It’s been a mixed week as far as the weather has been concerned. We’ve been putting our wet weather gear on and packing our sun cream (and ginger nuts), only to be stopped in our tracks by increasing wind or rain or both. But there have been less windy moments, and we’re getting better at judging when to barricade ourselves into the field bothy so as to avoid the midgies!
Our focus is on demonstrating that the Western Isles of Scotland is important habitat that Risso’s dolphins return to year on year. More background information can be found in last years blog. However we also collect data for all other marine species we encounter and where others are working on conservation projects, we will forward this on. A friend up in Ness in the far north of the island sent us photos of a pod of bottlenose dolphins seen there last Friday. This is a species that we encountered off Gairloch off the north-west mainland of Scotland in previous years but not yet here off Lewis…
From our land-based site at Tiumpan Head yesterday we enjoyed our second sighting of Risso’s dolphins since we arrived. We first noticed them because of the breaching animals in front of the lighthouse. We saw fins that were big and typically distinctive and we could see blunt white heads below the surface of the water as they came up to breathe, and so we had no doubt about their identification. But who were those little fellows mixed in with the group? Were they common dolphins – we thought they surely must be as they looked so small when side by side with the Risso’s and their fins were wee in comparison. But closer attention with the binoculars and some expertly taken photographs (!) confirmed that two cheeky bottlenose dolphins (with very white sides) had joined together with the five Risso’s - and they were having a very fun time jumping and splashing about in the shallow water just off the rocks below us!
Nicola made a quick call and soon after, Lewis our skipper brought his boat, RV ‘Fish n’ Trips’ to our slipway and we set off in search of the dolphins that we’d been watching just an hour before.
It was uncharacteristically glassy calm in the Minch, something we were becoming accustomed to on our jaunts out to sea! We came across a few harbour porpoises, which are always a joy to see and the west coast of Scotland is home to the highest densities of this species in the whole of Europe! A close encounter with a foraging minke whale at the entrance of Broad Bay, just past our land-based watching post, was very welcome too. Eventually we pootled along the coast on our way back to base and sighted our first boat-based basking shark since we arrived.
We hung back to give him some space and he followed his plankton dinner in our direction and circled around the boat, giving us incredible views of his enormous size (about 6 metres – longer than our research boat!), his shiny black dorsal and tail fins and his gigantic open mouth. We have heard that the basking sharks have not been seen in good numbers this year, so we were especially pleased to come across this gentle giant.
We then caught a few mackerel for our tea as the Calmac ferry passed ahead of us into Stornoway harbour and we arrived back at the slip way to fading light, tired and happy.
Today we were hoping for a full day out on the boat, but the winds tricked us again, blowing up earlier in the day than we’d anticipated. Plan B was to drive up to Tiumpan Head and this was not in vain. We watched masses of gannets feeding with two distant minke whales and then, a tail fluke came out of the water … a pod of 10 bottlenose dolphins were right in front of us where we had seen the mixed group of dolphins yesterday!
They were clearly feeding, surfacing periodically and often showing their tailstocks before diving down to the depths. They were very difficult to follow, but soon we could see that the pod contained a new calf (with foetal folds!) and a juvenile.
We were enjoying the spectacle and trying to get photo-identification shots for colleagues at SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science) and Aberdeen University and wondering if these were the same animals that had been photographed off Ness last week when we received a text that another 75+ bottlenoses were being simultaneously watched up there!
This certainly seems like the place to be if you are a flippered friend. We hope the dolphins stick around as the weather man tells us that we might need to baton down the hatches again, another low is approaching….. Let’s hope the weather holds out for one more day so we can get out on the water and continue our work towards photographing the Risso’s dolphins to see if the same animals return each year…