The UK is home to an immense array of marine life—including over 25 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoise— so there is no need to travel far to see these spectacular animals!
ORCA Ocean Conservationists, Maggie and Kelda, joined guests for a week of scenic cruising around the Scottish Islands on board the Balmoral, one of Fred Olsen’s smaller ships. Scotland is of international importance for marine biodiversity as the nutrient rich waters around its coast provide the ideal environment for breeding birds, marine mammals and fish.
Departing from Rosyth in the Firth of Forth and heading for the North Sea, we were soon rewarded by views of the famous Bass Rock. This iconic volcanic plug of an island is home to the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets. The white surface frosting of thousands of nesting pairs was clearly visible. After the distressing scenes of last year's avian flu epidemic, it was a relief to see good numbers of healthy gannets at the various colonies passed on the cruise, including Troup Head in the Moray Firth.
With Shetland and Orkney on the itinerary there were high hopes of adding orca (killer whales) to the list of sightings. Around the world, there are thought to be at least ten distinct groups of orca that differ in their appearance, habitat preferences, diet and even language. Two of these ‘ecotypes’ can regularly be seen in Scotland, so all eyes were peeled for that iconic tall, dark dorsal fin breaking the water. Some pods of the East North Atlantic ecotype (Type 1s) travel from Iceland to the Shetland and Orkney in the summer to coincide with the common seal’s pupping season. Come wintertime, these pods follow the mackerel and herring runs back into colder waters. There’s growing evidence that there are also resident Type 1 orca’s that can be seen here throughout the year and are commonly referred to as the Northern Isle Community.
The Hebrides, on the other hand is home to a single pod of orca, the Type 2s, otherwise known as the West Coast Community. This group is slightly larger, highly endangered and sadly have never been seen with a calf. Orcas are an incredibly mobile species and unfortunately our itinerary timing didn’t co-inside with theirs as we tracked their travels from various social media sites. There are a lot of keen orca spotters around these coasts who are able to identify named individuals from distinctive markings and scars. This has allowed scientists to learn a great deal about their family structure, movements and ever-growing threats. John Coe and Aquarius, thought to be the last two remaining individuals of the group, were seen off Staffa the day before we passed through the same area – call it luck of the draw!
Despite our near miss with orca, we had some excellent sightings the following day leaving the Isle of Lewis. About an hour out of Stornoway, shortly after passing the Tiumpan Head Lighthouse (a highly recommended sea watching location) we were treated to a breaching minke whale, white-beaked dolphin and a pod of common dolphin 30 strong. Local residents often report seeing risso’s, white-beaked dolphin, Atlantic white-sided, common dolphin, orca, harbour porpoise, minke, fin and humpback whales all just from the lighthouse. No wonder it’s often named as one of the best places to see cetaceans in the UK.
Interestingly, an old admiralty map of the area is labelled as "fishing grounds" and the cetaceans would seem to agree with that delineation! It was a thrilling sea watch for all those on deck. This area is recognised for its importance to Risso's dolphin and forms part of an Marine Protected Area (MPA) designated for them and sand eels as migratory species.
Nearby in Skye, local fishermen are taking further action to protect some of our larger marine inhabitants by trialling sunken ground lines.
Baited cages or ‘creels’ are dropped to the sea-floor and used to catch crabs, lobsters and prawns. These lines of cages are connected by a ground line which floats up into the water column, where it can easily snag on animals swimming past.
Around Scotland, minke whales, humpback and basking shark sometimes become entangled in these ropes leading to injuries or death. There is also a vertical rope and buoy to mark the position of the creels but research has shown that most reported entanglements are caused by these floating ground lines – 83% of the minke whales, 76% of the basking sharks and 50% of the humpbacks.
The hot weather in June and consequent warm sea meant there were plenty of jellyfish to be seen. The common moon jellyfish, which is much smaller than the stately, impressive barrel jellyfish, and one to avoid when sea swimming – the orange lion’s mane with long trailing stinging tentacles.
In the sea of the Hebrides, Blue fin tuna were seen, enabled this far north by the warm North Atlantic Drift up from the Caribbean. This splendid migratory species disappeared from British waters by the 1990s due to over exploitation by commercial fisheries. Europe finally imposed fishing quotas allowing some recovery and this fish remains fully protected in Britain. There is an ecotype of orca off the Iberian Peninsula, which relies on blue-fin tuna as a food source, and their numbers were severely impacted by the lack of tuna available for them.
Not only did we encounter some amazing wildlife, it was a pleasure getting to know all the guests onboard the Balmoral. A special thank you to Tom Fox, a fellow ORCA OceanWatcher, who has kindly let us use his photographs for this post.