I’m stationed for a month on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. We’ve run a successful field research project here for 12 years and have already succeeded in getting the Scottish government to create protected areas, including for the Risso’s dolphins who live around this incredible island. But that’s not my story here. This is tale about some rare dolphin visitors who got into trouble in the harbour and were rescued by an inspiring show of human teamwork.
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On Monday 9th August, my colleague Nicola and I were walking our dogs, Buck and Oli, in the grounds of Stornoway Castle when we saw fins surfacing in the narrow waters at the far end of Stornoway Harbour, past all the pontoons and boats. Grey seals can often be seen basking in the shallow waters, usually on the look-out for a free fish dinner, but this is not a place for dolphins.
A jogger had stopped beside us, and several people had gathered on the other side of the harbour to watch in wonder. Mobile phones were focused on the water in front of us, where the dolphins were just metres away.
Three, four, five fins surfaced. They were very active and circling in a small area – and look! There is a very small calf, maybe even a newborn. Later, when the light changed, I saw the little dolphin’s distinctive foetal folds (marks on a newborn dolphin’s body where the skin has been crumpled in the womb).
The dolphins’ large, sickle-shaped fins were different to those we were used to encountering when we’re out on the research boat, just a few miles out to sea from this very spot. These were not Risso’s, commons, or bottlenose dolphins. What species could they be?
Nicola, with more of an eye for detail than me, spotted the colouring on the side of the young calf and declared them to be Atlantic white-sided dolphins, a species we have never seen at sea in 12 years of surveys off Lewis. Although the waters of Scotland are part of their natural range, they are typically found offshore in deep waters.
It was amazing to see these wonderful, beautifully patterned dolphins, the first time I have ever seen this species, but very sad to see this small pod of dolphins here in the harbour, so far from their natural habitat and very obviously in trouble.
We started to get text messages and phone calls from local people that we work with. News travels fast and everyone on the island knew about the unusual sighting. Before long a large crowd had gathered and everyone looked on in wonder. A representative from British Divers Marine Life Rescue was soon on the scene. The dolphins had not moved far, the pod continued to huddle together in the same stretch of water and we monitored them as the tide went out, hoping they would find their own way out of the harbour. One of the adults appeared to be listing to one side occasionally, and I wondered if that was perhaps what brought them into this unlikely place. Apparently they had first been spotted in the harbour at about 6am, so they had been here for a few hours now.
There were easily a hundred people watching from the harbourside and wishing the dolphins well. The harbour master, Police Scotland and coastguard all turned up at the scene to ensure everyone’s safety.
Then what we had dreaded happened. The young calf became separated and stranded in the shallows, amongst the mud and kelp.
The other dolphins followed in quick succession and before long all the dolphins were out of the water and struggling in the seaweed, and it was now clear that there were more dolphins than we had first thought - nine individuals in total.
Several visitors to the island had already donned their wetsuits (or not) and they, along with a few locals, got into the shallows and maneuvered the dolphins, starting with the young calf, back into the water. The dolphins were not stranded for more than a few minutes and only appeared to have suffered a few small abrasions.
Shortly after the dolphins were back in the water, and circling in the same spot as before, the RNLI appeared in the harbour on a small RIB. The two RNLI volunteers slowly and expertly maneuvered their vessel around the dolphins. Patiently, they moved behind the dolphins and gently guided them towards the harbour entrance.
The pod split and five of the dolphins disappeared back out to sea. The RNLI slowly led the remaining four dolphins, including the mum and calf pair, slowly out of the harbour and out to open water. The dolphins and then the RIB disappeared around the corner of the harbour entrance. The crowd quickly dispersed.
We didn’t see the dolphins again that day, or the next when we got out to sea on a boat survey, and we really hope they made it safely back to deep water and are happy and healthy, with their brief encounter in Stornoway Harbour a distant memory.
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