You don’t have to travel outside of the UK to enjoy awesome wildlife encounters. Around 28 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises make their homes here, visit to breed and raise their young or travel through to feed on the rich marine wildlife.
At Whale and Dolphin Conservation we run research and education projects and campaign to make UK waters safer for these remarkable creatures. This is my story of spending two weeks in their company.
Living and working in Scotland, opportunities for adventure are on my doorstep and I am fortune that my job looking after WDC’s citizen science project Shorewatch takes me to beautiful coastal spots across Scotland. With a year of work-related travel halted due to the pandemic, I was craving exploration.
One of my favourite places for whale and dolphin watching is Eilean Glas on Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides. From there you can see a variety of wildlife including porpoises, common dolphins, minke whales, seals, gannets and eagles. Looking out over the water to the land masses in the distance you can see Skye, Uists, Lewis and the intriguing and lonely Shiants Isles - a place that has been calling me for years for its history, remoteness, and wildlife.
Much has been written about the bird colonies of the Shiants, It hosts 250,000 puffins, the second largest colony of shags in the UK, guillemots, razorbills, gulls and fulmars. It’s a birder's heaven, but little has been reported about the marine mammals around the three islands and I wanted to understand more and so decided to take some leave from work to explore on my paddleboard.
Getting to the Shiants isn’t easy, which adds to the excitement. It takes three boats, and a leap to shore. As we crossed the Minch in flat calm seas, a pod of common dolphins surrounded our boat and escorted us to the shore.
As I waved off the boat, with my belongings on the rocks at my feet, the reality of being alone on two islands with a combined length of less than five kilometres connected only by a small beach, with no electricity, no shower, no loo hit me and I was beyond excited.
An island that does not see much human traffic makes the wildlife hugely inquisitive and as I took to the water on my paddleboard, thousands of puffins approached me from all sides and I was surrounded by the characterful red footed birds. It was comical listening to their groans as they communicated. As I travelled on my paddle board I marvelled at the shags who circled above me at every sunrise, the wind passing through their wings making a delicate whistling sound. The big draw for most visitors, as well as the puffins, is the guillemot and razorbill colonies. They’d already left, but that allowed me to focus on other species, like fulmars and the smaller rock pipits and wrens and the two families of eider ducks who kept me company as they navigated the bays looking for tasty treats.
The seals were curious about me too. Harbour seals and grey seals swim around the islands and use the impressive rock formations as their haul-out sites. At times I feared they would join me on my board they got so close. They played under my board, showing off how agile they are under the water. Some fun-loving seals took shelter in the caves of the Galtas Islands and seemed to enjoy making bellowing howls and listening back to the echoes. I am glad I spotted the seals before hearing the haunting sounds as it is easy to get lost in the tales of ghosts and spirits also inhabiting the islands.
The bay at the foot of the impressive 100 metre column-like rock formations that make up the cliffs of the northeast of the island is home to at least 40 grey and harbour seals, I spent hours watching youngsters frolicking about in the water with the somewhat lazier adults looking on. White-tailed sea eagles shared this bay with them, young eagles using the sheltered haven to practise hunting while the adults were off hunting on the other islands. My paddleboard sat in the shadow of their two metre wingspan. Eagles were non-existent here just 20 years ago so it was wonderful to see eight eagles calling this island home.
Even though I don’t have an engine on my paddleboard, I can still cause disturbance to marine mammals. So, I make sure that I don’t get too close and I always let them lead the interaction - if they come to me, great, if not I give them space and only watch them for a length of time if I’m at a very safe distance.
The wildlife and scenery I experienced from my paddleboard was incredible, but it was other worldly as I dived into the icy water to take a peek at what was below. Compass, lion’s mane, barrel and blue jelly fish drifted silently past me and small fish played in the colourful varieties of dancing seaweed.
On shore I located numerous spots to give myself the best vantage point to see whales and dolphins out at sea. After several hours of still seemly empty waters, I was beginning to think that perhaps they avoided the islands because of the strong currents that rip around the coast. Then I got a glimpse of the slick, dark grey, triangular dorsal fin of a harbour porpoise. In fact, I saw ten of them! I had 58 separate sightings of porpoises in total and all quite close to shore at the southern and northern headland of the islands. One group came so close I heard their characteristic puffing sound before I saw them. Common dolphins visited in big active pods of about 60. Always making for an exciting display. On my last day, I had decided to camp on Garbh Eilean, the rough island, taking my camping stuff on my paddleboard to my perfect camp spot. I woke up to a fantastic sighting of six Risso’s dolphins and a calf! Sadly due to my temporary campsite, I didn’t have my camera with me to take pictures for WDC Risso’s ID catalogue.
My magical two weeks was a humbling time with little distraction, far from the pressures of a consumption-hungry society. I was reminded of the wonders of the natural world and while removing plastic and other rubbish from the shores, shown the ongoing need for and importance of us humans being mindful of our actions and striving to live in balance with nature.
I would like to give a huge thanks to The John Muir Trust for supporting me in achieving my long-term dream of getting to the Shiants.
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