At the end of two blustery weeks of field work, we packed our survey gear into the car. We’d heard reports of a northern bottlenose whale that had found itself way up in Loch Eil, past Loch Linnhe at Fort William, on the west coast of Scotland. It had been ‘behaving normally’ and swimming the length of Loch Eil for several weeks and had last been seen on Wednesday. We planned to head back to Edinburgh, via the scenic west coast route and Fort William, hoping for a glimpse this intriguing whale so that we might assess its condition. It was a long shot, and we got more than we bargained for.
Northern bottlenose whales are not usually found in rivers and lochs. They are a deep water oceanic species normally found in the waters out to the north and west of Scotland where squid are abundant prey and hunting forays to 1,500 metres are not uncommon.
After a three hour drive through the mountains in the rain we arrived at Loch Eil with the backdrop of the impressive Ben Nevis. Methodically, we set about searching the Loch from the shore, starting at the far end and working our way back. After 30 or so minutes of watching we found an unusual looking floating object, not shaped like a buoy or a piece of wood, but sticking out of the water all the same. Through the ‘Big Eye’ binoculars we could just make out that it was a long, slender beak pointing up to the sky and we could occasionally make out the bulbous forehead (which bottlenose whales are known for) as the small waves lapped over her. She was dead, her body vertical in the water and drifting with the falling tide, back out to sea. We were devastated. We barely believed that we might find the oceanic whale, and certainly not like this.
We alerted the local SSPCA officer, Donna, and assembled with the Coastguards, Phil, Darryl and Calum, and Outward Bound Co-ordinator, Dennis, who kindly took us out onto the Loch in a RIB to confirm and collect the whale. We located the whale and towed her back to the shore. In the drizzling rain and cold, driving wind, a full double rainbow straddled the Loch. With some assistance from a tractor, she was pulled out of the water and above the high tide line so that the post-mortem could be undertaken by the Scottish Agricultural College.
It was a sad end for the whale, for the residents of Loch Eil who had got used to her presence in the Loch and become fascinated with her over the last month, and for us. The best we can hope for is that the post-mortem can identify was caused this beautiful and incredible animal to end up in a Loch a long way from home and, ultimately, her demise.
We are very grateful to the SSPCA, Coastguard and Outward Bound for making the retrieval of the whale happen so quickly and so efficiently.
This northern bottlenose whale in Scotland is not the only individual to meet such an unfortunate end this year. A few bottlenose whales strand each year in Iceland, but at least 11 have already died this year. In addition, several pairs of bottlenose whales arrived in very shallow waters immediately after these strandings – some in Eyjafjörður and some in Skjálfandaflói. They were joined by two others in the harbor, one of which became entangled in a buoy and washed up dead over the following weekend. These strandings are currently being investigated in Iceland and WDCS is very interested to learn the results of these investigations.
All photographs in this blog were taken by Nicola Hodgins, WDCS.