Whales and dolphins of the Moray Firth, Day 3, 2 June 2008
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2 June 2008 - They call him Flipper, faster than lightning - Day 3

#2 Seatown Road.

It was a damp foggy morning. I wondered if we would go out today. I hope so, that was pretty cool yesterday. After breakfast, it was over to the office, a little writing, calls to home, and ok, what do you have for us? They seemed hopeful about going out. The sea was still a little rough and the weather wasn't ideal. Maybe to the west was better, but things we wanted to see were probably east. There is probably a little pressure to take opportunities for us to see things, given the unpredictably of the weather, it might be lovely the rest of the week or it might be horrible and too dangerous to go out even one more time. But we will try today and see how it goes.

Foggy morning.

We have a lecture on whale and dolphin identification, different species and how they are similar or different, how to identify each of them, and which ones we are likely to see. I think I have a lot of it down, but probably won't actually know until I see something. At least now I think I could tell if it a porpoise or a dolphin or a whale. Maybe not which particular type of each but I will probably do better than just pointing and saying umm, I think there is something out there.

Suiting up, Ellie and Stephen.


Ellie, Soo, Dale, and Stephen.

Our group is going to go down to Whitehills to take Ketos, which is in the harbor there, while the other one is taking Orca II from Gardenstown. We pack lunches and drinks. And pack the rest of the stuff, we might be at sea for a few hours, or if it is really nice and there are lots of things to see, we could be there for lots of hours. You just don't really know.

Packing the truck has its own very specific procedure, how to fold the dry suits, what gets packed in each box, how you load everything. Seems picky but makes sense when you are at sea and knowing where everything is and that it is properly stowed. Whitehills is like 10-15 miles west of Gardenstown. Generally, the surveys cover about four different routes (mostly closer and further out to shore to cover different depths) each looking for different things up and down the part of the coast they cover. Our boat is mostly looking for minke while the other one is primarily looking for dolphins. Andreas has some of his whale tagging stuff along, this year they hope to tag some whales with radio equipment to get some data about their diving patterns.

Kevin and Pine loading the trailer.

Harbor at Whitehills.

In Whitehills, we have a picnic lunch at the picnic table overlooking the harbor. We learn the secret code for the harbor office and take the all important toilet break. Dry suits are not terribly forgiving of things like that. (See a few days later and Andreas' predicament.) Suited up now. I'm slowly getting the hang of the suit. It is still unpleasant to have something around your neck like that all day, probably doesn't help with feeling sick having that choking sensation all the time. But at least it isn't as fearful pulling that rubber collar over your nose anymore.

Heading out of Whitehills harbor.

Out to sea now. All this stuff takes so much time, getting stuff stowed, getting things uncovered, and then slowly cruising out of the harbor. Well, in this case, Andreas had forgotten his tagging poles so we have to circle around and tie up at a ladder and let him run and get them.

Minutes out of the harbor, Duncan, and his eagle eyes, or is there an animal at ground (ocean) level more appropriate for uncanny sighting ability? But dolphins at, well something o'clock. Sweet. The chase is on. We follow them at a bit of a distance for a while. Probably about two hours in total. Our boat isn't the normal dolphin boat, our mission is meant to be minke, but you take what you find.


And gannets.

Pine keeps her distance and waits for the other boat to catch up with us and let them take over sighting. Kevin knows lots of the dolphins by sight and has the camera equipment for taking pictures to make sure the fins can be matched in their database and updated and their associations with other dolphins. Many of the fins, pretty much the only thing you regularly see out of the water, have pretty distinctive shapes, bites out of them at different spots, patterns of scratching, and other things which act as a sort of fingerprint to identify them. By logging those and which of them swim together, you can query those and find about the social structure of the groups of dolphins.

The other boat moving in to start identifications.

Today we come across 8 dolphins and 1 calf. It is pretty cool seeing them. But it isn't all fun. Pine barks out, I need counts, where are they, what are they doing, count them again, tell me where they are, and so on for a few hours as we follow them up and down the coast. But eventually we call it a day. We have enough data and we should let them be for now. And it is getting late and the seas roughen up a little bit. We decide to switch boats in Whitehills and let the other group drive back and we will go by sea to Gardenstown.

We open up the throttle and beep beep beep. Hmm, that doesn't seem like a good sound to have a mile out from shore. The warning light has a helpful message like seek assistance from manufacturer. We radio the other boat and Kevin thinks our oil fiter is clogged and we should be ok but we might not get full RPMs out of the engine. This clearly must be the case when we see Ellie driving the boat behind us hauling ass and overtaking us quickly.

Getting into the harbor then is, umm, interesting. Andreas gets a rather terse lesson on boat handling but we make it and get tied up and nobody is harmed in any of this. We make a quick change of the equipment, run and take toilet breaks and load back onto the other boat. Pine isn't feeling great so she decides to call it a day and Dale takes over as our skipper.

There is a single seal waiting for us outside the harbor. It peeks its head up a few times and then we move on. We motor back to Gardenstown pretty quickly and don't really see much on the way. We investigate a few possible bird rafts but don't see anything. Bird rafts are big concentrations of birds, floating on the water and especially if they are excited and circling in the air and diving in the water. It can mean there are fish and sand eels there, but it can also mean that there are whales or dolphins there in the water stirring them up, rounding them up, feeding, and the birds take the opportunity to pick off whatever heads up to the surface. We zoom on, the sun behind us breaking through the clouds makes stunning sun beams in the sky. Wow, it is nice to be out here.

Seal. Slow motoring in the boat

Lovely light in the back.

We pass Gardenstown and head out past Troup Head. Troup Head is just amazing from the water. It is the only onshore gannet colony in the UK and it is really a sight. There are thousands of gannets circling over the sea, in front of the cliffs and nested up in the cliffs. There are thousands of white dots flying around, it reminds me of those Star Wars films where they show some big industrial planet, with all the spacecraft zooming around the cities.

Amber looking at Troop Head.

And the gannets that come close, wow. I loved all the guillemots we saw all week, the razorbills, and the rest but my heart really belongs to the gannets. They are just lovely, white and yellow wing tips and the way they fly and then fold their wings and dive into the sea. Amazing creatures.

Zillions of gannets.

Ok, since I'm writing this after the project completed and left Gardenstown, I have a little confession. I might have been slightly distracted by the birds a little bit when we were at sea. The mammals were wonderful and I worked hard looking for them, keeping a watch, but I think I might have been happy just going out and looking at the birds. There were loads of them. I love how the guillemots all seemed to dive in unison as we approached them, 10 in a row, blip, all under water. Such pretty shapes. But ok, luckily a big presence of birds could indicate a presence of cetaceans, so it all worked in my favor then.

Loads of gannets on the cliffs.

Dale and Amber.

Saw the birds, no mammals about, so back to Gardenstown, zipping back. Amazing boats, they can really move when the sea is calm and you open them up. Dinner has been started by the other group, who arrived back a bit before we did. Fijitas and beer and wine. I think the night ended slightly earlier than others. Lots of sick and tired people.

The weather was a little unpredictable, so there are some vague plans for tomorrow. If it is chucking it down and horrible out, meet at 10ish and we will find something to do (distillery tour or something) or if it seems nice, sleep in a bit, take the morning off and be ready for sea in the afternoon. Bedtime then. Back to the sleeping bag and more sniffling and coughing at night.