It certainly is a cliché but Iceland really is the land of fire and ice.
Iceland is one of the most remote countries in the Western world and sits on the Mid-Atlantic ridge. The whole island is a hotspot for volcanic and geothermic activity and nowhere else on the planet are you able to witness the powerful forces of nature at work as evidenced by the glaciers, geysers, hot springs and waterfalls that stud this superlative landscape.
Though some parts of Iceland haven't changed since the Viking settlers over a thousand years ago, volcanic activity in other areas continues to shape the landscape. The island of Surtsey off the south coast, for example, was formed from a volcanic eruption and rose from the ocean in the mid-1960s making it one of the world’s newest islands and is, in fact, younger than me!
It is here that the vast North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, running right through the centre of the island - though in fact they are actually pulling away from each other at an eye-watering rate of ….one inch per year!
Reykjavik is the main economical and administrative hub of Iceland and, with a population of 120,000, this cosmopolitan city is home to about a third of all Icelanders.
These are interesting times for Icelanders. Up until the financial crash of 2008, Iceland frequently topped the polls as having one of the highest standards of living in the world with Icelanders enjoying a good quality of life. The collapse of three of Iceland’s major commercial banks plunged the country into recession and exposed the fact that heavy reliance on banking made for a weak and vulnerable economy. A year later, in 2009, Iceland started the slow process of applying for membership of the European Union but with serious reservations about surrendering its rights to the nation’s considerable natural resources especially fisheries, agriculture and whaling.
The majority of Icelanders remain opposed to EU membership and this viewpoint has recently strengthened given the problems suffered by other EU member states such as Greece and Spain and just this month the Icelandic government announced it was all but suspending EU accession talks while it prepared for parliamentary elections later in the year.
If fisheries and agriculture account for a significant percentage of the Icelandic workforce then the tourism industry must come a very close third. For the last ten years the annual number of international tourists has comfortably exceeded the resident population.
The ancient Icelandic culture and the stunning wildlife and landscapes are the main draw for tourists to this volcanic outcrop in the North Atlantic and I’m keen to explore how Iceland lives up to the expectations of people who flock here in their thousands. For the next five weeks I’ll be working as a whale watch naturalist in north west Iceland, guiding tourists as we explore Iceland’s rich natural heritage in search of, among other things, orcas and the northern lights!
It certainly is a cliché but Iceland really is the land of fire and ice.
Wow! Six weeks over already! I can’t believe it, it went way too fast! It feels like I’ve only arrived on my magic island yesterday! But then again, it doesn’t, because so many things happened…
We counted about 30 dolphins including five calves one of which was just barely longer than my arm! They came to check out our boat and get a free ride on our bow wave and whenever we pulled away or slowed down, they all slowed down to see what the matter was. It was quite magical to see the calves surface rush just like the adults, coming to the boat, just to be reigned back by their ever vigilant elders. While Vicki and I were frantically trying to capture what was going on around the boat with our cameras (which sometimes was impossible as the dolphins were too close for our cameras to focus on), Lucy had settled down on the bow of Pererin with our little video camera and was filming the whole scene. Imagine our joy when we came back to the Obs and were able to relive some of the encounter again! Brilliant!
I must admit that Bananagrams played a big part in our entertainment, and you will understand our obsession with this game once you’ve played it just once, as it’s seriously addictive! Qi, Zo, Aa and Ai are only a few of the words I’ve learned playing this game (and sorry, you will have to go and look them up if you don’t know what they mean). Oh and I didn’t lose every game this year! Ha!
We also once in a while gathered in the Bird Obs gift shop to watch a movie in the evenings. I will never forget how Ben did some birding while we were watching the movie “The Woman in Black” one evening! While Lucy and Vicki were fearfully hiding behind their blankets, Ben was shouting out names of birds he saw and heard in the movie! We seriously considered doing a bird log after the movie was over!
And yes, it can get even weirder than that! Here’s just one of our discussions while casually scanning for cetaceans from the Bird Obs:
Pine: “Great, now we have a horizon, but lots of white caps!”
Vicki: “Yeah, that’s Sod’s law for you!”
Pine:“Speaking of Sod’s law, you know that Murphy’s law says that a piece of buttered toast will always fall onto the buttered side, right?”
Vicki with a wrinkled brow: “Yeah?!”
Pine: “…and a cat will always land on its paws?”
Vicki with an even more wrinkled brow and slight concern on her face: “Er… yeah?!?”
Pine: “So, if I were to strap a buttered piece of toast with the buttered side up onto the back of a cat and let it drop from a certain height, would it spin in space?” (grinning madly).
After some contemplation, we came to the conclusion that the cat would probably land on its paws, because it is not an inert object and can change its fate! Ta-dah! And because I’m already at it, I will also share our fantastic supercallifragilisticexpiallidocious song with you - The 12 days of survey (to the tune of the well-known Christmas song, The 12 days of Christmas):
On the first day of survey, this is what we saw:
One fantastic master baker.
On the second day of survey, this is what we saw:
And a fantastic master baker.
On the third day of survey, this is what we saw:
Three birding Steves,
Two trampolines and
A fantastic master baker.
(You’re getting the idea? I’ll skip to the twelfth day then!)
On the twelfth day of survey, this is what we saw:
Twelve sailboats sailing.
Ten porpoise leaping
Nine compost toilets
Seven gannets diving
Six Risso’s jumping
Five bottlenose dolphins
Four lovely dogs
Three birding Steves,
Two trampolines and
A fantastic master baker.
And no, we didn’t lose our minds.
What else? The birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees… I digress. But there were birds, lots of them, and we were allowed to watch the ringing and once in a while let them go too. Rob’s goldcrest almost flew into his face after he’d released it and my dunnock was just happily sitting in my hand when I took the other hand away, not flying anywhere for a full minute! It was quite comfortable there!
Coming back to the office (with round-the-clock internet access, a desk, a chair and no prickly gorse poking me all the time!), I now have the task of analysing all the data we gathered and to go through the hundreds of photos we took during our encounter! That will keep me busy for the next couple of weeks!
What’s left for me to do now is to thank everyone who made this survey possible and a success! Thanks to the Ecosystem Resilience and Diversity Fund of the Welsh Government, the BBC Wildlife Fund and Elite Couriers for their financial support. A big thank you to my lovely volunteers James, Kirsty, Harriet, Bea, Pete, Lucy, Ben and Ingela, and my colleagues Vicki, Rob and Mark for all their help, support and good humour! You were all fantastic and made the time on Bardsey really special!
Also thanks to the Bird Obs team, Steve Obs, Icky Steve, Rich B, Mark, Chris, Emma, Conner and Giselle, as well as Steve, Jo, Rachel and Ben Porter for their warm welcome back to the island and all the lovely memories I will have for the rest of my life!
Once again, Bardsey I salute you! Diolch yn fawr!
It’s been a challenging few weeks as we have been subjected to gale force wind ... wind ... and even more wind. But it’s when times are the toughest that the gems sparkle the brightest and we have had some real corkers in the small weather windows available to us!
In an earlier blog we introduced you to a pod of bottlenose dolphins that we had encountered on several of our surveys last month. It would appear that the pod have been hanging about and foraging close to the coast. Apparently surprisingly for some, bottlenose dolphins are not considered common in these parts, however we have encountered them two out of the three years that we have spent surveying here. When we came across them most recently off Tiumpan Head this week, they were in the mood to spend some time with us. Any doldrums that had been brought on by weeks of high winds were quickly forgotten. There were three youngsters in the pod and Nicola immediately recognised one of the distinctive females (with quite a large mark at the base of her dorsal fin) and her young calf as we had seen them a month ago on one of our earlier boat surveys. The young calf appears to be doing incredibly well! The foetal folds were still visible on the sides of its body as it leapt clear of the water beside us with the sun shining behind it, but they were much reduced and it was almost twice the size as when we last saw it! Life must be good off the east coast of Lewis
Pretty quickly we realised that mixed in amongst the group was a startlingly white adult Risso’s dolphin! This individual, with a much bigger dorsal fin and different surfacing behaviour, was mixing with the bottlenoses like a trusted old friend and was behaving just like a bottlenose, even riding on the wake of the survey boat briefly. We watched it travel alongside the boat, beneath the water (and surfacing much less regularly than the bottlenose dolphins), but its startling white colour gave its presence away below the surface.
We got photographs of their dorsal fins and recorded the times that they were close to our acoustic equipment, hoping that we will be able to hear and differentiate between them and then we left and let them be.
As if that encounter wasn’t heart pounding enough, we soon came across a wibbly-wobbly finned sunfish in the shallows off Bayble, in the heart of our survey area!
We took advantage of a reducing sea towards the end of the day to retrieve the first of our four acoustic devices that we deployed in June. They sit quietly in the water and wait for a porpoise or a dolphin to pass and then they spring into life and record any dolphin chit chat. Not only did we find a couple of spider crabs and a squat lobster on our ropes but we got 100 days of lovely dolphin and porpoise chatter!!
And as if all that excitement wasn’t enough, we were on our way back to the harbour (dodging the rainy squalls) when the glint of a true slimy sea monster - an 8 metre basking shark [yes, EIGHT METRES long!] - was spotted by our eagle-eyed skipper. This gentle giant was busily feeding in the rushing tide, in front of a beautiful fat and colourful rainbow that settled on the surface of The Minch. He was much bigger than our survey boat!
Although autumn feels like it has arrived here and the auks and skuas are much fewer in number, gannets still dive around us on the water and The Minch is clearly still full of life. We arrived back on dry land with big smiles on our faces and our spirits restored – and ready for the next watery adventure!
Pete Taylor, a WDCS science volunteer, and I, Vicki James, WDCS’s Science Assistant, arrived on the beautiful island of Bardsey for the third week of survey replacing Bea and James. We joined Harriet and our fearless leader Pine. I’m fortunate enough to be here for the next few weeks and have already relaxed and unwound into island life.
We had a beautiful ferry crossing to the island and were soon having our welcome talk from the bird observatory staff, along with a cuppa. There were many familiar faces from when I have been here on previous surveys. I am fortunate enough to have been here at least five times before. It was lovely to see everyone and it felt like being welcomed back and catching up with old friends.
My first day was spent at the north end platform scanning the seas for any whales or dolphins that may pop up out of the water. Pine and I were treated to a number of harbour porpoises first thing in the morning as they passed through Bardsey Sound heading west. We had our lunch sitting outside the front of the bird observatory; however we still didn’t take our eyes off the sea as you never know when one may make an appearance. Very quickly the shout of “Risso’s” went up as a group were spotted slowly passing along the west coast of the island heading south. Pine was soon on the radio to farmer Steve to see if he was free to take us out on his boat so we could try and take some photographs to hopefully later identify the animals. He was currently busy, but said he may be available in about an hour. We just had to hope the Risso’s were still there then.
However it wasn’t long until we lost them, and we thought our chances of getting out were scuppered. That soon changed when Pine picked them out again through her binoculars coming back south. This time farmer Steve was free and in 20 minutes we had kitted up and were ready to go. After some expert manoeuvring by Steve to get the boat out of the harbour (the tide was very low, so there wasn’t much water to move in), we were on our way out to try and find the Risso’s dolphins to photograph them.
We headed in the direction they were last seen, everyone had their eyes peeled. Pine spotted a group of gannets circling, seabirds can sometimes be a sign of cetaceans feeding beneath the surface, so we headed there and soon sighted a group of 3 Risso’s dolphins, including a mother and calf. Photographing provided highly tricky though, they seemed to be camera shy! We moved around them to try and position ourselves to their side to get shots of their dorsal fins; however each time they surfaced they were in a different location to where we thought they would surface! We didn’t want to disturb the animals so left them to it and headed to another group that we saw not too far ahead of us that were displaying like mad.
This time we were in for a treat, as this group of about 10 Risso’s were breaching in unison and tail slapping right in front of us. They all seemed to be concentrating on one area of the sea; a number would breach together landing almost on top of each other; this behaviour made us think it could be a feeding frenzy. Pine had one camera and I the other, we were on opposite sides of the boat photographing the dorsal fins as best we could in this frenzy of activity. Harriet did an amazing job of recording all our sightings and Pete was keeping an eye on the different groups and pointing us to where they all were. Unusually we also noticed two common dolphins in with the group in the midst of all the activity. Common dolphins are quite curious and love to bow-ride; they came over to our boat and passed right beneath us, turning on their sides, almost as if to look up at us as they passed beneath.
We were with the group for about 40 minutes before we had to leave them and head back to the island. We could still see them displaying even as we got back to the island. Needless to say all of us were grinning from ear to ear – for the rest of the day and evening - after such an amazing encounter.
We had hoped for more days like that, but it wasn’t to be. So far the weather hasn’t been that kind to us for surveying. We have been out most mornings, but conditions have deteriorated as the day has gone on with choppy seas and poor visibility making it impossible to scan the seas and spot any animals out there. One day we were scanning in blue skies and calm seas watching a slowly approaching front of bad weather coming up from the south, thinking it would take a while before it reached us, but in a matter of minutes we were enveloped in thick fog and we could barely see the cliff edge in front of us. We sat there in the (deluded) hope that it would pass and we could carry on, but it was stubborn and stayed for the rest of the day.
Our down-time has been well spent; we have gone to watch when the bird observatory staff have been ringing manx shearwater chicks. These little balls of down are super cute and it has been fascinating learning all about them.
We also decided to do a beach clean one afternoon and it was a staggering amount of rubbish that washed up even on the small beaches here on Bardsey. Plastic was the main culprit we picked up, there were lots and lots of plastic bottles and bottle tops along with large pieces of netting. We picked three big bin bags full or rubbish and could have filled many more. The damage that this litter can do was apparent just the other day when a seal was spotted with fishing line around its neck that was deeply embedded. Unfortunately we weren’t able to help. We will certainly be doing other beach cleans before we leave.
We also picked damsens for Emma, the wardens’ wife, to make jam and sell in the bird obs shop. We did this wearing moustaches given to Pine by our boss, Mark Simmonds. It was a hilarious sight and caused squeals of laughter all around.
Evenings and time off has been spent playing football, volleyball (badly!), trampolining, hiking over the mountain to enjoy the stunning views over the island and across to the mainland and finding Merlin’s cave and the hold hut circles. Also the addiction to the game bananagrams continues….
Yahoo … I'm back, both here on Lewis and here on the blog! Go on admit it … you've missed me haven't you?!
Our humans have had some great land based sightings since we've arrived, a lot of which have been really close to the coast and therefore we've had lots of fun running over the heather and jumping bogs to get as close to the critters as possible. Some times they've been only metres away from us … ! Personally, i think that the dolphins heard that we were back and came to say thanks for our efforts on the Dolphin-Dog Walk … on which note it's still not too late to donate to our worthy cause - and if you do that'll likely mean more treats for us, although to be honest it's not that we do too badly as it is … but who doesn't like an extra chew every now and then?
It's been great returning to our old stomping grounds, otherwise known as some of the most beautiful beaches i've ever had the pleasure to walk on. I have to say, what i find quite bizarre is when the wind is blowing so hard that it almost knocks you over, you'd expect massive rollers crashing onto the shore but no … sometimes there's hardly a wave … apparently it has something to do with the wind blowing so hard in the opposite direction that the waves have no momentum whatsoever!! Weird eh? But better for us canines who are a wee bit shy of big white foam!
The highlight so far for my trusty assistant (Harvey - remember him?) and I, has been our "new" walk.
It's only taken our humans 3 years but they've finally stumbled upon … wait for it … drum roll please … a WOOD! I know … i didn't believe it either and thought i was dreaming but yes, here on what i historically referred to as the "Stickless Isles", there is in fact a secret haven (or should that be heaven?) with a plethora of toys for us canine carbon munchers!! Very exciting indeed … and as far as we're concerned, possibly the best find our humans have had since they found the local butchers!!
Even Harvey, who's not known for his fondness of sticks, has been getting in on the act, although i think i may have to reprimand him somewhat as despite there being an abundance of sticks, for some reason he always wants mine!
Due to the bad weather (well only "bad" if you're wanting to look for dolphins and other marine things) we've managed to persuade our humans to let us visit the "wood" a good few times and we've not yet been on the same path, this must be some size of wood!! (Note from human = the "wood" is otherwise known as Lews Castle Grounds and is 600 acres of mature woodland that has been here for centuries!). Harvey and i think they must be feeling a wee bit guilty about never having brought us here before and making us make do with driftwood and seaweed … although to be honest seaweed is pretty yummy!
Other exciting things to happen on the island since we've arrived include the stranding of a minke whale up on the north coast of the island. We were keen to go and check it out but the humans wouldn't let us as it had been dead a while and they thought it best we stayed away! … But CSI Lewis (Canine Strandings Investigations) have not been idle and only yesterday, on our local beach, we sniffed out a poor dolphin who'd obviously been dead for a wee while. Possibly a bit far gone to determine what species it is/was but hey, that's not our job … we leave that to the humans, we just find them!
Sadly (for the humans that is) the weather is due to continue to be pretty atrocious for the coming few days … yeah, more walks, ahem .. i mean, aw shame!! So you may be hearing from me again before too long … in the meantime i'm off to see if we can use our puppy dog eyes (being 77 - or 11 in human years - Harvey and I have had a wee while to practice this look!) to return once more to the wood-pile!!
Until the next time … woof!