Surveying along the West Coast- part II

Here’s the second Silurian trip account, from Group 2 (Laura, Lauren, Devi, Alex and Naomi) – Written by Naomi Tuhuteru:

Day one (25th May)

We set off from St Andrews with a beautiful drive across the Highlands to the West coast and the town of Oban. From there we enjoyed a sunny crossing with the ferry and a bus trip across the scenic Isle of Mull including views of playful highland coo calves. In Tobermory, we bumped into some of our classmates from group 1 who were sporting the marks of a great sunny day at sea: big smiles and sun burn! They were still riding the endorphin rush of having had an incredible encounter with a minke whale earlier that day, which you can read (and see!) all about in their blog entry. Their stories got us all even more fired up, so we headed to the Silurian where we were greeted by the cheery crew of three (skipper, first mate and science officer) who gave us a detailed introduction to our new floating home and the survey protocols for both visual and passive acoustic data collection. A cooking schedule was made and groceries were loaded before a pasta dinner appeared, and we called it an early night in happy anticipation of our first full day on the water.

Tobermory at sunset (photo: Alex Carroll)

Day two (26th May)

The next day we were cheerfully woken up by the crew with upbeat music and an assortment of cereals and our great friend: coffee! With a sunny and colourful Tobermory behind us we were all exited to start our adventure.

Sunny start to the survey (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

There were plenty of birds around the boat, but we were all scanning the water for the first marine mammal sighting. Devi was the first to spot a single harbour porpoises pop up briefly on the port side of the boat. We did not have to wait long until we heard the words everybody had been waiting for: “SIGHTING! 90 degrees, 300 meters…..MINKE WHALE!!” The crew grabbed cameras to photograph the animal in hope of capturing identifiable marks, whilst the skipper carefully approached the whale. All fell quiet on deck as everybody was concentrating on scanning the water around the boat in the hopes of spotting the whale again. After a few minutes the obligingly whale re-surfaced and was greeted by the frantic clicking of our cameras.

First minke whale sighting (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

After a while the crew noticed a huge container ship approaching fast, so in order to give the minke whale some space and get on a safe course we moved away and went back on our transect. No more marine mammals showed themselves after that but the day remained beautiful and sunny.

Lauren and the Silurian crew (photo: Alex Carroll)

By the early evening we were all really tired. It’s remarkable how tiring it can be to stand in the sun all day long staring at the sea. After a dinner of what-was-supposed-to-be-improvised-paella-turned-improvised-risotto we were all ready for bed. However, before we could call it a night we were briefed on an extra element for tomorrow’s survey. In addition to recording marine mammal, creel and marine debris data like we did today, we would also be collecting data on sea birds and surrounding vessels, giving us more to look at and keep track of.

Day three (27th May)

The next morning we were all a bit sleepy-eyed but soon perked up after a hearty breakfast and our first coffees. We soon geared up in our waterproofs in preparation for a rainy day. From the moment we got out on deck we saw lots of birds: razorbills, guillemots, gulls and gannets were all flying around our boat. As the day progressed the wind calmed down, making it easier for us to spot animals in the water. We saw harbour porpoises again, but this time in small groups of up to 3 individuals at a time. In the afternoon the wind died down completely and we were treated to a mirror-like sea surface with only the occasional light drizzle causing tiny ripples. With such great sighting conditions our anticipation for spotting marine mammals grew, and we started to catch glimpses of the small triangular dorsal fins of harbour porpoises and spotted grey seals ‘bottling’ – where the seal was bobbing vertically in the water with its snout pointing skywards.

Bottling grey seal (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

As time went on we started to question our whale spotting skills but then luckily the first minke whale of the day appeared. We spotted several more minke whales, with one particularly sneaky one only seen for a couple of surfacings. We also saw the less common variety of the bridled guillemot which even the non-birders on the boat found pretty awesome.

Spot the bridled guillimot amongst the normal variety (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

the survey the crew offered to take us ashore on the Isle of Coll to do a bit of exploring – although we were quite tired we decided that this was too good an offer to pass on so soon we headed for shore. Several curious seals escorted us from the anchored Silurian to the beach. On land we walked past sheep to a castle (Breachacha?) and explored the vicinity.

Group 2 in front of the castle on the Isle of Coll

After a day of recording only occasional rubbish during the survey, we were sad to see this beach covered in marine debris, from plastic bags to long pieces of plastic rope that could easily cause an entanglement tragedy for marine life, especially birds and seals. Finding so much litter on a relatively remote beach reaffirmed how important it is to reach out to people, make everyone aware of disposing their rubbish properly and help reduce the amount of plastic waste that finds its way into the sea.

Marine debris on the beach on the Isle of Coll (photo: Naomi Tuhuteru)

On our way back to the Silurian, we attempted to row instead of using the engine hoping that a quieter boat would attract the seals to come closer. However, even after channelling our best inner-Pocahontas we really weren’t getting anywhere, nor were the seals getting closer, so the outboard engine was fired up to get us back to our floating home. That evening we got to enjoy a very impressive burrito buffet! To end the successful survey day we enjoyed some Scottish whiskey and played some very painful rounds of ‘Irish slap’ – which is a card game where you get to slap each other on the hand – the crew definitely played with an iron fist as Lauren can attest…

 Day four (28th May)

Our last day on the Silurian. We were all pretty much into the routine by now: have breakfast, gear up and get out on deck to scan the water. The rain had stopped but the cloud remained. Soon we encountered the famous three of our trip again: grey seals, harbour porpoises and a minke whale which was still every bit as awesome as it was on the first day. During our breaks from surveying we started to pack our stuff in preparation for disembarking the Silurian in the afternoon. By the time we sailed into Tobermory the sun had broken through the clouds and we got to enjoy a sunny ‘last lunch’ out on deck. Then it was time to say goodbye to the crew and check into Tobermory hostel for the night. We briefly met the next group of students.

Sailing on Silurian (photo: Alex Carroll)

We had a lot of fun together on the boat and really enjoyed learning the ropes of visual and passive acoustic surveys, but we all agreed after 3.5 days that we were now ready to go back home with our fresh tans and great new memories to start tackling our dissertations.

Back in Tobermory (photo: Alex Carroll)