Tuesday 17 July 2012

Dragon hunting, Part 4

This one, I must confess, isn't so much about dragon hunting, unless you're in possession of an old sea chart of The Minch, the stretch of water between the coast of north west Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. This ancient map might show some terrible winged serpent rising from beneath the waves, its sinuous body ensnaring a doomed sailing vessel in a timber-crunching embrace, while the hapless crew abandon ship, uncertain of their fate.

OK, I may have eaten too much smoked cheese.

The day dawned with a warm breeze blowing from on shore. The Admiral and I walked around the bay to Gairloch harbour and reported in at the Hebridean Whale Cruises office in plenty of time to don the supplied appropriate clothing. Then, with another 10 excited passengers, we boarded the Orca 1, HWC's RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), for a two and a half hour trip out into The Minch.

The previous evening I had been in something of a quandary. What camera kit to take on a whale watching trip? With the RHIB low down in the water, would cetaceans be close to the boat? Close enough for a standard 55mm lens? Or would they be hundreds of yards off the starboard bow, requiring Very Wrong Len and his new friend, Juan Pointfour-Converter? The Admiral, with several Biscay trips of experience to call upon, was firmly of the opinion that size was everything, opting for his 100-400mm telephoto. I wasn't so sure, but then again, I would say that, wouldn't I? In the end, Juan was left at home, Very Wrong Len made the team and a standard lens went into my rucksack, in case I dared carry out a sea-borne transfer.

After the safety briefing and the even more important information that a certain BBC film crew were on a competitor's boat, we sped out into Gairloch Bay with a calm sea and improving light. From reading the tour literature, I knew that our destinations would be several deep trenches in the sea bed where whales are known to feed. But would luck be on our side?

So far during the holiday, we had seen few of the sea birds that we would have expected on a Scottish coast. Now, at last, we spotted Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Black Guillemot, Gannet and Storm Petrel. That's better!

The RHIB's complement were distributed in four rows of three. I found myself in the centre of the third row, which meant that my optics stayed dry but visibility wasn't optimal when under full throttle. However, the occasional sea bird drifted overhead as we progressed towards the Isle of Skye, so, as long as I had my wits about me, there was a chance of a photograph. Yeah, right.

Gannet, Morus bassanus
In no time at all, it seemed, we were over a feeding area, the engines were cut and thirteen pairs of eyes meticulously scanned the surface of the sea. Suddenly, a shout went up and we all swivelled around to the indicated direction. A Minke Whale surfaced and then dived again! We waited for it to return to the surface. Would our optics be pointing in the correct direction? At each successive blow (not seen or heard, but definitely smelt), camera shutters fired rapidly. I soon came to realise that taking photographs at sea was a whole different ball game, and not necessarily one where I knew the rules.

Minke Whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata
We cruised north to a different feeding area and found another Minke, but when this moved off, we maintained a northerly heading and stopped in the wake of a fishing trawler. Here were sea birds aplenty, hoping for an easy meal.

Great Skua or Bonxie, Catharacta skua
Storm-petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus
... and again
We continued to scout for more whales, or the nirvana of sea watching, Orcas, but on this particular occasion, the search proved fruitless. However, we then found ourselves in the middle of a school of about twenty Common Dolphins. It was a big family group, with animals of all sizes. Never far from the boat, it was difficult to bring a 300mm lens to bear. Our captain (and guide) manoeuvred  the boat so that everyone, and every camera, had a view, but I have to admit that most of my shots went into the recycle bin. I finally had the answer to my photography conundrum. Never mind which lens, take several cameras with a different type of  lens attached to each.

Common Dolphins, Delphinus delphis, (with calf?)
The captain radioed the boat that the Beeb film crew were using and they sailed over to our location to grab some footage. I hope they bought him a beer later!

Where's those Cormorants, then?
On the journey back to Gairloch, we had a brief sighting of a Harbour Porpoise, but all too soon our trip was over. It was a fantastic morning and an experience I hope we will repeat before too long.

Second Born then collected two happy chaps from the quay and took us further around the bay to the Badachro Inn for lunch. Afterwards, she drove to Red Point, where we wandered through the dunes to a sandy beach looking across to Skye. Here we snoozed in the heat of the afternoon, a pleasant, contented sleep, conjured up from some sublime cetacean sightings, good food and a pint of An Teallach.

Apparently, it was still raining in England.


holdingmoments said...

Great account of what must have been a very special experience. Whales, dolphins and seabirds; heaven.

And what a great name for that stretch of water; The Minch. Fair rolls off the tongue. I can't stop saying it. :-)

Tales of a Bank Vole said...

"I am an ecologist, natural history presenter and writer. I have a life-long passion for British and tropical flora and fauna, of which I have profound experience and encyclopaedic knowledge.

I am committed to bringing the beauty of the natural world to a broader audience with enthusiasm and insight, rather than sensation or gimmicks."

The above is a direct copy from the website of a broadcaster who appears to bear an uncanny resemblance to a chap on the boat. He obviously couldn't be M(ore) Dil(i)g(ent)er.

Imperfect and Tense said...

It was splendid, Keith. I can't recommend it enough. And I don't particularly like leaving land!

Imperfect and Tense said...

There's probably a sentence tucked away in the Terms and Conditions on his website that says something like "This excludes Black-throated Divers".

Martin said...

Some lovely bits of nature writing in this trip. I love the Highlands and Islands (although I've never explored Torridon, for my shame). I can picture some of the scenes as you describe them and had a similar experience on Skye the other October. Thanks.

Personally I think taking a short lens for close inforgettable shots and a pair of bins for watching the wildlife is probably the best compromise on a boat. By the time you train the long lens on a surfacing object it has usually gone. So are you heading back out? Can I tempt you to a kayak trip around the islands, camping at night...????

Imperfect and Tense said...

Thanks, Martin. You could be right about the optics combination for whale-watching. Certainly, I think it's something I want to repeat when time allows.

I suspect that my pathetic reliance on 21st Century living and tea shops would indicate that a wild camping and kayaking trip is not on the cards. However, if you do attempt it, the weird bloke waving from the shore may be me!