Anchorage: Camus Fhionnairigh, Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye (57 09’ N, 006 09’ W)
This morning we set off from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull excited and ready for our first day of surveying at sea. Before we set off we used a laser range-finder to train our eyes in estimating distances of boats in the harbour. Having accomplished this fairly successfully we felt sure we would be ready to estimate the distances of any marine mammals we saw at sea. We left the harbour and were treated to exceptionally calm, mirror-like seas and clear blue skies which made for ideal sighting conditions. Throughout the day we rotated around all of the jobs, observing for marine mammals, recording seabirds and boat traffic in the area, and recording all of this important information on the computer.
After a quiet start we saw a grey seal bottling in the water near the coast, easily distinguished by its large roman shaped head. This started our run of sightings for the day and we soon saw harbour porpoises swimming along in groups of one or two past the boat just visible by their dorsal fins above the small wavelets. After passing the Isle of Rum we saw a minke whale, just metres from the boat. We came ‘off-effort’ in order to try and get pictures for photo-identification. Whilst we were circling the area the boat became surrounded by harbour porpoise as they swam around foraging all around us. They were so close we could hear them exhaling every time they surfaced. They were so speedy it was almost impossible to time the perfect picture. We saw the Minke whale surface a few more times before we lost it.
We then continued sailing around to Loch Scavaig on the Isle of Skye where we anchored for the night. We were all hungry and windswept after 9 hours of on survey effort over 60 nautical miles. We had had 16 sightings over the day, 10 harbour porpoise, 1 minke whale, 2 grey seals and 2 harbour seals. The hydrophone towed behind the boat and had acoustically detected harbour porpoises on 15 occasions. We finished a very successful first day with two of the group braving the sea for a swim followed by a hearty dinner and competitive games of Bananagrams.
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12/05/2016Read More and View Comments >>
Approximately 25 Nautical Miles travelled
We were blessed with gorgeous weather today, shorts and t-shirts all round! A Harbour Porpoise was logged almost immediately that we set off, and later we took a small detouring loop to see if we could re-spot a Minke whale that a keen eyed volunteer noticed.
There have been sea birds a plenty and some seals, but the crowning moment must absolutely be when we met a small pod of Common Dolphins.
I was down below on a break when they were sighted, and we quickly spotted them breaching along side the boat. A mad dash ensued to get life jackets on so that we could go top side for a better view!
We circled around a few times to get some good shots on the cameras while they played by the boat. At one point they swam directly under the boat at my feet, showing off their vibrant yellow sides. As someone for whom Common Dolphins are a favourite animal, it was a truly magical experience, hightened only by the beautiful sunshine we experienced!
We anchored in a small bay on the South end of the Isle of Coll and had a lovely dinner of bangers and mash with an onion, apple and honey sauce.
The day ended with a trip to land where we watched the sun set and were accompanied back to the Silurian by a pair of seals.
All in all it's been a fabulous day and I am very excited to the rest of the trip!
2016 05 05
44 nautical miles covered
A delightful evening was spent in the bar of the Jura hotel introducing our 18yo Swedish volunteer to the pleasure of 10 yo malt whisky, distilled about 50 meters away! Supper , haggis, neaps and tatties had been interrupted by a Great Northern Diver cruising past the boat. The following morning we sailed south into a significant southerly and then turned to starboard up the sound of Islay. The raised beaches of Jura were pointed out before we turned into the relative solice of Loch Tarbet. Some of us went ashore and found an owl pellet, which was duly analysed. The skipper had prepared a most tasty curry which was enjoyed by all. The next morning, time was spent photographing the Silurian under full sail , a dramatic sight, from the tender, before setting off . I think that none of us will ever forget the day! To say that we encountered 4 metre waves with gusts of wind reaching 42 knots will give an indication of the conditions. We were all clipped on and, following a 180 degree course change due to the inclement conditions, were most relieved to sail past Iona Abbey before anchoring in a sheltered bay near Bonessan on Mull.Read More and View Comments >>
It was our second day on the fine ship Silurian today, with gusty winds and rolling seas. Surveying up front felt like a mini rollercoaster! Luckily the new boating attire works a treat at keeping everyone warm and dry.Read More and View Comments >>
The cetaceans were hiding today amongst the waves but were definitely there - we were surrounded by Porpoises at one point (according to the hydrophone data)!
Tonight a trip to Jura awaits after a very Scottish dinner of neaps and haggis :)
So we have arrived at our first anchorage of the first day of our first season's survey! My long winter wait has finally come to an end and my expectations have certainly been met.
There is a lovely eager crew onboard willing to learn how to survey for cetaceans. Silurian with her winter refit looks great and all the new equipment is working well.
Now I'm looking forward to a delicious stew with local muscle starter. To a beautiful Scottish back drop of eagles and rainbows.
Frazer, your new onboard biodiversity officer. Read More and View Comments >>
Distance Travelled: 51.9 NM
Here is the last post of this trip written from a frenchy who joined the adventure at the last minute (Please be indulgent for the English…).
This day started wonderfully with a departure on a flat sea within the beautiful sunrise lights. Most of the sailing has been between Isle of Skye and the Mainland. Despite the navigation with the engine running in this narrow passage, it’s been an intense moment due to the meeting of many groups of Harbour Purpose and curious Seals who got closer to the Silurian to watch these strange bipeds shouting “Sightiiiiiing…” Surrounded by the mountains the crew’s gaze has been amazed by the old volcanic landscape reflecting in the glassy water surface.
The usual routine that the crew got the last days has been broken by a message received two days ago about a stranded whale in a bay on the Sleat peninsula. The sharp look out from the Silurian drifting close to the area didn’t pay off and the tender had to be launched for a patrol along the rocks. Sparing the details we’ll just summarise we found the dead body and some samples were taken in order to define the origin of the death.
The weather got worse and worse as the volunteer rotations of the Survey. The wind got stronger. Just in time! Due to a high temperature alarm the engine required to be shut down the time of the investigation. The ship continued under unfurled genoa and mizzen with one reef, well balance at a pretty good speed and course. Half an hour later the engine started again and we continued under the rain and the progressing dark to Loch Scresort where we currently are. It’s now heavily raining and everyone enjoy the quiet of the warm messroom.
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Distance Travelled: 54.3 NM
Title: Oh what a perfect day!
Dawn stravaiged gently over the horizon wearing a soft red cloak that metamorphosed slowly, gradually into an orange, then yellow mantle. Gruinard Bay peeked through the musk rain like a shy girl unsure about being seen in the cold light of morning and as she gained confidence she revealed her island child, now cured of the Anthrax ailment. Encouraged, Ben Ghrobhlaig came forward, teasing us with her shapely silhouette, flanked boldly by An Teallach’s great mass to the east and the long sloped Coigeach Ridge, the high prow of Suilven and the many topped shoulders of Quinaig to the west.
An Otter couple sat on a rock by the shore and broke their night’s fast, watching the animals in the recently arrived blue and white rock, breaking theirs. Later, as Silurian floated over the small rippled surface, myriad Harbour Porpoises greeted the boat from afar whilst the more gregarious Dolphin families leapt in welcome, gliding sleek and firm muscled through the Gin clear water to ask if anyone was coming out to play. Their boisterous streamlining below and around the boat drew no playmates and, tiring quickly of their new playground, they left. Others of their kind came, repeating the invitation to play as Silurian coursed west then south, en route to Applecross but none stayed long and all soon abandoned us.
As the soft wind carried morning towards afternoon and the gently rolling waves lulled the crew into a mild torpor the First Mate mused aloud and daydreamed his arms round the scaly tail of the soft voiced Stornoway mermaid called EMSEEAY whose siren call forever beckoned him west. “Oh Jon, Jon” she cried, “this gale warning is for you and only you.” The Skipper, the Science Officer and their volunteers gave the apparentness of “being on whale” whilst the shame faced reality was that they gazed transfixed at the undeniable beauty of the hills of Assynt, the stark drama of Torridon, the mighty form of Slioch “the sky piercer” and the coolness that is the Cuillins.
After such a journey, arrival at Applecross might have proved a disappointment but even here the land and waters of the west presented with bold, deep autumnal colour; here a deep gold hilltop, there a long auburn hued slope. And here also, a far cousin of our earlier encountered Lutra Lutra
, appeared to bid us “welcome” to Torridon.
What a perfect day, but what made it so was the people and ……I’m glad I spent it with you!
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Tonight we are surrounded. After catching glimpses of warships in the Joint Warrior exercise over the last few days we are anchored in Guinard Bay with three for company. They obviously heard about the quality of the food on board the Silurian.
The day started with a visit from a pod of around sixty Common Dolphins who joined us for a bit of bow riding. After that our only other marine mammal was a sleepy seal in the line of the ship (don’t worry it woke up and moved) However there was plenty of bird life to keep us busy - Pomarine Skuas, Eider Ducks and Hooper Swans all joining the usual suspects of Gannets, Gulls, Kittiwakes etc… The ‘other’ column of the bird sightings got good use today.
A less welcome visitor was the rain, but still it remains only an occasional drizzle. So the Scottish weather is doing its best to pleasantly surprise us.
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Let’s hope it stays that way for another few days.
Latitude: 56 49’.8 N
Longitude: 006 13.4 W
Anchorage: Port mor, Muck
Distance Travelled: 19 miles
Hello! There’s a new crew on the Silurian. This blog post is coming to you from Ceri, though I’ve already stopped responding to my name as Kerry the Biodiversity Officer is who we mostly call out for to ask everything from “so how should we flush the toilet?” to “I just saw a fin and I know you just told us but I’ve forgotten how to log it already!”
Due to a poorly Skipper the Silurian spent last night at Tobermory pontoons, awaiting their new skipper Brian. The rain had started lashing down but we were blessed with a surprisingly calm night.
The morning was spent learning the diverse fauna of the hebridean sea and how to collect the data. After lunch we set off north, taking turns in different aspects of surveying.
Our first “sighting!” came from John who spotted a ‘probable’ porpoise. A few more definite Harbour porpoises were seen speeding past. As we left Mull things got a bit quiet. Feeding gannets, spearing into the water, but were not joined by cetaceans. All we had was Eigg ahead of us, teasing us with its shape of a gigantic whale… until out of the blue (literally) “SIGHTING!” Dolphins. Common dolphins, heading straight for us to play in front of us, six individuals including a few young. As suddenly as the appeared they vanished.
Our anchorage tonight is the isle of Muck where we were greeted by grey seals. Fingers crossed for another amazing day tomorrow.
PS. Ted would like everyone to know we rounded Ardnamurchan point, the most westerly point of the British mainland.
PPS. WE GOT VENISON! Can’t wait to taste Dougs much talked about dish tomorrow! Stay tuned.
PPPS Hwyl am y tro oddiwrth ni gid ar y Silurian! (…you can take a girl out of Wales onto a boat in the Hebrides…)Read More and View Comments >>
Anchorage: Staffin Bay, Isle of Skye Lat: 57 38.3 N Long: 06 13.7 W Distance Travelled: 51.5 miles
Speed Bonnie Boat
But for the occasional roar of a rutting stag, we spent a tranquil night in the tiny inlet of Moll a Tuath on South Uist, and island famous as the meeting place, more than two and a half centuries ago, of the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie, still smarting from his calamitous defeat at the battle of Culloden, and the twenty-three year old Flora MacDonald, who would later disguise the prince as her servant girl and accompany him to Skye, over a sea bristling with ships of English navy, intent on his capture.
Today we too were headed to Skye, and possible encounters with ships of the English navy, though hopefully not quite so hostile ones.
The morning began with an optimistic weather forecast from Stornaway Coastguard. Shortly afterwards the sun rose into a pretty-well cloudless sky. We upped anchor and set off in dazzling summery autumn sunshine with a warm Southerly wind on our tail. The sails went up and before long the breeze was strong enough for Brian to cut the engine, and we sped very rapidly Skyewards, dipping in and out of the swell, hearing only the roar of wind and the waves.
For John, Ceri and Aimee this was their first experience of fast big boat sailing. The military kept a surprisingly low profile, until mid afternoon when we were buzzed by a Tornado, and inspected by a low flying spotter plane. Finally, still in sunshine, we rounded the top of Skye, past the ruins of Duntulm Castle, and the Tolkienesque rock formations of Quiraing, and into the shelter of Staffin Bay.
Dinner this evening was the much awaited and hyped venison stew, prepared by our repeat volunteer Doug. It certainly lived up to expectations, it was deeeelicious!Read More and View Comments >>
Is that superman?
Latitude: 57 18’.179 N
Longitude: 007 13’.138 W Anchorage: Molla A’ Tuath, South Uist
The day started with a surprisingly beautiful morning. The air was fresh, but the sun was out. After an energetic first breakfast at sea and gearing up with layers, we were ready to go.
It was Ted’s 60th birthday, and Kerry made it extra special by decorating the cabin. Ted brought along some of the gifts he received and opened them with us during breakfast. What a great way to start the day.
Afterwards, John and Brian got the boat ready while Kerry explained to us the different type of birds and boats, a lot of new species to identify, particularly for someone from the tropics like myself.
I was up for the first shift of sighting, and only a few minutes in a common dolphin popped up on the right to say its hellos. As the day continued with unexpectedly good weather, we all tried to spend as much time on deck as possible.
On the next sighting shift it wasn’t one, but a whole pod of about 5 dolphins that came and swam along the bow of the boat, riding the waves we made.
And then a minke seems to have surprised us from the back, gliding away with only one of us having a glimpse of its fin. We waited there for a while to see if it would honour us with another view, but sadly it was gone.
A few more dolphins and birds later, we had our first glimpse of the warships. They were off on the distance, sending messages on the radio, and there were new clear sonar sounds on the hydrophone. The situation causes mixed feelings, because as much as you want to see cetaceans, you don’t want them to be exposed by these harmful sound waves. And yet I could hear the distinctable whistle when it was my turn to listen on the hydrophone.
Suddenly we changed to passage effort to pick up some balloons. I was inside the cabin and couldn’t believe that they had organised a balloon delivery for Ted’s birthday, but much to my surprise it was actually a gift from the ocean, or should I say a gift of ours to the ocean by picking them. Distinctly decorated birthday balloons were floating a sea, not the first to be rescued Kerry explained. In any case, a little decoration for the cabin on Ted’s special day.
At the end of the day I was happy to get my feet on steady land, and joined the small group of us that headed to the small island behind our anchorage after a good day. Although short, it was a lovely walk on Scottish grass, with a view of the Silariun in the bay. As we got on the dingy to come back, John our first mate sacrificed his feet, by getting wet, so the rest of us didn’t have to. We happily paddled back to the boat and sang happy birthday through the kitchen window, while Ted cooked us dinner.
After a lovely dinner, we went for a look on deck, and oh what a surprise to see the most amazing light show on Earth. The universe decided to prize us with a unique spectacle many fly miles away to temperatures under -30 degrees to see, and here we were on a sailboat in the Hebridean waters watching the sky prize us with curtains of green dancing lights, with a tinge of pink every now and again. In the background, lovely instrumental Scottish music to complete the scene, and it did seem the aurora borealis was dancing to its rhythm.
October 7, 2015 will be a day to remember. You do a small thing for the nature, and it gives you so much more back. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, the undeniable beauty and power of the environment we live in is a reminder of our role and responsibility within it. The more blessed we are, the more we should give back; and at the same time, the more we give, the more we receive. The powerful positive circle of life, no matter who or where you are…Read More and View Comments >>
Surrounded by mountains and what looked quite a promising morning we had breakfast and set off looking forward to exceed the previous day sightings of minke Whale, Common Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Seals and Eagles....
The sailing conditions started good, quite calm and sheltered, we sailed under the Skye bridge for the second time, seeing a peregrine falcon with a few sightings of Common Seals and Harbour Porpoise in continuing dry conditions, further south towards the sound of Sleat we had some good groups of Harbour Porpoise and more seals including a couple grey seals.
The conditions changed a tad due to coming out of the shelter of Armadale, deteriated somewhat and made the survey effort a little more challenging but compensated by the sunny conditions and didn't stop the crew spotting a small minke Whale and and shortly afterwards another larger animal not far from Mallaig.....
Onwards south we had an amazing group of 6 Harbour porpoise coming in towards Silurian at 30 degrees then shot off at 90 degrees within a minute and disappeared as quickly as they appeared. On towards our anchorage we had very windy conditions but continued "on effort" until we arrived in Loch Moidart and in the approach saw an Osprey flying over. A delicious meal was prepared, a wonderful sunset, swimming (for the brave) and a small excursion ashore made the evening a night to remember.
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Morning of the 26th leaving Staffin was very impressive giving us a sense of anticipation of what was to come, 4 grey seals, 3 groups of harbour porpoise a total of 5 individuals, as we were around the north end of skye there was 3 unidentified dolphins seen travelling south.
During the day we had great views of Gannets, Great Skuas, Kittiwakes, Auks and a possible sighting of a sooty shearwater. The views of Skye was second to none, impressive cliffs and a tall waterfall was two of them. On our approach into Loch Snizort there was a call of HP but there wasn't a second sighting . Late afternoon the the crew and some of the volunteers decided to visit the community of Edinbane at the head of Loch Snizort, while Kerry donned her running shoes to explore more ground. Three members of the group stayed behind to prepare the evening meal while Professor Plankton did a sneaky trawl in the Loch. A lovely evening meal, a stew prepared by Jan and Kevin was amazing followed by Andy's pancakes or 'crepes' if you want to sound posh! Another moonlit night followed by another dramatic morning seeing two foxes playing in a nearby clearing across the bay prevailed
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Anchorage: Loch Sligachan, Skye Position: 057°18’.34 N, 006°08’.77 W Distance travelled: 50nm
A guide to alternative seating options on board (in ascending order)
5. In the flaking chamber Not as uncomfy as it looks – but does require manual labour…… Not much of a view and you do get dirty. Not recommended, but someone does have to do it.
4. Hanging over the port side (starboard side also available) Enjoyable for the sake of feeling the speed that the boat is travelling, but can be a bit awkward to find a good position. Being over the propeller can be interesting as you can listen to it going in and out of the water. Clipping on is recommended, since it allows for a more extreme hanging position.
3. The crow’s nest Does require some climbing, and the faff of putting on a harness – but naturally it results in very good views. Nice in calm waters, but I can’t yet comment on what it is like in rough seas.
2. On the sails/in the sail covers This one came at the Skippers (slightly indirect) suggestion. Extremely comfortable, and actually quite warm. Less ideal during sailing. Overnight stays optional, but require good weather through the night.
1. On the bow spreader By far the best in transit seating. There are two varieties – facing to stern or bow. Facing the stern is the more comfortable option; you can lean back on the rail uprights and stretch out your legs. Great for calm waters and would be even better in the sunshine (I can’t comment on that last part……). Facing the bow is also fun in general, but is best in rougher seas - big drops with water splashing all around. Not as comfortable as others (the rail uprights are a little too far apart), but makes up for it in excitement. While it may appear to be a position where you would get soaked, in reality most of the splashing is happening behind you at the bow itself (you are more likely to get splashed when you are making your way forward/backward). If you fancy getting wet you can stick your feet into the water, which will cause some splashing. Clipping in is required, and emptying pockets of anything important is advised.
p.s. For the sake of science; today we saw porpoises, a minke and some seals. Oh and there were a ton of common dolphins – some of which were bowriding (if you’re into that sort of thing).Read More and View Comments >>
Blog Day 1
Anchorage: Loch Scresort, Rum Position: 057°00’.77 N, 006°16’.18 E
(Quote of the day): “In any one bundle, only two squares” For this trip 4 of the volunteers have been on Silurian before – so in theory this morning’s training should have just been a refresher. Not sure it quite worked out like that. Hopefully the first timers understand that we’re not lying when we say we can’t remember most of it.
Weather was a bit miserable to start the day, but as we headed up the Sound of Mull the sky cleared and most of the afternoon was spent in intermittent sunshine. The wind was pretty strong – and with the swell added in it wasn’t long before many of us were feeling the effects of the sea. Although it did mean we got the chance to go sailing (always good for keeping the Skipper happy).
We rounded the point of Ardnarmurchan and its spectacular lighthouse, shortly after a few possible bottlenose dolphins had been glimpsed by a few of the volunteers, then set off north west across towards the distant islands of Eigg and Muck. As we came around the east side of Rum, the sea settled down completely. Sightings were few.Read More and View Comments >>
We saw a handful of seals as we left Tobermory, and then there were a couple porpoise sightings further out.
Dinner this evening was a fantastic spread of Glengorm bangers and mash with red onion and apple sauce and a fresh fruit salad. Delicious!
Silurian 22nd april 2015
After doing a stint of almost six months as a volunteer with sea life surveys stepping off MV Sula Beag straight on to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s research vessel RV Silurian to meet the crew and the other 5 volunteers for the 9 day survey to get to know each other the night before and briefing.
The evening meal cooked by John the first mate was delicious as was the sweet fruit crumble!! A good introductory talk by Kerry got us all enthused for what was to be a great trip!
1st day dawned in Tobermory at anchor, poor john had to go back across the bay for a few items the volunteers needed and (ingredients for their cooking meals) and a few bits of last minute supplies.. A bit of a misty morning didnt marr the preparations for the first half day survey....
We left Tobermory bay aproximately 1pm with a bit of a breeze blowing but general good conditions as we past Rhubha a na gall we had an adult White Tailed Eagel flying over the hill then came straight over our boat giving us all a great view of what an amazing bird it was.
We then saw a group of up to six Bottlenose dolphins coming across from ardnamurchan but disappeared shortly after.
We travellled out toward the north side of the Island of Muckin fairly brightand breezy conditions seeing a single harbour porpoise a litle way our past the fish farm. onwards on towards rum due to very windy conditions conditions we travelled between Rumand Eigg giving us amazing views of how different these two islands were, the clifffaces of eigg and the mountainous peaks of rum.
arrived and anchored in the bay opposite the castle and had a great evening sheltered out of the main wind having a lovely meal of bangers and aple with mash being prepared by kevin helped by the rest of the people on board. followed by fruit salad for sweet.
A treat was in store for the evening as Andy (professor plankton) put the net in off the side of silurian and caught a great variety of animals inc copepods worms shrimps and jellyfish we all had much enjoyment looking and discovering the varieties we had caught.
After a windy night, a bright morning greeted us and after breakfast and a bird briefing from Kerry we sailed out of rum and headed toward Skye and the Sound of Sleat seeing lots of gannets guillemots kittiwakes and a black guillemot in winter plumage.
as we sailed through loch hourn we had several small groups of harbour porpoise some not far from the boat, a sighting of a lone Golden eagle over the amazing hill tops was a bonus. on the way back out of the Loch we had a few little squalls and as we were appproaching our anchorage combined with the sun gave us an amazing rainbow. for the second evening at Ornsay a group of 3 adult porpoise with 1 calf surfaced and gave us all good views.
At Ornsay was a curry evening concocted by Jan and Kenny the early evening Sky was very dramatic with the surrounding clouds being ominous and greyRead More and View Comments >>
Anchorage: Staffin island
Mystery sea creatures & a Minke at the finish line
We awoke to an unexpected calm morning with lovely views over to Knoydart, calm seas awaiting & the occasional “piterpater” on the coach house roof. Most people seemed to have enjoyed a restful night’s sleep, perhaps something to do with the late evening sighting of a “moonbow” spotted by “eagle eye Andy” .
However , our trusty Captain Edd hadn’t slept so well due sore tossils, but remained ever cheery.
Harbour Ps were seen in the bay even before we pulled up the hook – the day forbodded well.
Time of departure was somewhat delayed by an extremely muddy anchor chain, some of the stickiest soft sludge seen all season. Plentiful buckets of seawater later we eventually got away & headed up the Sound of Sleat.
A couple of harbour ps were seen shortly after commencing the day’s effort survey as we headed through nice calm waters. Then only a few hundred metres off our stern the still waters were tarnished as a large black back with falicate dorsal porpoised twice through the surface displacing quite a lot of white water. We went “with whale” but despite about half an hour trying to find it again it, only a dark shape briefly logging some hundreds metres distant gave any other sign of its presence. We returned to transit and the mystery remained unsolved.
Yet another time Silurian twisted her way through the tidal eddies& whirlpools of the Kyle Rhea narrows with the usual hotspot of seal sightings, & a few more harbour ps.
The breeze was certainly fresher on the way west towards the Skye bridge, but today the rain stayed away throughout the survey. Our hopes of seeing something exciting on Jan’s doorstep in the Sound of Raasay were not fulfilled, although the scenery was spectacular , and a frisky pod of porpoise splashed close by to us.
Then for a long time not even many birds seemed to visible, although the further north we travelled auks, gannets, kittiwakes & great skuas slowly showed signs of better feeding conditions in the sea.
While watching a gull a large solitary dolphin dorsal was observed several times swimming fast “on a mission”, but again we were unable to get a clear ID. At the end of the last transit, with Kenny on the helm, getting close to our anchorage under the bonny NE slopes of Skye a final treat awaited. Kerry already had the kettle on for end of survey tea, and the hydrophone was just about to be pulled in when Kevin sighted a dinky minke whilst on relay, just as Jan had promised for him. We all enjoyed some good views of this animal, even though it was a bit shy of great ID photos. A great finish to the day, topped off by a great evening meal of surprise cooked by Anton & Jodie.Read More and View Comments >>
As the final night approaches on-board Silurian, I cannot help but think back to what seems not so long ago now, before I met any of the crew or volunteers on board, and before I had even arrived in Tobermory, half of me wondering what on earth I was doing going so far away from home, leaving work at the last minute to go to a place miles away from anything or anyone familiar.
Upon my arrival in Tobermory, I bumped into a local celebrity – the Tobermory cat, who greeted me by rubbing his head up against my legs craving a fuss. At least the locals seemed friendly, I thought.
With a heavy backpack of what I considered on-board essentials (hairdryer, lipstick and mascara) I stood looking out towards the shore to see if I could spot an early glimpse of the famous Silurian…in my mind still making my final decision whether to board her or not - my stomach butterflies had kicked in early and I was all of a sudden not so sure I was entirely cut out for this “adventure” stuff.
My only real experience of being “at sea” was cruising I had done with my parents when I was much younger…and Morven (the volunteer coordinator) had already pre-warned me that this was not going to be a similar experience. I had therefore tried to mentally and emotionally prepare myself to be challenged – and therefore left my hair straighteners and eye lash curlers at home.
Ten days later I can honestly say that if I knew what I was letting myself in for, I am not entirely sure I would have been brave enough to board Silurian…but for some reason, I had made a decision to take a leap of faith, a step into the unknown...and go through with this no matter what.
So what can I tell you happened these past few days out on Hebridean shores? Did the world change? Probably not. But my view of it certainly had. All of us came on board Silurian for different reasons and certainly with different expectations. Some of us wanted to experience volunteering, others probably wanted to learn more about ways to contribute and understand the impact we as human beings have upon our environment.
I would be lying if I told you that I did not miss my morning shower and that sleeping in less than spacious quarters did not bother me. It did. But only for about a day! After that, and I think I may speak on behalf of some of my fellow volunteers – we just sort of gave into Silurian and her wicked ways…and boy am I glad we did…for what a ride we had.
An “alternative holiday” does not really even begin to describe my experience upon Silurian. From the breath-taking views which somehow appeared to get better and more awe-inspiring each day, the vast knowledge and fascinating presentations given to us by our scientific officer, to the evening trips ashore which were never too much trouble (nothing was!) for our lovely crew members (thank you John and Ed)…
For those of you who want to do more than just read about adventure stories out on the far seas, I urge you to get brave, bold and free enough …to leave the world as you know it behind, and take the plunge…you know you want to…
“unfortunately no one can be told what Silurian is…you have to see it for yourself”.
|A fantastic farewell meal at the Isle of Mull cheese farm, raising money for the Nepal earthquake.|
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Anchorage: The Head of Loch Sunart
Distance travelled: 46.9 nautical miles
You’re not going to find a dolphin who doesn't want to be found.
The HWDT has 21 years of data, 13 of which have been gathered aboard the Silurian. Each sighting, and each hydrophone reading we have taken on this expedition, has contributed to this ever-increasing body of knowledge. Over the years, the Trust has discovered that the Hebrides boasts one of the largest populations of harbour porpoise in Europe, and built up a detailed and reliable map of their population density. The crucial point is that our data provides evidence, which can be used both to challenge the existing scientific orthodoxy, and to sway planning and policy decisions. Without disclosing any of the details here, let it suffice to say that this has already happened, and it is a process that is still going on.
This was the prelude to our final full day of surveying: Kerry gave us the lowdown before we started, thereby restoring our faith, if it needed any restoration, in the job we have signed up to do. Having done so, and having redoubled our motivation to gather as accurate and comprehensive a dataset as humanly possible, we headed out of Ulva into a Force 6 wind, and had such fun playing on the lumpy seas that thoughts of data were scattered to the four winds. But that’s what a protocol is for – we were sticking to transects and recording sightings even when all we really cared about was the fact that the boat was heeling at 45 degrees. It’s just possible I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect: roll with me here.
Our destination was the very long sea loch of Sunart. Surprisingly, given that it is a narrow loch, and its entrance is guarded by an ADD loud enough to echo through the whole boat, our first marine mammal sighting was a common seal pup, about a mile or two into the loch. Hot on his heels followed a slightly larger juvenile, and on his heels, our first dolphin sighting. This was the moment the day filled with drama. It was a tentative sighting: Pete wasn’t sure what species it was, or whether his eyes were deceiving him. Consulting the hydrophone for a second opinion, we saw evidence both of dolphins and harbour porpoise in the same area. This was enough to put us into “With Whales*” state, and to induce us to repent any competitive grudge we’ve harboured against our faithful hydrophone.
The dolphins remained elusive for a good forty minutes before reappearing with frustrating brevity just in front of our port bow. Then they powered away towards the mouth of the loch. Unfortunately, none of the three of us who were lucky enough to witness this brief appearance felt able to identify their species with any confidence. Their identity is likely to remain an enduring mystery; however, their willingness to socialise with porpoises has been noted, and may well provide a tantalising clue in years to come.
The stars are out again tonight. They’re making us reflect on the whole journey, though hopefully without too much in the way of dreamy-eyed nostalgia or “Me and my experience” transcendentalisms. Volunteering aboard the Silurian is something you can do on different levels. It can be a holiday with a difference; it can be an educational opportunity; it can be the first fleeting step towards a fully-fledged career in conservation. First and foremost, though, it is a contribution. One can wax lyrical about the transformative experience, the beauty of the scenery and the deep emotional impact of encountering a three tonne whale at barely an arm’s length, but these things are extras: they’re really not the substance of what we’re doing here. Come and do this if you feel it is something that stirs within you, and if you want to contribute in a small but lasting way to something that is real, concrete and tangible: something that advances our understanding of an ecosystem that, while barely understood, remains crucial to the survival and prosperity of everyone who inhabits this pale blue dot that we call our home.
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* This has started a heated debate over whether or not a dolphin can be considered to be a whale. On its own, the word “whale” does not really have a working scientific definition, so there are cases to be made for both yes and positions. How these evenings on the boat fly past.
The Birds and the Bees
Anchorage: Soriby Bay, Ulva Latitude: 56 °29’.202N
Longitude: 006 °10’.773W Distance travelled: 49.6 nautical miles
Things not to say to your skipper, No. 23.
Rob: Ed, may I have a look at one of your maps please?
Skipper: Looks like we’re fresh out of maps. Would you like a look at one of these charts instead?
Don’t do this. Just don’t.
Today was one of the more challenging days for those surveying at the mast. Warned off by bad weather and poor visibility west of Tiree, we elected instead to perform a coastal survey around the lochs of Mull. The problem is that Mull is decidedly beautiful, even by Scottish island standards.
The mountains of Loch Scridain loomed over us through the morning mist, like ancient mythical giants. They bore parallel scars carved by the advancing and retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age, and we marvelled at them as the boat scythed through the loch. Marvelling is all very well, but we were supposed to be surveying. Proverbial whips were cracked to persuade us to focus on the job in hand.
We didn’t expect to encounter a huge number of cetaceans today, mostly because of the ubiquitous ADD activity around the west side of the island, but the morning did provide us with a lone seal. Oddly for a Londoner who has travelled up to the Hebrides to monitor cetaceans, my breath was taken by the sight of a common gull. This isn’t quite as perverse as it seems: common is, in fact, a misnomer. They are uncommon in Scotland, and you probably haven’t seen one in England. The creatures who go round pilfering your chips on Brighton Beach, thereby striking terror into the hearts of Middle England, are likely to be herring gulls. They’re certainly not seagulls, because no such animal exists, though I must concede that, as an inspirational book title, “Jonathan Livingston Herring Gull” wouldn’t have had quite the same appeal. Herring gulls and common gulls alike: they’re both masters of the wind. The common gull I went all gooey over executed the most perfect landing I have seen from any acrobat or stunt pilot. He positioned himself a few inches above the water, judging his angle perfectly, and achieved just the amount of lift he needed to ease himself onto the surface without disturbing so much as the smallest ripple. When I head back south, I will see all gulls with very new eyes. I apologise in advance to anyone I will speak to for more than about five minutes.
In lively seas to the west of Ulva, we spotted three harbour porpoises whose behaviour was described as “on steroids”. To be honest with you, I don’t know exactly what this meant, because I failed to see the creatures, but I feel this description may well be amended before it is reco
rded for posterity in our official scientific log. In any event, the natural order has once again re-asserted itself, and we have chalked up a narrow defeat at the hands of our hydrophone. Any disappointment we may feel at this comeuppance is tempered by the sheer beauty of our surroundings.
We are anchored at Soriby Bay, on the north shore of Ulva. The lushly wooded hills bear the same glacial scars as the mountains of Scridain, and the evening Sun is settling down behind them, bathing them in a hazy ethereal light. The sky is clear, and soon it will be filled with the lights of fifty billion stars: lights you will only ever see in a place like this.
Field biology is not a profession for the romantic or the sentimental, but we would be fools not to afford ourselves this opportunity to revel in the simple, unadulterated pleasure of being right here, at this very moment. That is all for tonight. In the nicest possible way, go away and leave us alone. Over and out.Read More and View Comments >>
A Curate’s Egg of a Day
Anchorage: Bunessan, Isle of Mull Latitude: 56 °19’.297N
Longitude: 006 °15’.212W
Distance travelled: 56.9 nautical miles
“Welcome aboard the Silurian. The kitchen is called the galley, the toilets are called the heads, and, to be perfectly honest with you, we make all the rest of the words up as we go along.” I’m sure that wasn’t the actual content of the first day’s talk, but for those of us whose maritime experience is confined to the boating lake in Hyde Park, it felt for the first few days as though it may well have been. However, as time has gone on and we have settled into the routine of manning a research vessel, some of the terminology has started the long process of sinking in.
We are getting the general gist of forestays, spreaders and mainsails, and we are now well versed in the difference between a generator and an inverter. This last technical detail may have something to do with the fact that we need to know the distinction in order to charge our telephones correctly. We are creatures of the modern world, after all.
The skipper’s charts provide us with a consistent source of fascination. Specifically, we have noted that there was a steep drop-off on the sea floor close to where we encountered yesterday’s feeding frenzy. This is idle speculation, of course: our role is to gather data, not to interpret it, but the sheer variety of the sea is astonishing to the hitherto land-bound among us. The seabirds, for whom this environment is both home and livelihood, act as interpreters, alerting us to bounty by their presence, and barrenness by their absence. It was the latter that greeted us this morning after we left the Sound of Islay and headed north towards Iona.
For a good ten miles, the few birds who deigned to show up flew straight past the area, treating it with professional disinterest. However, despite these unpromising auguries, we managed to continue our record-breaking streak of the past few days. Having yesterday ventured further south than any expedition this season, and having achieved a record-breaking zero sightings the day before, we earned the dubious distinction of finding the strangest item of rubbish in the sea so far.
About five miles out to sea, a loom band drifted past on our port side. This can mean one of two things. Either the fish of the Hebridean islands are impressively proficient at keeping up with modern trends, or the amount and range of plastic waste in our oceans is truly shocking. But we saw a seal, if that makes you feel any better. He was a very handsome grey, swimming nonchalantly past us towards Islay. I know I am guilty of egregious levels of anthropomorphism, but I am increasingly impressed by the confident self-assurance these animals seem to exude. I know if I were on the dinner menu of killer whales and great whites, I would struggle to look anything like as debonair, even if I did have access to the Trust’s data about the scarcity of one and the total absence of the other in these waters.
The barometer promises interesting days ahead. At Islay, we were greeted by a fresh wind, whitecaps, and a surprisingly flat sea. It was as if the high pressure had simply pushed the surface flat like a steam iron. However, as we progressed north, the pressure dropped and the sea became livelier. The choppy conditions afforded Kerry, our science officer, the opportunity to demonstrate her niche skill of baking on a pitching and rolling boat. If they ever hold the Great British Bake-off at sea, she will be a shoe-in for the title.
Moving on to matters of consequence, did we defeat the hydrophone? Certainly not in the second half of the day, when visibility was hampered by conditions. She picked up a wealth of excellent porpoise clicks in the Sound of Iona. However, we did have a spate of seal and porpoise sightings as we left harbour this morning – conveniently before she was deployed. By stacking the figures up correctly, we have managed to squeeze a dead heat out of the day’s work. This is a satisfying conclusion to the day: both we and the hydrophone can go to bed with our dignity intact.Read More and View Comments >>
Minke Minke Minke
Anchorage: Aros Bay, Islay
Longitude: 006° 01’.846W
Distance travelled: 55.5 nautical miles
When minkes come, they come not single spies but in battalions. At first, the day seemed to be shaping up very much like the previous day.
We headed out from Loch Indaal towards the Irish coast, making a wide southerly sweep around Islay. The sea was calm but opaque, visibility confined to two or three nautical miles at best. As on the day before, the seabirds began the day by being conspicuous in their absence. Most notable to me were a pair of fulmars caught not in flight, but calmly sat on the sea surface, having what appeared to be the fulmar equivalent of a coffee and a chat. Soon after this, a Manx shearwater flew past, on one the ten round trips to the Moon* we expect him to make over the course of his sixty year lifespan. Nevertheless, the seabirds remained thin on the ground.
As soon as my rota permitted, I scampered up to the crow’s nest and spent an hour scanning the seas, feeling very sorry for my colleagues on watch at the mast: there wasn’t so much as a hint of life to be seen. However, when we reached the southern end of our transect, almost at the Irish border, we changed course eastwards towards the Mull of Kintyre, and a deep grey tide line loomed up on the horizon. It was a very clear threshold; as soon as we crossed it, we sensed what I can only describe, apologetically, as a sea change. The sea turned lighter; its eddies changed; it became palpably more silent. As these new conditions manifested themselves, what had been a trickle of birdlife now became a torrent. In quick succession, we drove past three or four flocks of thirty or forty birds each. If they had been flocks of a single species, such as shearwaters, who like to party together, this wouldn’t necessarily be cause for suspicion; however, the flocks were mixed.
When gannets and guillemots are joining the shearwater convention, it starts to become clear that this is more than just a social gathering. They were here for a reason. What exactly that reason was turned out to be easy to guess but tricky to verify.
There was food in the area: we could see that. The silence thickened, the patches of unnaturally still water widened, but sightings remained stubbornly out of reach. All we could do was to continue on our transect, maintaining the same steady course and speed. There is, believe it or not, an established methodology to our work.
It was John, the First Mate, who finally broke the tension, only for it to be replaced by a state of even more fevered expectation. He thought he’d seen a minke whale, and his keen eye is rarely wrong.
We moved into “On Whale” state: everyone to the deck; eyes all around the boat; a silence you could cut with a knife, the water swishing and gurgling beneath the hull. John ran up the mast into the crow’s nest, and we scanned the sea together for a good twenty minutes. Finally, John gave up, deciding that he’d misidentified his sighting. He came down the mast with a long face, and we prepared to resume our previous transect. But as happens so often just as you give up, we suddenly had our first confirmed sighting.
It was Hannah who saw the whale surfacing first – she pointed to a spot 30 degrees off the starboard bow, and as we turned to look, we saw the distinctive dorsal fin of a minke whale. This wasn’t a large animal, and its dive sequence was unusual. Instead of the customary pattern – surfacing three or four times in quick succession, then diving for three to five minutes – this one was surfacing at regular thirty to forty second intervals, apparently without any sustained dives. It may have been a juvenile; our science officer Kerry speculated that it was a yearling. Despite its youth, it did have a distinctive dent close to its dorsal fin. The photos were somewhat silhouetted, but they were clear enough to identify the diminutive animal, who had by now been awarded the slightly unfortunate title “Dinky Minke”. If whales ever learn to speak human, we are going to have some awkward explaining to do. That business in the Nineteenth Century probably didn’t go down too well either, come to that.
Having given the animal an acceptable ID, we engaged operation “Bog Off” – we are, after all, a scientific expedition, and we had a transect to complete.
However, within ten minutes of resuming the transect, we made another minke sighting. The correct protocol in these circumstances is to call “Sighting – minke whale. Bearing 90 degrees, distance 250 metres, heading 180 degrees”. The call we actually gave – three of us at once – was well understood, but slightly thinner in content. It was something along the lines of “Whale – over there.” It may have been more colourful than that, but my memory is strangely hazy on those particular details. This animal surfaced once 150 metres away, and then again 400 metres away after five seconds. Either this was the fastest minke whale in the sea, or it was actually two different animals. Getting a positive ID for both turned out to be rather a challenge, but one of the two remained for a very clear identification indeed. Kerry’s zoom lens, which was actually longer than she is, turned out to be redundant. This whale – a much larger animal than Dinky, with a more sustained dive sequence – surfaced centimetres away from our bow. This was most considerate, as it allowed Kerry to take clear left and right profiles, which became our cue to engage Operation Bog Off. Not every sighting was confirmed with photos – after another ten minutes on our transect, I spotted the distinctive action of a dorsal fin on our port side, and, with consummate professionalism, yelled “Whale! Whale! Bloody Whale!**”. This sneaky customer refused to make a repeat appearance, prompting suspicions that I had taken advantage of last night’s anchorage by the Bowmore Distillery. Nevertheless, it seemed, to basic primitive creatures like ourselves, who like to see patterns in everything, that these spectacular whale sightings had released the genie from the bottle.
Our stats by the end of the day were: Four minke whale sightings, with five individuals; Two unidentified seals; Three common seals; Ten harbour porpoise sightings with eighteen individuals; One grey seal. For those of us on data entry, the challenge was not to stave off a few minutes of boredom, but to manage the chaos of entering multiple sightings at the same time. This is valuable training for future bounty. However impressive these stats may be, we really only have one priority aboard this vessel. Our duel with the hydrophone has degenerated into a grudge match. Upon hearing that she had detected only four porpoise events, the vessel erupted in joy. Our sense of victory over an insentient piece of electronic equipment is probably not something we should be admitting to in a public forum, but in this case our innate competitive urges have overcome our sense of self-respect. The challenge we face tomorrow is to maintain a semblance of professionalism in the face of all eventualities: be it feast, famine, or a cut-price meal at the Berni Steak House, we need to remember that the data is our first priority. Whether or not we achieve that noble aim, I will leave it to you, the reader, to judge throughout the remainder of this blog. * Equivalent distance, but I really shouldn’t have to give that qualification. ** Or words to that effect.Read More and View Comments >>
Anchorage: Bowmore, Loch Indaal Latitude: 55 °45’.704N
Longitude: 006 °16’.475W
Distance travelled: 56.9 nautical miles
Rob: [Name withheld on legal advice] are a responsible company, but unfortunately their coffee tastes like mud.
Andy: That’s because it was only ground this morning.
This has been going on all week. We’re not quite sure whether Andy is going to win the one-liner award by the end of the survey, or whether he’ll get made to walk the plank. Bets are being taken.
The portents for the day were encouraging. As we pulled out of the skipper’s favourite anchorage in Loch Tarbert, a merlin and a sea eagle stopped by to bid us farewell, and to ask us politely to stop anthropomorphising them, as it’s really annoying.
For the first time thus far, we headed west into truly open seas. The next island to our west would have been an obscure outer outer Hebridean island known as the Americas. As we pitched and rolled our way into this stretch of sea, it dawned on us just what a complex and varied environment lies concealed beneath the apparently featureless surface of the ocean.
Yesterday, on the other side of Islay, we had barely been able to keep up with the seabirds that flocked into view; today, they appeared grudgingly, if at all. For the first couple of hours, we didn’t behold so much as a wingbeat. But eventually they hove into view, and any shortfall in quantity was more than made up for in quality. The first to appear was a gift we’d been waiting for all week: straight stiff wingspan, fuselage like a rugby ball, this was the elusive, aerobatic, and frankly beautiful, fulmar. Then came the gannets, making me wonder how my cats would respond to a pet gannet (if you’re from the RSPB, pretend you didn’t read that bit), and the bully-boy of the sky, the great skua.
As far as actual marine sightings went, we trumped our previous record of a single seal sighting, and indeed, achieved a record for this season so far. The only sightings we made were rubbish, in the literal sense rather than the figurative. If you find this thought somehow disheartening, take comfort from the fact that there are worse things at sea. Which, on reflection, is not particularly comforting after all. On a slightly more encouraging note, I have discovered an unexpected benefit of sunglasses. They make an excellent visor for when you’re on survey at the mast and a cheeky wave comes along and swamps you from head to foot. If someone starts to manufacture shades with wiper blades, they’ll sell like hot cakes in Scotland.
Aside from this, my main contribution to scientific research for the day has been the discovery that calling “Here, minke minke minke” does not appear to increase one’s chances of a whale sighting.
We rounded Islay, and found shelter in Loch Indaal, where we are anchored in the shadows of the Bowmore Distillery. In case anyone is wondering, no one has bought any gifts or souvenirs, so don’t ask when we get back.
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Reminding ourselves that no data is still data, we are psyched and ready for action tomorrow. And for the record, we definitely did not sample any of the local tipples onshore. We are bracing ourselves for another epic battle with the hydrophone. You may place your bets now.
Drama on the High Seas
Anchorage: Loch Tarbert
Latitude: 55 °57’8.N
Longitude: 005 °54’7.W
Distance travelled: 50.4 nautical miles
I am becoming increasingly enamoured of gannets. At a certain point in the survey, it gets easy to start fixating on birdlife, to the detriment of the job we are actually here to do. Trying to identify what appeared at first to be a guillemot with strange oily plumage, I was disappointed to discover that this was in fact a common seal, rudely distracting us from our, er, marine mammal survey. This was our only sighting of the day.
What the day lacked in mammal sightings, it made up for in drama. The northerly wind whipped the seas up into the roughest state we have yet encountered. The caricature of the yachtsman standing in a cold shower ripping up ten pound notes (thanks Norman) seemed richly deserved today.
Nevertheless, the volunteers appeared remarkably unfazed by these challenging conditions. I have an image of Pete, that salty old sea dog, jotting down bird sightings and munching on his bacon and egg sarnie, waves crashing over him, the boat inclined at a 45 degree angle, looking for all the world as though he was filling out an insurance form.
The Silurian herself fared less well. While trying to maintain course under sail with the hydrophone in tow, her engine overheated. This precipitated an abandonment of our sails and an early bath for the hydrophone. Which still defeated us, predictably enough.
As we headed out into open seas from the small but very hospitable island of Gigha (thank you for the beers, showers and confirmation of gender stereotypes), our excitement was piqued by sightings of Manx shearwaters, and the coast of Ireland. The shearwaters seemed suspiciously abundant, holding out the tantalising prospect of a minke whale encounter, but it appears that they were doing their own hunting for the day.
Laying aside for a moment the fact that we are not tourists – that our job here is to perform a marine survey, and as such, no sighting is as successful a day’s work as multiple sightings – the sight of the soaring shearwaters and the dive-bombing gannets (this manoeuvre being the personification of elegance and power) will remain with me for years to come. But one cannot romanticise for too long on this boat.
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We have been at anchorage for nearly two hours, and the boat still hasn’t stopped laughing at the Paps of Jura. Boys (and girls), they are Paps, not Baps. And for the record, the Mull of Kintyre does not look like one of those. Onwards and upwards tomorrow. And no laughing at the back.
Latitude: 55 °40’6.N Longitude: 005 °43’8.W
Another lovely day on the boat. Unfortunately, for a little while the weather was what Norman called “dreich” (Scottish word for miserable, misty, drizzle and low cloud).
This evening drizzled cleared the way and the sun come out which allowed us to take a short trip ashore. Guys found a local pub and treat themselves with the pint and girls had a warm shower and finally washed their hair. Perhaps because of the weather we didn’t make too many cetaceans sightings, but we did see lots of interesting birds including quite a few gannet, kittiwakes.
Although we didn’t make too many sightings it was good to hear at the end of the day that we had spotted almost all the harbour porpoise as “Pamguard” (our software system of automatic detection). We are looking forward for tomorrow and hoping for a good weather and even more sightings. Who knows, maybe we will be lucky and see dolphins and orcas tomorrow !!!!!Read More and View Comments >>