Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Life's a Breach

Sea Life Surveys captain log, also published here - http://www.sealifesurveys.com/captainslog/

The weather throughout May was mainly mild and settled and it is reported to be the third warmest spring in the UK in a hundred years on record. This will of course have an impact and dictate all wildlife at this key time of the year for many species. A big difference to last years spring which had lower than average temperatures, creating delayed seasonal patterns. 

We have welcomed two new crew members to Sea Life Surveys as Johanna has came all the way from Canada to work with us this season and also Rona arrives from Ayrshire to join the team for 2014. 

On our Whalewatch Explorer cruises we have had some great encounters with common dolphins and on May 8th 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. 



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! A minke whale breaching is seldom seen 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. 



Another great record 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 sighted back in 2002!



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 great added experience for guests on board when we can show a direct example of research and also the lovely story of been on first name terms with a wild whale. 

Ewan  

Friday, 13 June 2014

Gowk the Cuckoo

‘Gowk’ has been named by the Broads Authority after a Cuckoo that stars in a new children’s book by John Miles - it is also the Scottish name for Cuckoos.



Saturday, 7 June 2014

Swarovski AFON project - May 2014 - Part 1

I am involved in a project with AFON (www.afocusonnature.org) 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.

Ewan

Sunday, 1 June 2014

SLS Captains Log - Lunging into the new season

Sea Life Surveys blog post, also published here - http://www.sealifesurveys.com/captainslog/

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! 

Ewan