Tales from the Trail: RSPB Balranald, Isle of North Uist
Join us for our weekly blog as we share experiences from sites along the Hebridean Whale Trail - this week we visit the RSPB nature reserve Balranald, where warden Heather talks about the amazing encounters and breathtaking scenery of her site on North Uist.
Heather Beaton - RSPB Uists Warden
It was a sparse wind that day that cut right through the three layers I was wearing, but it didn’t matter anymore: wind became something secondary to that which I was seeing.
I’d seen dolphins before, but not like this. This was something else indeed. The sea was rustled up, white horses trotting in front of every wave, and the sky was a stark, cold grey. But all this just set up the perfect back drop of that which I was watching.
The dolphins seemed indifferent to their bleak surroundings. The grey tones of the sky, the dark and unwelcoming murk of the sea made their own shapes: sleek, powerful, streamlined; stand out from the water and their surroundings. They were in that instance of the water, and at the same moment, wholly and uniquely not.
I was standing on the point at Balranald. There are only occasional cetacean sightings from here, and the long horizon means that those sightings are often far off. More regularly are the otters seen, often with cubs, and always seals peeking back at any human watcher. No wonder the stories circulate about selkies.
But, on this poor-weather-miserable day, the dolphins were close and on fine form. I was halfway through a survey that sees me walking these beaches throughout the winter. An exercise in appreciation of the ether: the skies lifting into infinity, and the sea, a pale aquamarine continuing until it seamlessly matches with the sky. That is, on good weather days, and this day could not really be considered a good weather day.
The horizon had darkened ominously while I was still at the beginning of my survey. The show must go on, and though the occasional showers wetted me and I could feel the rain seeping through at my elbows, knees and down my neck, the dry periods in between contented me and stilled my impatience.
At the point, I glanced over the sea as is customary for me to do so during these surveys. The sea is ever present, ever there, and though the beaches are what I am surveying, the sea calls to some inner, primeval part of me. From the sea we come, and it has its grip on us still. At the glance, however, I was rewarded. I saw the tail end of a dolphin leaping. I immediately stood stock still, only moving to reach for my binoculars. In the end, they were not needed, the dolphins – common- were so close that I felt like I was almost jumping with them.
They seemed to be relishing their airborne freedom. They jumped, they twisted; their muscles singing out in appreciation of life. There is no other way of describing their activity: they were acting out of pleasure. Out of sheer joy. And just as children may run and play, these dolphins were participating in life with their fullest delight.
This, here, is why I love looking for cetaceans: they inhibit a world we do not. They are animals of water, and we, despite our best efforts are land bound. They have freedom of the waves, a landscape that pulls us towards it, and we can only look and marvel at their ability and their enjoyment of their environment. And hopefully take inspiration from their joy as we live our own lives.