Saturday, 7 June 2014

Swarovski AFON project - May 2014 - Part 1

I am involved in a project with AFON ( who will be sending a pair of Swarovski Companions (8x30) to different naturalists over the course of 10 months and we have to blog about our experiences using the pair including what wildlife and wildscapes we encounter. The blog posts will be displayed on AFONs website and Swarovski's international website. 

I received the pair on the 15th May from Findlay Wilde (read post here), and this is what I have experienced covering Hebridean waters with the Binoculars so far... 

On our recent Whalewatch Explorer cruises we have had some great encounters with common dolphins and on one particular trip (18th May) we had around 200 animals interacting around us and James the skipper deployed the hydrophone and the animals clicks and whistles were played through the on-board loudspeakers. It was a magical moment as experiencing the sounds of nature are just as impressive as viewing the spectacles. 

18th May 2014 - photo courtesy of Richard Darby 
On the 22nd of May we headed out on a Whalewatch Explorer with a moderate easterly wind so the skipper (James) decided to cover the mainlands coastlines for more sheltered waters on the cruise. As we made our way round the 'wild west' of Ardnamurchan and there seemed to be sea birds feeding and foraging everywhere we looked which was very promising signs. After persevering for a while I suddenly noticed a mass of white water in a north east direction so I made sure everyone was focusing in that direction and then suddenly a minke whale breached clean out of the water!! An amazing moment in nature as the whale breached nine times consecutively and moments after a second whale did a solitary breach only a few hundred yards from the boat! This is known as seldom behaviour for a minke whale to do this behaviour and in over thirty years of researching these waters, James and Richard (Sea Life Surveys director and founder) have never observed two separate whales breach in close proximity. Also around 95% of records of minke whales breaching during that time observed by Sea Life Surveys has been in a choppier sea state which contemplates the theory that minke whales prefer to breach in those conditions. 
Breaching minke whale
Another great story in recent weeks was the return of Knobble the minke whale, as we had our first sighting this season of the individual on the 26th May. We had just encountered a hurry consisting of shearwater, kittiwakes and auks which were joined by two minke whales feeding with them. We cut the engines, observed the spectacle and suddenly a third whale surfaced metres from us...Knobble! was shouted almost in sync by myself and Andy Tait!
Knobble has been the most regular whale recorded on Sea Life Surveys cruises in recent years and was first sighed back in 2002! He/she has a very distinct triangular dorsal fin with a knobble on top and tends to be site faithful to one area of sea. 
Knobble the minke whale
Along with getting some fantastic views of minke whales in the early season we have also managed to capture some ID frames of the animals managing a detailed image of both sides of their back and dorsal fin. As encounters increase throughout the season a personal relationship can build up with individual whales and I think it is a inspirational added experience for guests on board when we can show an example of been on first name terns with a wild whale. 

On the bird front we have enjoyed some good views of skuas on passage on a few trips with small numbers of arctic and pomarine skuas seen heading north. Manx shearwaters, kittiwakes and tern numbers are now in good numbers and some very healthy hurry's seen which are interconnected with minke whale sightings. The first European storm petrel was seen on the 2nd May and hopefully their numbers increase as the season progresses. 
The coastal eagle eyries we cover are still active with both white-tailed and golden eagle seen frequenting Mull's coastlines. 
The Cairns of Coll...
A great couple of weeks so far using the Swarovski Companions (8x30). Stay tuned for part two before I send them on to Wildlife Photographer/filmmaker Ester de Roij.