Surveying marine mammals on the Scottish West Coast

Each year our MSc MMS students get to spend several days aboard the HWDT‘s research vessel Silurian to learn visual and acoustic surveying techniques and contribute to the long-term data set that the HWDT has collated over the last 13+ years. Here are the reports from each of the student groups:

Silurian Group 1

After a fairly arduous day’s travel, we made it to the port in Tobermory where we soon found the Silurian and hopped on board. We met the crew of HWDT science officer Dr Conor Ryan, first mate Mikey, and skipper Edd, and were given a tour of our accommodation for the next 3 days. Conor then gave us a quick talk about our roles during the ship surveys while Mikey served up the first of our many top notch meals aboard the Silurian.

Harbour porpoise ((c) HWDT)

The next day, we were up early and eager to start our surveys. Right off the start, sightings of occasional harbour seals, grey seals and harbour porpoise gave us a hint of what the trip had in store, as did the seemingly endless flow of snacks and sandwiches! Luckily, a lack of any strong winds meant we were able to make our way right up to the Isle of Skye where we spent our second night, passing between the isles of Eigg and Rùm. On approach to Skye and Soay, our first large cetacean, a young minke whale, appeared just off the bows, accompanied by a large number of harbour porpoises. Although usually shy animals, the porpoises did not seem to be affected by the presence of our boat, giving us a rare opportunity to see these animals up close. The minke whale was similarly obliging, giving us plenty of opportunity for some photos – only once we’d come off effort of course. The day ended fittingly as we moored in front of the stunning scenery of Skye.

Common dolphins ((c) HWDT)

The next day, we were again fortunate with the weather, meaning we could pass the Isle of Canna then head back towards Eigg. The day started much like the previous one had ended, with the young minke whale sighted again in much the same area as we had first found it. The day continued in much the same vein as the first, with frequent harbour porpoise, harbour and grey seal sightings along our course. As we began to turn towards Eigg, we came across a small pod of between 5-10 common dolphin, including at least one mother-calf pair, who followed the boat and even started bow-riding.

That evening, we decided to head into Eigg to see what island life was like. Sadly, the shop was closed, but luckily the pub was still open, with around 15 of the island’s 87 inhabitants enjoying the evening sun. After a quick drink and discussion with the locals, we headed back to the Silurian for the customary “plankton party”, an examination of the less visible local marine life under microscope. Another full day of sightings in the bag, we hit our bunks sad in the knowledge that it was our last night aboard.

However, our luck hung around right to the very end. As we returned to Tobermory, greeted by near perfect sighting conditions, we spotted a full grown minke whale, once again accompanied by a cohort of harbour porpoises. This rounded off a truly fantastic trip, a great way to end the taught section of the master’s program. Huge thanks are in order for such a successful trip. Conor imparted a vast amount of knowledge of the local wildlife, Mikey kept us very well fed throughout the trip (including 2 homemade cakes!), and personally I have to thank Edd for vastly expanding my paltry knowledge of knots while aboard. It’s fair to say that our shipmates were a huge part of making this trip special. Many thanks also to our MSc and the University of St Andrews for making the trip possible. Having returned to St Andrews, I’m already missing being out at sea, and of course the second breakfasts. But we’ve all returned refreshed and ready to get our research projects underway!

Group 1 (Sheyka, Clare W., Caroline, Lainie, Marco and Aran)



Silurian & common dolphins ((c) HWDT)

Silurian Group 2
After a long day of travelling, we were welcomed to the Isle of Mull and the Silurian by a delicious homemade dinner on the boat. We then headed to the pub to have a farewell drink with the first group. On the first day at sea we headed around the Isle of Mull and towards the south west of the island. Within an hour of surveying wehad already spotted a minke whale. As we continued our journey we started to see a few dolphins and we soon realised we had a pod of over 300 common dolphins surrounding the boat. They were bow riding and leaping in the air! Amazing!

Risso’s dolphins ((c) HWDT)

Not knowing how we could top our first day, we were off to a good start on day two when a minke whale was spotted as we sailed towards Tiree. It surfaced quite close to the boat, giving everyone a great view of the shiny grey body! It all went quiet for a few hours but then far in the distance tall dorsal fins were sighted. As we approached with fingers crossed that it could be Risso’s dolphins we saw the scarred bodies and blunt faces, and our hopes were confirmed. There were 15 dolphins leaping, tail slapping and swimming close to the boat. It was truly fantastic! But how would that be topped by day 3? Well…..flat, calm, glassy seas and a super pod containing hundreds of common dolphins bow riding and whistling next to the boat did the trick!

Our trip on the Silurian exceeded all expectations: not only were the sightings and sea conditions amazing but the crew wSilurianGr2_0641ere warm, friendly and extremely welcoming! Frazer, Ed and Mikey were brilliant; cups of tea were delivered throughout the day to keep us going, cakes were baked, the second breakfasts were always delicious, and during dinners and evenings we were entertained by some hilarious stories! The trip would not have been the same without them! So thanks HWDT, Silurian and the crew for a lovely trip!

Group 2 (Sarah, Miranda, Raffaela, Janneke and Clare O.)



Minke whale ((c) Clair Evers)

Silurian Group 3

Group three had a memorable trip full of marine mammals, island adventures, swimming, and getting splashed (or soaked) on the bow while surveying. We encountered a really friendly minke whale who swam around the Silurian. We got a great view of its characteristic white pectoral fins and even got a glimpse of its face as it lifted its jaw out of the water. More importantly, we all got great pictures of the dorsal fin which can be used to ID individuals. We were also blessed with a group of over 100 bow-riding common dolphins full of many mother-calf pairs. Other sightings included multiple porpoises. We also saw

Common dolphins ((c) Clair Evers)

many grey seals and one harbour seal. All of us furthered our birding skills by identifying the wide range of birds present around the Scottish Isles. We identified guillemots, fulmars, gannets, razorbills, and terns. To the acoustics students’ delight we got to see porpoise clicks on PAMGuard and heard lots of snapping shrimp.

 We were so exhausted by our intense surveying that we even forgot our fellow classmate up the mast in the crows nest after an eventful day of sightings (ooops!).  We landed on both Canna and Coll islands. Interestingly, Canna has an honesty shop that is open to tourists and islanders which we got to explore. We also stumbled upon a small museum on Canna which displayed many island treasures such as pottery and work by the local school children.

The curious otter ((c) Clair Evers)

 We were all sad to leave the Silurian and its lovely crew but were delighted to discover our hostel in Craignure was surrounded by more wildlife! We were super lucky and spotted an otter who proceeded to gulp down a fish in front of our unblinking eyes. After retiring for the evening in the hostel common room the owner let us know that there was a deer in the ocean! It was a great end to such a wonderful trip.

 Group 3 (Riona, Jo, Pauline, Sam, Alicia and Claire)