The lilting and somewhat soporific voices of our constant companions the Stornoway Coastguard informed us – “Severe Gale Force 10 bearing west from south east Iceland” … “Severe Gale Force 10 bearing south from the Faroe Islands” – both heading straight for us to combine into what felt like a Gale Force 20! Was it some kind of co-incidence that this adverse weather was all being thrown at us from some of the nearby whaling nations?
However after several days of being blown off our feet (and paws!), we awoke to a picture of calm. All the islands were back in their rightful places and the Minch was laid out before us like an undulating velvet blanket.
And just in case it had escaped our notice that Joint Warrior was well and truly underway, there was a host of activity going on throughout our survey area. The Rona submarine range communicated over radio that they were to be “testing”, around the same time that our colleagues on HWDT’s research vessel, the Silurian, picked up sonar on their hydrophones. We had several fighter jets hurtling across the skies, pitching and rolling and generally going pretty fast and there were a selection of warships out patrolling the waters of the northern Minch!
The official NATO line is that this is “practice” for “eventualities” from terrorist threats and the like, but you’ve got to be a bit concerned when according to one of the American warships we overheard transmitting their position, despite being within sighting distance of our field station, had a navigator on board who seemed to think that they were somewhere off the south west coast of Ireland!! If these chaps can’t see the chart, lighthouses, landmasses or such like….how can they honestly tell us that they can see the whales?!! Not very comforting!
But back to the wildlife – much more interesting, especially today!!
We’ve mentioned the geese in an earlier blog where we decided that by the process of elimination we had to be seeing Canada Geese – oh how wrong were we? (Please remember … ornithologists we are not!) As it turns out they’re a mixture of barnacle and pink-footed geese, as the pictures below “kind of” show! Even if you’re not looking for them (and we’re not) you can’t fail to know that they’re flying overhead as they make one heck of a racket as they pass by – perhaps translated out of Goose language it means “are we almost there yet”?
During one of the early afternoon scans of our survey area with our “big-eyes” (high-powered binoculars) … the cry went up “ORCA” … about a mile off shore slicing through the water was a huge dorsal fin, without question that of a male orca! (Deliriously excited doesn’t even begin to tell you how we were feeling at this moment in time – after several days of not even being able to watch, we were now watching orca, who would ever have guessed!!) Then, shortly after, a second smaller fin appeared followed by a third even smaller one! The animals had come from the north and appeared to be slowly, languidly making their way southwest. Travelling through however didn’t seem to feature in their game plan and they had obviously found something that whetted their appetite as they spent the next hour and a half swimming backwards and forwards in front of the Shiants, surfacing anywhere between seconds and minutes apart. And then what should we see but a minke whale, surfacing mere metres from where we’d last seen the orca dive!! However as soon as we saw it, it was gone and it certainly didn’t hang around for long – although we did spot a minke to the south of our survey area moments later … perhaps he was concerned they’d turn out to be opportunistic feeders and decide he/she was looking like quite a tasty morsel themselves!
We watched these magnificent creatures for over an hour and a half, and even with the naked eye you couldn’t fail to spot the enormous dorsal fin of this giant of the seas – and the perfectly calm waters of the Minch certainly added to the ease by which they were seen!
There are researchers working to learn more about the orca found in UK waters and ideally we wanted to try and get them some information that would assist them in trying to identify these individuals. Through our “big-eyes” I could make out a small nick at the base of the fin, and when the animal was swimming towards us the fin was very obviously bent to the right in the middle portion and he had a very prominent saddle patch. All this information has been forwarded to the researchers working on these chaps to see if they can identify it from their photo-id catalogue – we’ll be sure to let you know as and when we hear more!
The very relaxed movements of the orca continued as they swam south through the Minch, directly in front of our field station and we eventually lost them as they moved off down the coast of Skye – hopefully to bring sheer joy to the next bunch of people who were lucky enough to catch sight of them.
The photographs below are certainly not of any great quality, and certainly wouldn’t enable photo-ID (which is why we spent so long looking through the big-eyes and taking down as much detail as we could) but we wanted to try and record this moment in some way, and of course to share it with others!!
Seeing killer whales off the coast of Scotland (and indeed the rest of the UK) is not a rarity and there have been many sightings in weeks, months and years gone by. However, for us it was special and a wonderful addition to our list of species so far encountered during our Joint Warrior field time!
Not much is known about the killer whales around the UK (apart from the work currently underway by the aforementioned researcher) but here’s a wee bit of background information for you …
Between 1938-1981 Norwegian whalers took 2,435 killer whales in the NE Atlantic – no small number! Additionally, during this time the culling of killer whales was carried out by the US navy on behalf of the Icelandic government and further takes from Icelandic waters were permitted by the live-capture industry for the aquariums. Thankfully, they are no longer hunted (directly at least), however a more pressing issue for them in this day and age would be a lack of available prey.
So how was it for us? We were lost for words…! It was a spectacular sighting in spectacular conditions and we felt honoured to have borne witness to such an amazing sight. The beauty of the natural world never fails to amaze!
Now … some of the more observant members of this blog reading community may have noticed that contrary to the title of this blog entry, warships came first and the orca came last (the geese however stayed in the same place so it wasn’t all under false pretences) … well, that was a little ruse of ours to ensure that you read the whole way through … and it worked did it not?!!