It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole year since we were last here in search of Risso’s dolphins… Patiently, patiently, patiently, we have been waiting for over a week now for the wind to drop and yesterday it finally did!
We had a glorious day out on the water - one that we know first-hand to be a rare event for the notoriously messy waters of the Minch! Without so much as a breeze all day, we cruised south along the coast of Lewis and out to the Shiants, a small group of islands famed in the beautiful book ‘The Sea Room’ written by the owner and sole resident at the time, Adam Nicholson.
But I am racing ahead of myself! Before we made it that far out into the cold waters of this beautiful part of north-west Scotland we first made a stop to check on some acoustic equipment that our Skipper, Lewis, deployed for us last month. We then encountered not one, but two majestic and graceful white-tailed sea eagles gliding above us along the rocky eastern coastline of Lewis. I can never get over the sheer size of them (with a wing span of nearly 3 metres)! We stopped next to a sea-stack to catch our breath (and a Pollock for our dinner), and a big male grey seal popped his head up out of the water beside the boat. We encountered several more greys ‘basking’ in the sunshine with their heads bobbing out of the water as we travelled on our way. But no Risso’s dolphins…
As the sea was so calm, we took a few minutes out from our surveying to step ashore to investigate a remote and derelict old bothy that has been uninhabited for some 80 years and who’s only access is by sea. There was furniture intact inside and evidence of some of the only other visitors this year –red deer. It was a quiet and special place and we were appreciative of how privileged we were to visit.
We narrowly missed the weather closing in over the coast as we headed out into the deeper waters and towards the Shiants. Having spent three years conducting field surveys from the north-west mainland coast at Gairloch we had been tantalised by this group of islands which encroached into our survey area, but had yet to make it out to them. Then, PORPOISES! came the shout from all three of us simultaneously. The timing, and the backdrop, couldn’t have been better. A group of five porpoises, including a calf, dove in front of us and right in front of the islands.
The Shiants were awe-inspiring. Although we were hoping for an orca or a minke whale to break the surface as we approached and travelled from one island to the next, we were not disappointed with the infamous basalt rocks which were the size of cathedral pipes, with the sighting of another pair of sea eagles, one of whom was laden with a chick in its talons, or the group of nine sociable puffins sitting on the water, perhaps too lazy to move without the aid of the wind. What a truly stunning place to visit.
We encountered a small pod of common dolphins feeding near Kebbock Head as we headed back to the harbour. They came to check us out briefly, riding the bow of the boat before getting back to their business. And finally, in one of the Lochs we came across a group of harbour seals - who are noticeably smaller than grey seals. Harbour seals are declining in Scottish waters generally and are in a really precarious situation in the Western Isles where populations have declined dramatically in recent years.
Before we made it back to the harbour a squall came over us and reminded us of the changeable nature of the weather in this part of the world, and how lucky we had been. The forecast is looking really good again today so we hope to get back out on the water to continue our quest to find some of the Risso’s dolphins we identified in these waters this time last year and demonstrate that this is a part of the world that is important to them and in need of protection.