Surveying along the West Coast of Scotland

Each year our MSc students get to spend some time on the West Coast of Scotland to gain practical skills surveying for marine mammals. Three groups of students joined the team from the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin trust aboard their vessel Silurian.

Here are the students’ stories:

Day 1 (Day of arrival)

On Tuesday the 22nd May the first group of MSc Marine Mammal Science students travelled from St Andrews to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull to embark on a short field expedition with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT). At 6pm we were greeted by the crew at the pier of Tobermory and boarded out floating home for the next 3 days: the SV Silurian. After a brief trip to shore for supplies, and an impressive dinner of fajitas with all the trimmings (not an easy task considering the size of the kitchen!) we headed to our bunks in preparation for our early start the next day.

Walking along in Tobermory main street (photo: Lacey Brandt)

Day 2 (First full day at sea)

At 7:30 am the team had toast and coffee and got suited up to leave Tobermory Harbor. The boat crew allowed one of the students to climb (wearing a secure harness) to the top bucket platform on the mast (affording great views from up there). As we set off on our journey, a BBC film team and a Greenpeace boat sailed alongside of us for thirty minutes while taking videos with a drone and cameras for a TV show about the HWDT’s research on cetaceans and Greenpeace’s research on micro plastics.

Greenpeace ship keeping us company for short filming session (photo: Lacey Brandt)

The first day was a little rough with rain, wind and seasickness from shifts working under deck on the computer, but we worked through it as a team. Keen observers spotted a group of three harbour porpoises! The crew anchored the boat off the Isle if Rum and ended the day early.

Kinloch Castle & deer (photo: Lacey Brandt)

The crew took us ashore by dingy and we enjoyed a nice walk past the quaint general store and  the slightly bizarre Kinloch Castle with one of the famous Rum red deer picturesquely grazing in front of it.

It was our turn to cook and we pulled off a yummy vegetarian Indian-inspired dinner with rice. The night ended with a few games….

Dinner…. (photo: Lacey Brandt)

Day 3 (Second day at sea)

This second day we were better prepared for what was coming… after spending the night in a sheltered bay on the Isle of Rum, we headed out into the bad weather and turned northward towards the Isle of Skye, but this time with seasickness pills in our stomach! And again, we spotted a few harbor seals, porpoises, and lots of sea birds, which provided welcome ‘distractions’ during our foggy trip.

Looking for marine mammals…. (photo: Claudia Auladell Q.)

But at the end of the survey our efforts were rewarded by a pod of common dolphins bow-riding the Silurian giving us a chance to enjoy their company for half an hour and to take plenty of pictures (with selfies of Pablo and the dolphins included) and make nice videos. By the end of the day the crew decided to anchor in a bay on the mainland south from the Isle of Skye, with a sandy beach that looked like paradise and lots of terns flying around!

Common dolphin (photo: Sanne Bakkers)

Day 4 (Final day returning to Tobermory)

After wind, fog, drizzle, and quite a choppy sea, finally came the sunshine. The kind of weather we were all hoping for. Heading back to the harbor of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, we surveyed under a blue sky with mostly clam sea conditions. Early on the day we spotted loads of harbor and grey seals, and some harbor porpoise. Our last day was also a whale day, with a total of three minke whales, including one unexpected and startlingly close approach (5m for the Silurian!) by one of the whales. By far the highlight of the day, and one of our favorite encounters of the trip.

Minke whale with white “mitten” on flipper visible underwater (photo: Sanne Bakkers)
Catching a minke whale up close with the camera (photo: Sanne Bakkers)

After returning to Tobermory we enjoyed lunch in the sun before briefly meeting the next MMS student team who were ready to embark on their trip.

Written by MMS Group 1: Pablo, Jules, Claudia, Sanne, and Lacey