Sunday, 1 June 2014

SLS Captains Log - Lunging into the new season

Sea Life Surveys blog post, also published here -

Sea Life Surveys' 32nd year of operation is well under way, after Sula Beag went through her annual winter service and was ready to do wildlife excursions by the Easter holidays in April. Team members for the early season include James (Director/Skipper/Maintenance), Richard or Popz (Founder/Skipper), Richard (Office Manager/Crew/Maintenance), Andy Tait (Crew/Proffessor Plankton), Nic Davies (Crew/Guide) and myself, Ewan (Crew/Guide). The SLS family will be extended later in the season as we welcome new additions to the crew.
Sula Beag, 11th May 2014

The resident species were showing well throughout the month on our shorter trips (Wildlife Adventure, Ecocruz and Seal Cruise). Harbour porpoise were seen in small groups in some of their traditional feeding sites. We have had some amazing views of the animals underwater and logging behaviour was seen when the sea state was calm. We are also fortunate to cover some coastal eagle territories on our cruises, as the steep, inaccessible terrain on the north shore of Mull provides perfect, safe nest sites and vantage points for the birds. Our white-tailed eagles were back in a tree nest and the 38-day incubation period was successful, helped by the warm settled weather. The neighbouring and more secretive golden eagles' breeding attempts are also on track, with the birds seen bringing food into their cliff site eyrie, indicating the presence of one or more chicks. Our common seal colonies have had healthy numbers as they prepare to have their pups later in the season. Sea bird numbers are increasing every day, with some species arriving back from the southern hemisphere and even Antarctica to breed in safe, Hebridean isolation. 

We had our first Whalewatch Explorer cruise of the season on the 29th April and, as nature so brilliantly does time and time again, the sightings on this cruise could not have been predicted by anyone. Food is naturally scarcer on the early season trips and the first whales are usually arriving back to their feeding grounds, so to get a glimpse of a minke whale would be a successful first cruise of the year.

We got under way and the conditions were good for spotting marine life, with a light, easterly wind and cloud cover taking glare away from the surface of the sea. We had reached an area nicknamed the 'middle grounds' and, after enjoying good views of porpoise and eagles, Nic Davies made the shout..."WHALE!". Suddenly everyone was alert and concentrating on that area before the whale surfaced off the bow of Sula Beag and we all enjoyed great views of the animal.
Minke whale surfacing, May 2014

We made our way further to the west when James (the skipper) spotted another minke, again off the bow. As we tracked the animal, suddenly one minke became two minkes and two became three! We stopped the engines, slowly drifting and blending into the marine environment, and sat back to observe the truly wonderful wildlife spectacle about to take place. Feeding manx sheawaters began to build in numbers along with even more minke whales and, as the feeding intensified, we viewed whales head lunging (where they surface feed and appear to breach but don't fully show above the surface). Side lunging was also observed. This is where the animal feeds side-on at the surface, showing it's pectoral fins and tail fluke as it drives through the water. In the end we lost count of the number of minke whales as they were surfacing all around us. There could have been up to ten individuals! A truly wonderful moment in nature.

The Whalewatch Explorers leading in to May continued to have good numbers of minke whale sightings, along with healthy groups of interacting common dolphins and a brief encounter with bottlenose dolphins on one cruise. Plankton samples have been very abundant in the early season and healthy shoals of young fish have been seen in shallow coastal areas. Feeding sea birds are increasing with every cruise, which is always a key sign of the abundance of food at the surface and lower down the water columns.

Positive early indicators provide a lot of promise for the season ahead. We can't wait to see how it all unfolds!