Tales from the Trail: Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye
JOIN US FOR OUR WEEKLY BLOG AS WE SHARE EXPERIENCES FROM SITES ALONG THE HEBRIDEAN WHALE TRAIL - THIS WEEK SYLVIA TALKS ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A REGULAR WHALE WATCHER ON THE ISLE OF SKYE
In September 2017 a group of us entered Staffin Hall as complete strangers, and met Katie Dyke from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who introduced us to the joys of the Shorewatch programme. Shorewatch is a network of trained volunteers monitoring the presence and absence of whales and dolphins at selected sites around the Scottish coastline, in order to raise awareness and capture vital data crucial to the long term future of these amazing animals. The training was great but what Katie didn’t say is that it’s like a drug, you get addicted, but to whales and dolphins. The adrenaline runs when you spot that elusive fin and the midges don’t stop you (unless you swat one midge and a million come to the funeral…That’s when you quit)
Our local Shorewatch site is the Kilt Rock at Staffin, a stunning viewpoint on the Hebridean Whale Trail which is very handy for me as I live 5 mins away. Chris and Lynda, the other two regular Shorewatchers have a 60 mile round trip, but try and make most weekends. We were joined on our merry team this year by Nicola, who also lives near the site. Nicola and myself usually do an individual watch most days, and do a joint watch early evening, weather permitting.
Kilt Rock has a wonderful vista of over 180 degrees, but it certainly gets the weather. From the main viewing area to the left is the Kilt Rock – cliffs of basalt columns named for their resemblance to the pleats on a kilt. Beyond that is the coastline of Harris and Lewis, with Tuimpan Head, another site on the Hebridean Whale Trail, approximately 45 miles away across the Minch. You can see the Wester Ross coast from Rubha Reidh lighthouse to Gairloch, and the coasts of Rona and Raasay, and round to Brothers Point back on Skye. It’s not advisable to do a long watch from Kilt Rock on a strong Easterley wind, unless you are wearing a full set of waterproofs as the waterfall is more of a ‘waterup’ and you get soaked, but in the weather can make it interesting!
It’s not just whales and dolphins you can see from the site. We quite regularly see the otter playing under the waterfall, and have seen her earlier this year with two cubs. A pair of breeding sea eagles nest a few miles down the coast and follow fishing boats. Golden eagles have tried nesting very close to kilt rock, but the number of people disturbed them. There are plenty of fulmars, gannets, guillemots, and skuas to be seen out on the sea.
July 2019 has been a very good month for sightings with harbour porpoise, common and white-sided dolphins, minke whales (including 1 breaching right out of the water!), and unidentified dolphin species (we can usually see them being very active, but too far away to positively identify). Twice we missed the resident West Coast Community of killer whales that must have passed right by.
The 3rd July we nicknamed Minke Soup day. I had done a watch at 9-30 am with minke whales surfacing all over. I’m sure we didn’t manage to count them all. I left at 10am returning at 1pm and the same people were still there counting minkes. A tiny (for a whale) minke calf came to investigate us. It swam within 100 m of the cliff, poked its nose right out of the water spy hopping, flipped its flippers, then rolled on its back, flipped its tail, then swam back to mother offshore, came back 15 mins later and did the same again, before they both disappeared. That evening Nicola and myself went back, and the baby minke was also back delighting everyone by spyhopping and rolling on to its back.
20th July, Nicola and myself were watching from the viewpoint and over by Longa Island, Gairloch (25 miles), looking at a “log” in the sea, saying it must be big to see it over that distance. While discussing what we were watching, we saw it blow, the “log” then did 3 surface dives and reappeared 20 mins later doing a log impression, before doing more surface dives and disappeared. Because of the distance it had to be a fin or sei whale, and both had been seen from Tuimpan Head that day and following days, so we hope it was.
Kilt Rock is an amazing place. You never know what you are going to see, and the railings sing at you depending on the strength of the wind and direction, competing with the bagpiper who is there most days. You can have a free shower from the waterfall, fight the wind as it tries to push you into the railings, or do windmill impressions when the midges attack. Just don’t expect to see everything in a five-minute stop, take your time to take in that view. There is a great wee food van, so you can seawatch while having a drink and hot food, and enjoy time out. You might just catch the bug and plan your next stop on the Hebridean Whale Trail!