Dolphins and Whales of the Hebrides
Dates: May 15, 2006 - May 26, 2006
Research vessel: The Silurian
The Crew: Duncan the Skipper, Rob the First Mate, Susie the Principal Investigator (the on-board cetacean specialist)
HSBC Volunteers: Raihan from Bangladesh, Joseph (Percy) from India and Samantha from Hong Kong
Diageo Volunteers: Mike from England and Emi from Japan.
Day 0: May 14, 2006
10.40PM: Finally in Scotland following a multifarious combo of long-drawn and almost-missed flights. Can't believe it.
Day 1: May 15, 2006
Boat Location: Tobermory Harbor
Get to the hotel (Jury's Inn) at about 12:30 AM, thinking that it was going be a blissful night of rest and I'd simply pass out after my 16 hour endeavor of flights and stopovers.
Had no idea how wrong I was. Several things got me rolling around in bed nonetheless:
- excitement of actually researching and witnessing events and situations I don't usually deal with ... you know ... being a banker and all.
- nervousness over living in a boat for days and days.
- fear of seasickness
- raving desire to fully soak in the scenery and the beautiful creatures of the Hebridean sea
The day was marked with a decent load of travelling once again, by multiple vehicles. Land journey started off with a bus from Glasgow to Tyndrum to Oban. The landscape proved what was already written about it in the briefing - it truly was an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The way the surface of the hills always had some thing new to show moment to moment, as we went along, was breathtaking. Almost like a rolling natural filmstrip, I saw hillsides with pine trees all of a sudden switching to orangish rock surface, transitioning to a seamless bush, and on and on. Then came the ferry to Craignure that went along the islands, with similar landscape.
Finally, one more bus trip remained, to Tobermory... the rendezvous point and harbour of our research yacht, The Silurian.
The Silurian has seen a lot in its 26 year lifetime. It has changed several hands, before making it to its existing owner, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. This ship was used for recreation, research, fishing, and at one time, it was even confiscated and left in a Fort Lauderdale impound yard for five years, for it's involvement in illegal cocaine trading!
We got an orientation of the boat and project briefing (plus cetacean overview) from Duncan the Skipper and Susie the Principal Investigator.
Quick note: It was fascinating how the restroom facilities worked. Due to dearth of fresh water, conventional flushing is not an option. Therefore there's a manual pump that creates a vacuum once the seat is closed. The vacuum helps in bringing in sea water and flushing out the waste. The catch is that you have to push and pull a pump lever manually 20 times after use. Ingenious though.
We stayed at port, ready to set sail the next day.
Day 2: May 16, 2006
We got a good mashing over the basics of sailing, courtesy of Rob the First Mate, followed by a run down of the research techniques and instruments by Susie.
It was amazing how the entire crew is really into sharing information effectively and simply for us bankers to digest. Show and tell is definitely an effective learning technique. We were to observe cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales), boats, weather conditions, birds, and record the sightings into customized software called Logger 2000, on the on-board PC. Quite high-tech. We were to log the sightings, along with positions, distances from boat, timing (hit 'F1' on the keyboard immediately and it auto-fills... lest we forget) etc. The professionalism in the research tactic was quite engaging and team oriented, as there are two observers on deck, one data collector (with the software) and one coordinator to communicate with everyone, and take sighting of birds. There would be a shift change every half an hour.
... And off we went, a trip from Tobermory Harbor to Oban Port. Susie told us not to expect guaranteed sightings.
We did find tons of birds and made the data recorder's life miserable, 'cos of the tons of birds we saw along the way ... "Sighting! Two birds!" "Sighting... another three birds! Possibly common gulls!" All this went on for about 150-200 birds, till Susie seemingly had just about enough of all the sightings. As an observer, I was quite relieved that the sightings were to be more concentrated.
Mike and Raihan on one of the observer shifts.
The scan continued... a few ferries and yachts (the Scots love their Yachts)... followed by an impatient wait. Then all of a sudden Susie spots two Harbor Porpoises! Then Mike spots another! Relatively, given the rains and overall weather, the numbers were impressive! Why? Well, harbor porpoises do not surface too much. Unlike dolphins, they like to keep to themselves and are generally shy. They tend to travel in small groups, and are quite wary of boats.
The day wrapped up with a presentation on birds to link-up the birds we saw in the day, with the birds mentioned in the presentation. We learned to identify birds by their various shapes and sizes, and distinguishing features. We learned that there's no such bird ... as a seagull .... (what!!!???) ... but it's true. There are various forms of gulls, but people find it easy to just call them all sea gulls.
Warming and wholesome meals, engulfed with engaging conversations about the world (natural, political, philosophical and all), riddled the whole day. We were parked at Oban harbour for the night, where some of us ended up at the Oban Inn for a righteous pint.
Day 3: May 17, 2006
Morning started off with a rundown of acoustic monitoring. The Silurian has two hydrophones which are lowered into the ocean to hear sounds. Sound is then converted to data and thrown into software. It's particularly useful, because, among the whales and dolphins nearby, most cannot be seen at the surface for much of the time. We learned how the cetaceans, use resonating 'click' sounds, which bounce back, to identify landscape prey, each other etc. They 'echolocate' (my my). Porpoises echolocate at frequencies so high, that our backward and limited ears can't even hear. Hydrophones can reduce the frequency, for our slow ears and brains.
Better remember all that, before the upcoming auditory observations.
The boat sailed out of Oban, and observations proceeded, with only birds and ships for the outcome. No whales and dolphins, as the weather wasn't conducive. We found ourselves jumping around like schoolgirls ... in sheer anticipation, but no 'candy'. Oh, and it's freezing.
We anchored at a lagoonish area, at the beautiful series of the Seil Islands.
Day 4: May 18, 2006
I need to start today's entry with an early morning rescue operation endeavor that the crew was involved in at Seil Islands' anchorage point. Mike, who was up at 4:30 am, watched it happen and wrote it all up. Read all about it at Herbridean Whale and Dolphin Trust website.
The day was truly enlightening for me, as I had witnessed the sighting of rare and endangered species ...
The boat journey started off in the afternoon from Seil, heading for a six-hour sailing endeavor to Bunessan, a small village area. We got fully prepared with our wet weather gear, without which we wouldn't be protected from the searing cold and sharp freezing winds.
The Silurian set off, seas were calm and everyone was ok. Shortly after we put up the sails and entered deep waters, boat went right into choppy waves ... and then there was trouble. One of the volunteers got seasick over the back of the boat, and had multiple episodes for the rest of the day.
The boat went on for a while, when I realised I'll need to use the facilities. I came down, took off all my protective gear and went in. Unfortunately, I got terribly seasick. The fact that the boat had another five or six hours to go, and the waters were to be just as choppy (if not more) most of the way, I was certain that I was in deep trouble. The waters were obviously rough enough to render the seasickness medicine I took earlier, useless.
While in a fit of panic, I heard Susie nearby calling out if I was alright. I told her what happened. Then I could hear her and Rob spring into action. Duncan was driving. Susie managed to get me my swim shorts, so that I could be in clean clothes, but the overalls (protective wear), had just about had it too. So, we all found ourselves in a dilemma. I had one of two choices: either stay in and keep constantly being seasick, or stay out in the fresh air, but not be so protected. Then the decision was made. Susie wrapped me up with her sleeping bag and got me out to the deck. The two of them clamped me up to the mast and another side of the boat, using the safety leash, and my life jacket.
Then ... of course, it started raining. So, now I was wedged up on deck, freezing and wet, with nothing but my swim shorts and shirt with windbreakers on, and a sleeping bag. Duncan thought of the most innovative thing he could. He wrapped me up with some sail covers. In the entire long ordeal, Rob, Duncan and Susie were talking to me, being encouraging, supportive, and just overall caring. They were constantly involved in the well-being of both of us, seemingly just as much as the running the boat. Duncan even figured out an alternative route, via the Torren Rocks, so that we could reach calmer waters an hour earlier.
My deepest strength at that moment was derived from the realisation that I was being taken care of by people who not only executed their training, but truly went the extra mile to take care of us.
Once the waters got calmer, I came back inside, kept looking outward, and hoped for the best. The boat got to Camas Tauth, a protective spot, with hilly mountains, and set anchor.
The display of compassion of the crew was uncanny. I do feel that although we did not see dolphins and whales, I learnt a most unique lesson, which I feel would be irresponsible not to pass on.
So, no dolphins and whales, then? What about that sighting mentioned earlier. Well, I sighted the rare and endangered ... decent human beings.
Day 5: May 19, 2006
Today was beautiful. A welcome change from the onslaught of yesterday's ordeal-oriented weather. Because of the wind, Skipper decides to motor all the way to the next route, (The Island of Ulva).
Our route took us through interesting islands of rock and granite formations, especially the Dutchman's Cap. Why is it called the Dutchman's Cap? Because it look's like one. Uncanny sense of originality, one can say.
The Dutchman's Cap
Other than the usual observations, we took turns steering the boat. Most of us sent the boat on a collision course with the rocks, which led to further agitation to an otherwise patient crew. After some "constructive subtle feedback" from the same crew, we were well on our way.
We spotted one grey seal yesterday, which was a major excitement, to a rather usual day. Of course, despite the constant warnings, we all ran up to the sighting point on the deck, creating uneven weight, and thus adding tension to the above-mentioned agitation to the crew.
There were incredible bird sightings from razorbills, large gulls, kittiwakes, terns, guillemots, shags to various other species of birds. We were however also hoping to scope out a flock of birds, in a concentrated spot, because birds sometimes share food with cetaceans. We have trained the eye for that now, bringing us one step closer to being marine rangers (or is it called Principal Investigator nowadays??).
We parked the boat at a cosy and safe spot along in Cragaig Bay, at Ulva. The calmness of the waters was rare, and a couple of seals were spotted towards the dying sunlight.
Day 6: May 20, 2006
The Silurian cast off from Craigaig, bound for the island of Gunne, between Coll and Tiree, which was known to be a great spot for cetacean sightings. The island formations are in the way of the general tide, that comes in from the south west, and Gulf Stream from the northwest.
The formations focus the cross currents, thus creating a healthy balance of warm waters and nutrients from afar, which cetaceans can feed from, and gain shelter in. Amazing how a bit of information like this, combined with marine common sense, can aid us in figuring out where to look.
The heading paid off, because shortly after we set sail, Percy spotted a basking shark (Way to go Percy!). We kept our inclination to crowd at one point of the boat, because the Skipper promised to bring the Silurian about, to take a closer look, which we did get. The shark came up less than 10 metres from the hull, and so we got a fairly close look at the fin and tail. The fin marks can be used in the future to identify whether it's the same shark again or not.
We decided to put up sail, and ended up sailing into a rather windy and rainy area for a short while ... perfect scenario for the ordeal on Day 4 to repeat itself. This time, I stayed up on deck, with protective gear on, hooked up to one of the sides of the boat deck. When the seas got rough, I got into a comfortable spot near the mast, and lay down. The Skipper found an opportunity again to clip me back to the mast, a seemingly favourite safety procedure.
The weather was only rainy half-way, and then it was seamless sailing through tolerable waters, and calm/sunny skies.
The destination? Paradise... in this case the Hebridean Island of Gunne. Like the most exquisite painting you would find in the finest gallery come to life, the island was a perfect synergy between beaches, black rock, emerald waters, grasslands (constantly perked up by winds), and a group of seals (about 11 spotted).
There was one lone house belonging to the owner of the island, supposedly a Marcus D Farrenti. So, we figured, why not go out there and see of Marcus is home? We went onto the island with the Silurian's tender, for exploration, and knocking on the door of Marcus's house. Alas, no one home. Rob gave a small lesson on the anemones, barnacles and limpits that were stuck to the rock. Quite interesting.
Boarded the boat, enjoyed the teriyaki that Sam and Emi worked on, and called it a day.
Day 7: May 21, 2006
Today, we kicked off early in the morning out of Gunna.
We were now hopeful to have some considerable sightings. The acoustics recording also commenced at full swing. Ever so once in a while, our ears were glued to the headphones, which were connected to the hydrophones (via a complex medium of sound card, amplifiers etc.).
The sailing continued as we zigzagged between the Island of Mull and the Island of Coll, up to Ardnamurchan Point. Then, through beautiful weather and a structured exercise of observations, we proceeded up the east of Muck and Eigg islands. Parsnip soup and pasta salad, made by the Skipper, was fabulous.
The whole experience was enhanced when two separate harbour porpoises were spotted off the starboard bow. Side note: I also found out from Rob what "starboard" means, in case anyone ever wonders. "Starboard" originally means "steer board", which used to be attached to the RIGHT side of old galleons. Since the steer board was attached to the right side, the galleon could not be anchored alongside the harbor, from the steer board, or "starboard" side. As a result, the left side became known as the "port" side.
We then made our way past islands of Muck and Eigg, where the sea started getting rough. There I found myself plastered to the deck again, hanging onto dear life, and the Skipper found the opportunity to strap my safety leash to the mast .... yet again! ... for safety purposes ... of course. People generally find it quite funny when the Skipper straps me to the mast, with rough sea water, sprayed all over my nearly dead body. I don't understand why.
We then sailed to Arisaig, where we set anchor at a small harbour. We then dinghied up to the harbour, where I got to delve into a warm plate of scampi, and some local Hebridean ale. Quite nice. Sleep was blissful.
Day 8: May 22, 2006
We spent much of the morning in Arisaig Harbor, due to the on-coming bad weather out at open sea. We went on land to take a look-see at this quaint little town. All the people (not too many compared to what I see back home) were just basking in the rare sun, or having a meal in the only two cafes we could find. There was an air of general peace and tranquility which I'm not used to witnessing.
All of us volunteers were sitting at the Rhu Cafe, second floor, taking pictures and supposedly creating noise (I disagree). The rest of the floor cleared out quite abruptly, and we didn't know why.
Suddenly, we look out of the window, the Skipper and Susie walk by, wearing their sun shades, caps and street clothes, bag of chips in hand, in a posture that seemed like they were about to rob the local convenient store. But anyways ...
Post-lunch, we set sail for Loch Moidart, a protective spot for anchorage, seven miles away. We weren't going to be doing much sailing, due to the unsafe weather.
The sea got rough, even for the short distance, but this time I wasn't bothered. Why? It is because I spent much of the time fixing the Skipper's laptop. I had no choice but to completely focus, because everyone, especially Mike, were just waiting for me to completely fail and make things worse with the laptop, so that they could have yet another go at me. Luckily, after hours of tension of a touch-and-go nature, similar to a doctor's tension just as the surgery is going south, the laptop worked. And, guess what? I avoided getting strapped to the mast this time!
Loch Moidart is eye-candy for the nature-phile. Series of hills, greenery, rock, sediments are all rolled into one out here. The rain was just right, to create a prominent rainbow, rich in colour.
We had a pie/tartar night, where the gang made fish pie for dinner, and apple 'tatin' for dessert, while I was explaining the fixes and enhancements to his laptop. For a bunch that has never made either pie or tatin, we were impressed. Hoping for better weather, we hit the sack.
Day 9: May 23, 2006
We had two choices today, partially due to rough weather. Option 1. We either stay in Loch Moidart, go for a hike up the hills and visit an old Scottish castle. It is rumoured that a world famous business magnate owns the island, and wanted to restore the castle in his summer home. Option 2: We sail out for another five hours, zigzagging past the island of Eigg, to Loch Nevis. We could bypass quite a bit of the weather that way. Loch Nevis was known to have been a site for dolphins.
After much argument among us volunteers, ranging between castle envy all the way to that warm feeling associated when one thinks of dolphins, the decision was made. We went for the sail.
The trip was rough most of the way, past Eigg, and transected towards the Loch of Nevis. The weather significantly improved, as the hills on either side of the Loch, protected us from strong winds. We surveyed the loch for dolphins, but no cigar, despite Mike getting sent up the crow's nest.
At least I got the helm, and drove the boat through the narrow and shallow waterways of the Loch. Doing a careful manoeuvre gave me a decent idea of how the 30 ton boat moves in response to turns of the wheel. I was particularly amazed at the presence of significant civilization, despite the remoteness of the place.
An early dinner, and the day came to an end. We have two more days, and a lot of distance to cover. It is possible that we could end up missing all the return ferries, trains and subsequent flights, due to bad weather on the return. We are all sticklers for risk by now.
Day 10: May 24, 2006
We sat at breakfast, looking forward to a day of good weather ... as our journey was drawing to a close (boat to sail back the next day). The weather report seemed to say that it will be bad in certain areas, but we chalked out a route which may allow us to avoid the bad weather.
Alas, as soon as we set sail, we went into rough winds, even in the protected Loch. Hanging on that preverbal 'thread of life', we quickly looked for another safe spot to anchor.
We anchored at another point at Loch Nevis, for another hot soupy lunch...
3:00 pm ... we poked our eyes out the deck ... like a cartoon rabbit peeking out for trouble before jumping out of it's hole. It seemed okay. We set sail again for another six hours.
The seas were rough ... but we fared well, given our experience.
Anchoring at the unnaturally beautiful Goat Island, on the way back to Tobermory, we spent the night reminiscing of a week well spent.
Day 11: May 25, 2006
We set sail for Tobermory fairly early, with overall satisfaction over the trip along side a looming disappointment for the limited number of sightings. The weather seemed fairly nice, so the sails went up again.
Observations continued, and well, would you know it! Harbour Porpoises! We went on and spotted about six of them! In one sighting, we spotted three! "Thanks for coming out NOW porpoise! Took you a while!" I guess its better late than never. I did want to at least be the first eye for one sighting, which I succeeded in being this day.
We go back to the harbour for a thorough scrub down of the boat. Of course, I opted for cleaning the deck with Rob. How detailed can deck cleaning possibly be? I misconceived the effort it takes, because we ended up taking out the flooring of the cockpit, scrubbing it down, and then scrubbing down both port and starboard, forward and aft, anchor area etc thoroughly with water and a deck brush. Effort was quite tiring, but again, the clean boat gave a momentary comprehensive feeling of completion.
Sam and Emi left at 5pm today, after a serious of team snapshots, and the rest of us opted for dinner, a walk-around and pub excursion at the harbour. The pub was great. I was telling Mike that the guy at the pool table was Bangladeshi. He thought it was impossible. He was wearing an earring, a shiny chain (in street terms, "bling bling"), tight jeans and an overall Marlboro Man look. He challenged me to a friendly wager, for the same, and went up to ask the guy. Moments later, he was back ... wallet open.
Day 12: May 26, 2006
We were almost late for the bus, but made it at the VERY last minute, scuttling about ... luggage all over the place. Percy and I said goodbye to Mike at Oban, and finally went our individually separate ways, at Glasgow airport. Another experience ended ... only to commence a lifetime of ever lasting memories...
Raihan E. Huq is an HSBC Bangladesh corporate fellow who participated in the Whales and Dolphins of the Hebrides expedition in May 2006.