Posted on behalf of Sarah ...
This was my first day out on the water and I was feeling optimistic. We’d spent a couple of hours watching from Tiumpan Head and witnessed a sky full of gannets gracefully circling above a distant group of feeding and splashing cetaceans. Dark, lumbering rain clouds drove us away from our boggy observation spot just in time for us to head into Stornoway to meet up with Tim. The sky cleared as we crossed the causeway to town and by the time we were underway and out of the harbour the sea was a moody metallic slick.
A neat pod of four porpoises gave me the first opportunity to test out our new GPS. As we rounded chicken rock and moved towards Bayble, where the Risso’s were last encountered (see previous blog entry!), the anticipation rose – it’s been 6 years since I’ve seen a Risso’s dolphin, during my last season of an intermittent 10 year stretch off Bardsey Island in Wales – I’ve never seen one with Scottish roots!
When Nicola and Tim simultaneously shouted ‘dolphins!’ my heart skipped a beat. There they were – at first one animal, and then another, and then as we approached, we soon realised that we had a dispersed group of about 14 feeding about us. Nicola set about the tough job of photo-identifying each of them and Tim expertly manoeuvred the boat from one group to the next without getting too close and without disturbing them from their brunch. I video recorded. We focused on the job at hand, being temporarily distracted with occasional distant breaches or head slapping on the surface of the water.
The group were spread out and often fluking up before they dove, indicating to us that they were feeding busily. A large number of the group were juveniles and there was also a young calf amongst them. They had plenty of character. One animal swam along side us with sea weed across it’s saddle and another leisurely approached us head on from behind and swam right underneath us, exposing their white belly, before disappearing into the depths. On a more serious note, one dolphin had a nasty raw wound on the leading edge of her fin.
Tim thought he recognised an individual from his surveys 10 years ago, sending a shiver down my spine and confirming the value of our research. Risso’s return to Lewis from deep offshore Atlantic waters every year to feed in these sheltered and warmer (although still cold!) waters.
We left them and continued around to the Peninsula in search of the dolphins we had been unable to confirm the identity of on land. As we moved out into the exposed waters of the Minch the swell became long and lolloping and the wavelets increased in size. We were briefly joined by shearwaters, fulmars, gannets and the occasional storm petrol (an old favourite of mine).
But we found nothing out there and after some searching were soon drawn back into the sheltered waters of the coastline further south. We encountered Risso’s again at the far end of the braighe (the bay created by the causeway connecting the peninsula to the larger island). Nicola called out that she recognised some individuals from our earlier encounter, but there were some newbies in the pod too, which was almost entirely made up of juveniles this time – a nursery group! They still appeared to be feeding but they were much more tightly grouped and surface active than earlier. As one individual tail slapped repeatedly on the surface, others in the group headed in their direction and they swam in formation.
The light was beginning to fade and Nicola had captured a photo-id shot of as many animals (and each side) dorsal as possible. We decided to head for home after a productive and rewarding days work. These Scottish Risso’s do not disappoint and we’re hoping for more of the same tomorrow – when hopefully we will find the adults too.