Contrary to popular belief, as marine conservationists we spend most of our lives not looking for dolphins, but sitting behind our computer screens. So when an opportunity arises to get out into the field, we grasp it!
We did this with gusto in our few days in the Outer Hebrides. Our first objective was to try to observe the small population of 15 bottlenose dolphins that reside in the Sound of Barra from land. Unlike the Moray Firth dolphins, this population lives on one of the remotest stretches of coastline in Scottish waters. Scientists have been studying this population from boats for 15 years and have discovered that their range is very limited - this is a very small but currently stable group of animals. Unfortunately for us, the gale force winds that we experienced on the ferry from Oban out to Barra continued, and meant that we were unable to watch for the dolphins at all. And time was against us, we had to plod on.
Next we had hoped to find a dead stranded beaked whale in the island of Benbecula that had been reported to us by Monty Halls. We had planned to take some measurements of its size and to identify it. There are a few species of beaked whales that strand each year in Scotland – mainly northern bottlenose whales, Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s beaked whales. Whilst we suspected from photos that this animal was a young Sowerby’s, unfortunately it was washed away before we could get to the site. Luckily for us, our next job was to ‘pop in’ on Monty Halls and Ruben just up the road on North Uist. Monty had kindly collected blubber and tissue samples of the whale that we can now provide to the Scottish Strandings Co-ordinator, Bob Reid, who will hopefully be able to provide some more information about the unfortunate whale and add this valuable information to the scottish strandings database to enable us to better understand about the species in our waters and the threats that they face.
We spent a productive morning talking with Monty about our new WDCS & SNH Shorewatch project and filming (despite the never-ending wind) with Monty and his crew – and his two adorable pigs, streaky and smokey!!! Let’s hope we (or at least Kila) make the cut to his new series of ‘Great Escape’...
We continued our journey up through the Outer Hebrides, distributing WDCS west coast field guides as we went (many thanks to Project Aware). Look out for them if you visit the islands!
We finally ended up at the furthest most northerly part of Lewis (confusingly called the Butt of Lewis). It is from Lewis that the cherry-on-the-icing of our trip was anticipated. Back in the late 1990’s, WDCS funded a Risso’s dolphin project on the island and we were interested to find out if the dolphins were still around…. Apparently they are, although despite trying we were unable to find them (that’ll be the wind again, maybe we should take up researching wind surfing rather than dolphins?!). However there is still clearly a group of Risso’s dolphins that come to spend the summer and autumn months (at least) off Lewis, and we hope to return in future – in better weather conditions. Data on Risso’s dolphins from around Scotland and the UK are really valuable because these deep water offshore species come into the waters around coastal islands to calve and raise their young. This makes sites such as Lewis, Bardsey Island in North Wales and the Isle of Man very important for the protection of these little known but rare and beautiful dolphins.
We weren’t fortunate enough to see any dolphins from the islands but we did have lovely encounters with jumping common dolphins and cart wheeling harbour porpoises on the ferry to Ullapool. We feel very positive about the value of the Outer Hebrides for cetaceans - not from our own encounters but by the wonderful stories and the passion of the people that we met on our travels.
Huge thanks to everyone we encountered along the way, who provided us with valuable information and shared their dolphin stories.