Monthly Archives: June 2021

Over the sea to Skye

(Blog post written by Sally Tapp)

It’s amazing how time flies when you’re on fieldwork!

I have been on Skye for three weeks now (although it feels like about five minutes) and have settled into a lovely routine.

Firstly, to introduce myself. My name is Sally Tapp and I graduated from SMRU with a Master’s in Marine Mammal Science in 2013. Since then, I have worked in the marine conservation sector on a variety of different projects. It all started with a traineeship at Cumbria Wildlife Trust where I had the opportunity to live on Walney Island, just off the coast of Barrow-in-Furness, and study the colony of grey seals that live there. Following this, I headed to Aberdeen and the RSPB’s Dolphinwatch project, focussing on the east coast population of bottlenose dolphins that can be seen regularly at Aberdeen harbour. After that, back down south of the border I worked for Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas Team on a long-term project to secure the designation and management of Marine Conservation Zones around England and Wales, with the aim of protecting vulnerable marine species and habitats and halting any further decline in the condition of our marine environment. Before starting my new role here with the Harbour Seal Decline Project, I was based at the Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats, working for Newcastle University as their Marine Education Officer.

Now to the interesting part…. The photo ID data collection here on Skye is all done from a small wooden boat run by Dunvegan Castle. During the summer months they run a highly popular seal trip around the inner skerries of Loch Dunvegan, giving tourists the chance to get up close to the harbour seals and see these beautiful animals hauled out on the seaweed, and relaxing in a way that only seals can!

This is an ideal platform from which to collect photo ID data and in previous years we have been able to join a seal trip when there is room on the boat and collect the photo ID data as it tours around the skerries. Tourists have had the opportunity to find out about the project and view the photo ID catalogue to identify some of the seals they can see whilst out on the loch. This has been invaluable, and we are grateful to Dunvegan Castle and their wonderful boat skippers for allowing us to do this.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this season has been a little different and the boats are not running for the tourists yet. Therefore, each day depending on tide times I head over to Dunvegan and am treated to my own private seal tour. This means I have the chance to carefully and systematically photograph every seal that we find hauled out on the skerries. Unlike on Orkney, where John has a huge amount of kit to carry around, I just swing my camera around my neck, climb aboard the boat and away we go!  I was a little nervous the first day we headed out in case I was swamped with seals, however, I was eased in gently as numbers were relatively low on my first few trips.

The seals here are very used to boats, particularly the Dunvegan boats, and are used to people passing by watching them. However, during the pandemic when the world shut down, the tourist boats here also stopped. This means that pups born last year (2020) have not had the same experience and the seals haven’t seen the boats for about a year and a half. Therefore, I was interested to see if this would affect their behaviour and how they would react to us approaching. For the first few surveys, the seals kept a careful eye on what we were doing, and they were clearly more nervous than they have been in previous years. This said, as the days have passed by, they are becoming more accustomed to us and are happy to remain hauled out.

The first week here was a bit frustrating as the weather was atrocious, with high winds cancelling a number of our trips. But by the second week the sun finally made an appearance and so did the first pup of the season. The pups arrive around mid-June each year like clockwork and this year’s first arrival was on Friday 18th June. Unfortunately, this year we can only go out on weekdays, so I was eagerly awaiting more pups on the Monday morning when I arrived at Dunvegan and I wasn’t disappointed. Many more pups had made an appearance over the weekend, the skerries were bustling with seals and the air was alive with the sound of mums calling for their pups and vice versa.

Sk558 and her new pup

The pups are born with their unique markings, so we can identify them from day one and watch them develop as the season continues. It’s nice to see very distinctive patterns in their pelage that will be useful in subsequent years to immediately know who we are looking at. This little pup born last week has a very identifiable star pattern on its forehead (I have nicknamed it Little Star) which will prove easily recognisable in the future.

Pup “Little star” with a clear star shaped patterb mark on its forehead. Easy to recognize!

We try to get photographs of mum-pup pairs whenever possible so that we can track the mothers through the years to see whether they produce a pup each year and, if possible to follow how long the pup stays associated with its mother during the pupping season. It is such a privilege to get to see the pups interacting with their mums and forming a bond. Watching them taking their first few swimming lessons is very special with mum constantly checking that her pup is doing well with a reassuring nuzzle.

Looking back at the numbers of seals on the skerries in previous years, numbers have appeared relatively low this year. According to the skippers, since the end of the 2019 season, the number of seals around Castle Dunvegan has seemed to them to be smaller. I am interested to see how this develops as the season continues and I will update you as the next few weeks progress.

If you would like to see more pictures of the Dunvegan seals and some of the beautiful land- and sea- scapes around the Isle of Skye then you can find me at instagram.com/selkie_sally

For now, it’s bye from Skye!

Sally

A very belated introduction, and a fieldwork update from John in Orkney!

(Blog written by John Dickens)

I find it very hard to believe that I’ve been in Orkney for almost 2 weeks now. The time has flown by with the seals keeping me very busy, especially over the past few days.

I’ll come back to the fieldwork update – first, a brief introduction. My name is John Dickens and I’ve been involved in seal and cetacean research for the past 6 years or so, having had the opportunity to work with Antarctic and subantarctic fur seals, elephant seals, leopard seals and killer whales on three very special Subantarctic islands. I studied marine biology at Rhodes University in South Africa and went on to do a masters degree in conservation biology at the University of Cape Town. I had my first experience of marine mammal research during a year working as a field assistant on Marion Island, one of the Subantarctic Prince Edward Islands belonging to South Africa. A large portion of my time on Marion was dedicated to collecting ID photos of killer whales, as well as monitoring fur seals and continuing a long running mark recapture study on southern elephant seals. I then started working for the British Antarctic Survey and ended up spending about 3 years on South Georgia. A year and half of that time was spent on Bird Island, where a major part of the job involved collecting ID photos of the leopard seals during the winter months. On South Georgia I also continued the long term monitoring of Antarctic fur seals, piloted the first UAV/drone monitoring project of seals and seabirds, and was involved with a number of penguin, albatross and petrel projects too.

The photo ID research that I am carrying out for the Harbour Seal Decline Project in Orkney is similar to photo ID work that I have done in the past. Individual animals have unique markings or patterns, with seals these are often easiest to spot* on their head. By taking photos of animals at study sites regularly and over the course of a number of years we can build up a catalogue of known individuals, learning more about pupping rates, survival rates and intra- and interspecies interactions.

Back to the fieldwork update – The 2021 season of harbour seal photo ID in Orkney is off to a good start! I’ve been out to our study sites on Burray and South Ronaldsay daily to take photo of the seals and have had some fantastic sightings during this time. It has taken a little while to learn the ropes, figuring out what to pack, the best access routes and how to approach the observation sites without causing any disturbance to the seals, but it is going well and each day gets easier. I’ve only had to walk back to the car from a study site once to pick up a forgotten piece of kit…

The first week was quite quiet with few seals around and spring tides inundating the skerries on which the seals usually haul out. The quieter time was beneficial as it gave me a chance to learn how best to set up the camera and scope that I am using for the fieldwork. The seals are incredibly skittish so it is necessary to keep far enough away, and try and be as discreet as possible to limit any disturbance. To collect ID photos from a safe distance I use a scope which paired with a DSLR camera allowing me to take high quality photographs from much a much greater distance than a normal camera and lens combination would allow.

 

 

 

 

 

The quiet times didn’t last for long, the first pup of the season was born about a week ago and since then there have been new pups born almost every day. Friday evening’s observation (18th June) was particularly special as I sat watching three pregnant seals give birth over the space of about an hour.

Or085 and her newborn pup before entering the water

Or133 and her new pup moments after giving birth

Or255 giving birth!

One of the females that gave birth that evening was Or085, she was also seen pupping by Monica during an observation in 2019. Only minutes old the pup was in the water and having its first swim. Pups are born with their unique markings so we will hopefully be able to keep track of these animals year on year.

Yesterday evening (20th of June) there were 5 pups harassing their mothers on the skerries with another 3 learning how to swim by following their mums around in the kelp. They are wonderful animals and I’m really enjoying having the chance to get to know them.

Or045 and her pup making nose to nose contact

Or085 and her pup taking a rest

Harbour seals have not been the only marine mammal to keep me company at the study sites, there are usually a number of grey seals hauled out alongside the harbours. In addition to the seals, a Risso’s dolphin swam past a few days ago and I even had a very long distance sighting of a pod of orca!

Risso’s dolphin near the Hope

Risso’s dolphin seen from Burray

For more photos from my time on Orkney, mostly wildlife with a few landscapes thrown in, find me at instagram.com/johndickens.boz

 All the best from beautiful Orkney, and happy midsummer!!

 John

 

*sorry for the pun…