuff, chuff as they came up next to us time and time again, too fast for us to capture them with the camera. They only got bored eventually when we switched off the engine and waited. Gradually, one by one, they mostly disappeared, until only a few individuals remained. They eyed us from under the water alongside the boat, porpoised around us and soon they too were gone. As quickly as they arrived.
The wind was starting to freshen. We headed back towards the harbour and encountered more Risso’s mothers with young of varying ages. They moved in a group, mostly together and surfacing at the same time. Much more amenable than the early animals!
Today we watched from the shore. From the moment we arrived and all day long we had a steady flow of one way Risso’s traffic past Tiumpan Head. Animals were dotted about from the coastline to the horizon as far as we could see. The Risso’s travelled leisurely past us and some juveniles occasionally slapped their head or tail on the waters surface. Mum and calf pairs stayed close together, and some came so close to our shoreline that we had to peer down to see them!
We listened to their blows and Nicola managed to get pictures of a number of individuals – who’d have thought you could photo-id Risso’s dolphins from land.. What a great few days and what a contrast today's sunshine and warmth has been to yesterdays grey skies!
Today, with 20 degree temperatures, low wind, no cloud and blue sea ahead of us, we could have been in the tropics after all…