We’ve had a short but very successful field season with some really amazing encounters here off the North East of Lewis. Just last Monday we had a bumper sighting of a HUMPBACK WHALE! Our team of local Shorewatchers have also had a bumper year of sightings from the Tiumpan Head lighthouse headland that makes up part of our survey area, including ongoing humpback whale sightings all year so far.
My favourite encounter though, was seeing Lucky, a Risso’s dolphin without a dorsal fin (it was chopped off and healed many years ago). We first saw Lucky in 2011 with a calf close by (identifying her as a female) but a colleague of ours has a photo of Lucky from this same area back in 2005. So this area has been important habitat for Lucky for at least 11 years!
We also saw more minke whales than we have in previous years when we were here to deploy our acoustic equipment in June, but they seem to have dwindled in numbers since, the puffins have gone now, few guillemots are still rafting and there are only a few skuas left – the bonxies will soon be leaving for warmer climes too. It’s quieter now out on the water as far as the wildlife goes, as the ‘summer’ season draws to an end.
Yet human activities continue. There is still the familiar sight of one of the local scallop boats dredging along the stretch of coastline that we survey in and trawlers heading further out, leaving from and returning to Stornoway harbour. There is the ferry that crosses the Minch between Stornoway and Ullapool each day and this year there was a mainland boat with divers out looking for scallops each time we went to sea.
There were also more salmon farms installed in the mouth of Loch Erisort than in previous years. Following the disclosure last week of those fish farms around Scotland that shoot seals to protect fish (rather than using more benign methods, such as tensioned nets), we were pleased to see that no seals were shot in Loch Erisort. No doubt the seals we saw were relieved about this too.
Our surveys are conducted to document how important this habitat is, for Lucky and for those other Risso’s who were with her and who are familiar to us, as well as for harbour porpoises and other species – and to make sure it gets the protection it deserves.
Although the acoustic PODs that we have been deploying since 2010 have detected porpoises all year round, we have worked with Edinburgh Napier University to show that porpoises come to Loch Erisort more in the night-time than during the day, and that there are two distinct peaks in their visits that coincide with the herring runs in June and around Christmas.
After many, many years of gathering science, responding to consultations and lobbying governments, we expect a public consultation for UK harbour porpoise Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Scottish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs: to include minke whales and here – off Lewis – for Risso’s dolphins) to open shortly.
Were these MPAs to be designated they would also benefit the other marine life around here if they are well managed. For example, we have also been lucky enough to see soaring sea eagles on most of our surveys and an otter feeding on a small crab. Buck, my dog, also sadly discovered a dead otter on our local beach.
Each year we visit Lewis some individuals are familiar – like Lucky, whilst other things change. What will change from this year to next when we return? Will the proposed North East Lewis Risso’s dolphin MPA and a Minch harbour porpoise SAC be designated here? This would be a great result for the Risso’s dolphins, porpoises, for the other marine species and habitats, as well as for those who live locally or visit and rely upon and love a healthy marine environment – and it would be a great result for us too!