BACK TO SEA!
The next morning, Friday, a calmer sea is promised; so we leave the WDCS caravan at 4.30am. The sky slowly lights up as we drive into Buckie where, in the harbour, the Gemini Storm is waiting for another day at sea.
The gun-metal grey ship is soon alive with busy people making sure that the equipment is all safely working and stowed in the right places. It is going to be severely tested today. The engines fire up; there is a base-drum percussion as they slowly warm to their work and diesel fumes taint the chill morning air.
As the boat pulls out of a silent harbour (except for the gulls, which we can avow actually stay awake partying all night long), one observer is on the bow re-fixing the angle board and checking watches. Others are on the top deck doing similarly, and almost 200 metres of heavy hydrophone cable is soon being carefully played out from the stern. The sun appears - a brilliant blindingly bright crescent on the horizon. The sky turns greeny-blue, but ominously there are plenty of clouds around too.
The light rapidly improves. We reach the edge of our survey block and begin the â€˜Gemini Rotationâ€™ â€“ the circulation of observers that avoids fatigue but keeps us in action through the day. Observers spend half an hour at each station â€“ Port Observer; then Bow Observer; then down to listen to the hyrophones; then a break; then Bird Observer on the bow; then Bow Observer (perched on the very nose of the Gemini Storm) and finally back under cover into the data-recorder seat in the cabin sitting next to skipper George.
Cetacean sightings are called in by radio from the three observers (Port, Starboard and Bow) and the data-recorder puts then straight into the database. If for any reason this fails, the observers have dictaphones than can be down-loaded later.
The day passes in a blur of activities. A swell of over a metre makes the GI wallow and lurch and soon a couple of members of the team are hung over the stern revisiting their breakfasts. Others reflect on this but donâ€™t succumb.
Later, out near the Beatrice oil field, the weather greatly improves. Now we are looking at a silvery sea â€“ a mirror with ripples. The cetaceans will find it hard to hide against this. Soon, there is a spectacular sighting of some four or five harbour porpoises racing by in a row. They leap high from the water and show a turn of speed that surprises even some of the more experienced observers.
The hydrophones pick up their high frequency clicks as a line of red spots on its display and the hydrophone observer (who cannot see the animals) duly notes this down as an â€˜acoustic eventâ€™.
The birds are spectacular here too. Bright-eyed fulmars skim the wave tops with stiff wings that hardly seem to move and distant spurts of water show where gannets are diving. Adult gannets are spectacular brilliant white birds, with yellow heads, and a two metre wind-span, but out here there are also some youngsters. They are splodged with varying degrees of chocolate brown, depending on their age. There are also kittewakes, gulls, razorbills, puffins, guillemots, and of course a few gulls (now far out at sea recovering from their party back in Buckie harbour).
As the seas calm so does the sea sickness for most; but then the rain comes. Heavy summer rain pour down from slate-grey thunder-heads above. We all quickly discover the weaknesses in our water-proofs. This is a real endurance test. There are urgent calls from the observers on deck for extra water-proofing and those on break dutifully venture back out to help them. Equipment is rapidly swathed in plastic bags.
The storm then moves right over-head and the observers are brought in as the thunder roars. The sea remains calm but the lightening is lashing around outside. Many wet coats are now adorning the cabin and puddles need to be wiped up and new coats found.
The storm passes but the rain keeps going and the survey resumes with valiant and damp observers back in place.
The aptly-named Gemini Storm puts into harbour at about 4.30pm. A long day for skipper and observers (especially those that were sea-sick) but a good day: There were several visual and acoustic observations of porpoises. Again we also recorded minke whales in the deeper waters of the Outer Moray Firth and again we also had a spectacular sighting of common dolphins.
The Starboard Observer called down the sighting to the data-recorder snug (all be it temporarily) in the cockpit below. As the animals drew closer she confirmed them as common dolphins and the small group â€“ clearly drawn to the boat â€“ came and swam along side at the stern. Photographs were taken of them but to the frustration of the Bow Observer (who never knew that they were there) they never came to the front of the boat. Instead these small, strongly-marked and energetic animals briefly visited their admirers on the rear deck and then played in the Gemini Stormâ€™s wake before disappearing behind us. A great sighting!
As we approach Buckie, the boat slows and the heavy hydrophone is hauled in.
Once in port, equipment is dried and again stowed away. Waterproofs are removed from the boat to be dried somewhere else because tomorrow looks like another early start and potentially another long day at sea â€“ a day with the fulmars, porpoises and dolphins.
Hard work but also a remarkable experience!