Our first shark popped up as we left Gunna to circumnavigate Coll, and continued up the west coast. Amazingly, we were then joined by nine common dolphins which had spotted us from a distance and had charged towards us, leaping across the water.
Monday: the Isle of Mull (the ferry) landed at Craignure on Mull in bright sunshine, and I arrived in Tobermory in plenty of time before the evening rendezvous with my fellow volunteers and the crew of the research vessel Silurian.
The evening was spent familiarising ourselves with the ship and our cabins and introductions were made: Mat (skipper), Genevieve (mate), Paul (trainee crew/volunteer), Susie (science officer), Russell (volunteer from Scotland), Christian (volunteer from Sweden) and myself.
Silurian and her crew, plus the volunteers, left Tobermory Harbour in the morning and headed south into the Sound of Mull. We made several zig-zagging transects along the Sound, towing the hydrophone behind us. Visual and acoustic observations were made of a few harbour porpoises and we anchored in Loch Spelve on Mull for the night. After visiting the shore and avoiding the midges, we returned to the ship to enjoy our evening meal.
We left Loch Spelve in more sunshine (although the sun is a bit subdued today) and out into the Firth of Lorn, into the Sound of Luing and towards the choppy waters and whirlpool of the Corryvrekan. On our way out of the Corryvrekan we were joined by several porpoises and seals which were waiting at the edge where it was safer; they weren't brave enough to venture further in! We anchored in Loch Sween for the night, sharing our cosy little cove with some seals and went to visit the Fairy Isles. As we paddled between the islands we saw an osprey mugging a heron!
Today was overcast and slightly choppy, which made our transects of the Sound of Jura all the more interesting. Luckily the weather brightened later in the day, and we saw several porpoises and heard even more below the surface on the hydrophone. Volunteers and crew took advantage of the showers available on Gigha where we moored for the night, and we all smelled much fresher. The macaroni cheese was lovely, and so was the sunset.
The wind swung around to the east during the night, which meant that the ship was bouncing as we slept (or tried to sleep!), so we deployed all three sails today as we left Gigha. Silurian carried on along the Sound of Jura and into the Sound of Islay where the winds died and the skipper had to re-engage the engine. We anchored in Loch Tarbet on Jura between the raised beaches, had a lovely meal and another colourful sunset.
We hauled both anchors and left the loch in lots of sunshine. Survey conditions were good, but only one porpoise was seen all day. We anchored at Oronsay and while ashore I saw a large otter trotting across the beach towards the water. He must have been heading towards the ship for his share of the curry we were going to have for dinner.
We left Oronsay and headed for the Ross of Mull. The wind picked up and the sea became quite lumpy as we entered the Sound of Iona. Here we were joined by the large bottlenose dolphins which enjoyed themselves riding Silurian's bow wave so much that they rejoined the party every time we turned around and re-entered the Sound. We anchored in Gometra Harbour, between Ulva and Gometra and enjoyed another quiet and calm night.
Today started with a fleeting glimpse of a huge basking shark followed by a sighting of a tiny (2m) basking shark. Afterwards we headed for Lunga, one of the Treshnish Isles, to visit the puffins. We spent ages communing with the puffins, listening to their growls and taking pictures of their posing. A minke gave us a teasing sighting on the way to our next destination - Fingal's Cave, made up of hexagonal towers of basalt just like the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. We returned to Ulva for the night in an inlet called Crag-aig.
After a quiet start we were joined by at least two minke whales (possibly four) and a very large basking shark which cruised along as we drifted beside it to take identification pictures. Three porpoises joined the fun so we were all kept busy making observations. As we carried on towards Tiree the sightings of basking sharks came thick and fast and by the time we had finished travelling along the west of Tiree we had seen 26. We anchored in Gunna Sound between Tiree and Coll for the night.
Our first shark popped up as we left Gunna to circumnavigate Coll, and continued up the west coast. Amazingly, we were then joined by nine common dolphins which had spotted us from a distance and had charged towards us, leaping across the water. They stayed with us for a short time while the crew took more identification photos and then we carried on around Coll and turned towards the mainland. After a bumpy night last night we chose somewhere sheltered to stay for our last night "at sea", in a lovely small loch called Loch na Droma Buidhe. We had to share the idyll with two other boats, but it was worth it.
Our last day. We made a quick trip to the Cairns of Coll to see whether we could find our friendly common dolphins again, but no luck. We made it back to Tobermory just before the bad weather really set in. In total we saw:
- 59 harbour porpoises
- 6 minke whales
- 3 bottlenose dolphins
- 9 common dolphins
- 32 basking sharks
- 18 seals
I returned to Craignure to rejoin the Isle of Mull ferry to return to the mainland, just as a force 8 gale was settling in! Being back on land was an interesting experience; my sea legs were obviously well "worn in".
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my voyages around the Hebrides. We were obviously very lucky to see so many species and have such nice weather (not always available in the Hebrides!). I hope that I can use the information gathered on my trip for my Oxford University dissertation. The crew of the Silurian and the staff at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust were most helpful and looked after the volunteers very well; we all enjoyed the trip. In addition, many thanks to Hannah Rooley and everyone at Earthwatch for allowing me the opportunity to join the expedition and have an experience that will not be forgotten.
Katie Critchley particiapted on the Whales and Dolphins of the Hebrides expedition in May 2007.