All species checked off ID guide during Ullapool survey!

The team of citizen scientists and our Biodiveristy Officer, Becky (bottom left)

The team of citizen scientists and our Biodiveristy Officer, Becky (bottom left)

Our expedition surveys collect data on whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks in Hebridean seas. Our Biodiversity Officer, Becky, shares the highlights of the latest survey on board Silurian

All surveys on Silurian are special but this survey was extra special for us all because during the twelve-day survey that left from Ullapool we managed to spot all eight species on HWDT’s identification guide… including killer whales! In total, we recorded ten species of marine megafauna including: basking shark, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise, minke whale, common seal, grey seal and killer whale!

During the survey we covered 332.8 nautical miles, with our hard-working citizen scientists spending over 45 hours on effort and collecting 45 hours of acoustic recordings.

Track lines showing where Silurian traveled during the survey

Track lines showing where Silurian traveled during the survey

The six volunteers joined us on a rather ‘driech’ evening on the 23rd June. We soon warmed up with a steaming bowl of spaghetti bolognaise, accompanied by a species identification presentation - which would turn out to be very important on this trip! The next day, after a morning of additional training we set off, sailing north through the Summer Isles.

Strong southerly winds continued to accompany us, but we knew that there was more settled weather to come, so we sailed towards the Outer Hebrides, ensuring that we were in a good position for the days ahead. With the weather behaving as predicted, we decided to survey the waters to the west of the Outer Isles for the following few days. Just an hour after leaving our anchorage, heading for the Sound of Harris, we encountered a pod of common dolphins, two minke whales and dozens of seals and harbour porpoise. This was a sign of things to come!

Over the next few days we sailed around Lewis, passing the Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan head, with more species of cetaceans accompanying us along the way. We recorded our first sightings of white-beaked dolphins, encountered two pods of Risso’s dolphins, saw leaping common dolphins and watched in awe as several feeding minke whales surfaced among diving gannets. Yet the most surprising and special encounter was still to come…

After the whirlwind of the first week surveying, the settled weather began to change and we decided to head east, back to the mainland to spend the next few days surveying coastal areas, sheltered from the wind. Leaving our beautiful anchorage in Loch Ned the next morning, we decided to try and survey as much of the surrounding area as possible. But with the wind continuing to pick up and the spotting conditions deteriorating rapidly, the decision was made to go off effort, ensuring everybody’s safety on board. However, the prevailing wind direction did give us a great opportunity to sail without the engine, allowing us to work with the elements to get us to our next anchorage, which is always an exhilarating experience. Suddenly a pod of common dolphins appeared out of nowhere, bow riding for a few minutes, before continuing their journey. After the excitement the crew then got ready to jibe - positioning ourselves at the back of the boat.

Out of the corner of my eye, I then spotted more fins 600 metres away. Concentrating on sailing the vessel, I asked everyone on board to keep an eye out, before seeing more fins along with visible blows. Hang on a second…. an unmistakable black two-metre high dorsal fin had emerged from the waves. Speechless, I turned to Quentin (the Skipper) to see if he had seen it too, and he looked at me in shock, and was also speechless. Finding my voice, I yelled ‘KILLER WHALES!!’, and we all sprang into action, furling the head sail away and turning the engine back on, to give us greater control. Hannah and I shot below deck to get the cameras ready to get some photos. Taking photographs of the pod was a bit of a challenge in the large swell and intermittent showers, but luckily the pod stayed in the same area for half an hour, seemingly feeding beneath the waves. There were five killer whales in total, including a male, female and a calf. The wind continued to build so we decided to head into our anchorage, still in utter disbelief at what we had all witnessed. It was hugs all round, along with a few tears as we anchored in Loch Laxford. What an incredible and lucky day. We would not have seen them if it wasn’t for the strong winds, which that morning had seemed so challenging. It just goes to show what a remarkable area the Hebrides is and what incredible diversity we have here. You never know what you are going to encounter on each survey day!

The next day we spent a lovely and relaxed day anchored in Loch Laxford before making our way south back to Ullapool, still on a high from the previous few days! The last night was spent back in Ullapool, where we went to the pub for a final dinner. It was a tearful farewell the next morning as we all went our separate ways, with new friendships formed and some unforgettable memories!

Massive thanks to the citizen scientist team who joined us on board: Bill, Claire, Dick, Ian, Pam and Susan! It was a pleasure to sail with you all. We couldn't collect the vital data without the citizen scientists that survey our waters! There are still berths available on our 2019 expedition surveys, follow the link to find out more.

Once I got back to the office, I had a proper look at the killer whale photos and noticed the male had a particularly distinct fin. I showed them to our Education Manager Pippa, who is a bit of an killer whale fan, and she recognised the fin of Busta (032), a well-known male in the Northern Isles Community, who swam up the River Clyde in April 2018. After a few minutes of frantic searching online, she also identified a female called Razor (065). Thanks to Andrew Scullion who runs Orca Survey Scotland, and Karen Munro and Hugh Harrop who often see these animals, we found out that this sighting was especially exciting because Busta hadn’t been seen for a while and had just turned up in Shetland! We were delighted to add another piece to the puzzle surrounding Busta’s movements.

Read more about our sightings of killer whales from Silurian in our latest press release;