Patience is proving to be our virtue out here on the Isle of Lewis. The old Scottish saying "if you don't like the weather, just wait 5 minutes" is proving to be very true and even looking ahead at the various forecasts doesn't really help as it's hardly ever what they say it's going to be, so we've got to be ready to go at a moments notice! And also be prepared to just sit and wait … for a weather window to appear! However … we can now report on 2 of the best days that we've had since coming to the "Rainbow Isle" - the almost constant mix of rain and sunshine delivers these colourful and magical sights on an almost daily basis.
Day 1; from our land-based watching site at Tiumpan Head.
Over a few hours we were treated to sightings of harbour porpoises foraging close to shore, a minke whale slicing through the calm waters, a basking shark "basking" in the sunshine and two Risso's dolphins patrolling the northern half of our survey area. Again, it was the dreaded midge that eventually drove us off the cliff. There's a very fine balance to be found when it comes to marine wildlife watching in these parts - when the wind is too strong the white-caps on the water prevent us seeing anything, and when the wind drops too much, the midges appear on mass and make a beeline for any exposed piece of skin!
Day 2; from the relative safety (from midges that is) of our research vessel.
We started early, shortly after sun-up, and were hoping for a long-awaited great day at sea! And we were not to be disappointed. A mere 15 minutes from harbour, and not even out the Loch, we came across more porpoises than you could shake a stick at! Everywhere you looked there were little black bodies surfacing - behind, in front, to the right, to the left - it was a virtual porpoise soup! Cutting the engine we sat and listened, and counted, and tried to photograph the normally shy and elusive little porpoises. In stark contrast to their "usual" behaviour, these little guys (and girls) were actively interested in us and made several close swim-by's (cetacean equivalent of a fly-by), surfacing sideways to eyeball us and then diving under the boat at the last minute, only to surface on the other side with their characteristic little "pfff's". One individual appeared to be particularly interested in us and spent most of his/her time just doing circuits around the boat; from a very distinctive scar behind its blow-hole we recognised it as the same individual that we'd seen on 3 previous occasions in the same general vicinity - seems like this is an important or at least favoured, habitat for this chap!
After determining that we had approximately 35 porpoises within 500m of the boat, we decided to move on towards the mouth of the loch, however we didn't get very far before we came across yet another group of porpoises, this time actively engaged in foraging and not the least bit interested in what we were up to. This pod of 15 animals, including a young calf or two, were likely chasing mackerel and indulging in some fishy treats. There was a lot of activity (and lots of white water in their wake), with some animals "racing" at the surface and coming completely out the water as they hunted down their breakfast. Another stark contrast to what the porpoises we'd encountered only 15 minutes earlier were up to!
Soon we were leaving the porpoises behind and heading out into the oily calm waters of the Minch. In parts, not even the slightest gust of wind was present with hardly a ripple in sight - not a day to have been on land - but certainly one to have been on the water! It wasn't long before the cry of "Risso's" went up and the excitement was palpable … this was the first time in our 4 weeks here that we'd come across Risso's when out on the boat! One animal became two, two soon became five and the challenge was on to get shots of all the various dorsal fins before we left them in peace. They headed south, we headed north! But not too far north as we soon spied a wall of rain slowly approaching over land from the north-west, threatening to call an early end to our watery adventure and to avoid finding ourselves in the middle of it, turned tail and headed south, in the direction of home!
And what did we find? More Risso's … this time approaching us from the south. Some of the animals were the same as the ones we'd seen earlier but some of them were "newbies" … including a mother, whom we quickly nicknamed "Stumpy" due to the distinct lack of a dorsal fin (she'd obviously previously suffered at the wrong end of a propellor) and her calf - whose dorsal fin was bigger than hers! The calf was very young, between 1 and 3 months old, which we were able to determine because of the presence of foetal folds - a result of the calf spending its months in the womb, curled up, nose to tail. These folds disappear at different rates in different species; bottlenose dolphins can keep them for 1+ year, while southern right whales lose them within 2 weeks.
One of the most exciting things to come of the day, and our encounter with the Risso's, was that we recognised a few individuals as animals we'd identified last year - showing beyond reasonable doubt that this is an area to which animals are returning year on year … therefore it's important to them, or at least favoured!
As the rain chased us home, to top off a magical day, we spotted a sunfish - the first in our 3 years of surveying the Minch! There is some evidence that these giant circular fish (with elongated fins) are becoming a more regular visitor to Scottish waters - a sign of warming seas?