Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A fluke encounter

Whilst on holiday on the west coast of Scotland recently we pawned wedding rings and our first born to fund a whale watching trip out of Gairloch with the excellent Hebridean Wildlife Cruises. Within an hour we had made contact with a Minke Whale just beyond the mouth of the mighty sea loch.
The snout breaks the surface first in the Minke Whale's dive sequence
I didn't expect to be photographing Whale nostrils last week!
Then a long body roll...
...revealing the bulk of the animal and a sharply curved dorsal fin
A more distant view
A big beast, we could see the white sides as it came close to the boat
Minke Whale seen here with the mountains of Wester Ross in the background
The first sighting was distant, but the inquisitive Minke took everyone's breath away by surfacing just yards from the rib. A second individual was seen before we headed out across The Minch for a close look at the Shiant Islands.
A throng of Auks at the base of the cliffs on the Shiant Islands 
Over 60,000 pairs of Puffin breed on the Shiants... over 10,000 pairs of Razorbill...
...18,000 pairs of Guillemot (this one a Bridled Guillemot)...
...and 1,700 pairs of Shag
Razorbill in flight
Razorbill just getting airborne
I was fortunate enough to land here back in 1999, and although we could not leave the rib on this trip, it was great to return to find the huge colonies of Puffins and other auks apparently still doing well. The 'Enchanted islands', which are closer to Lewis than the mainland, hold approximately 10% of the UK's breeding Puffins and 7% of its Razorbills so they really are a vitally important location for seabirds.
A few pairs of Great Skua breed on the islands
A menacing presence for the other seabirds
Common Dolphin in The Minch
Grey Seals inspected our boat closely
A large Grey Seal on the Shiants
A large Kittiwake colony was also present
Small flocks of Manx Shearwater passed us in The Minch
Unfortunately the island also became home to over 3,000 non-native Black Rats which cause havoc with the ground-nesting birds. In recent years the RSPB, SNH and the Nicolson family, who own the islands, have been working together on an eradication programme. This appears to be bearing fruit as 2016 was a good breeding season for seabirds. While not too many Puffins were at their burrows during our visit, there were certainly thousands on the sea around the base of the cliffs.
The sole habitable dwelling on the Shiant Islands, once owned by Whisky Galore author Compton Mackenzie
Our vessel for the whale-watching trip
Basalt columns on the Shiants

Approaching the Shiant Islands with Lewis in the background
The mountains of Wester Ross from The Minch
Looking back to the mainland from The Minch
The view of Skye and the Old Mann of Storr from The Minch
My crewmates were happy but a bit saddle sore after 4 hours on the water
The long journey back was punctuated by the occasional passing Bonxie, small groups of Manx Shearwater and a small pod of Common Dolphin. A great experience in a memorable week for close encounters with mammals.
George is in there somewhere

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