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Isle of Mull

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Sea Life Surveys
Isle of Mull
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How was the 2006 Season for you? Here on Mull, we   enjoyed a proper Summer!, with some fantastic weather through July and August. 2006 has also proved a very good year on the water for Sealife Surveys, with a few very special sightings.

I'm sure you will have read Skipper Jimbo's account of our First Ever Recorded Sighting of Fin whales on the West coast of Scotland, in May?!... Well, 2006 brought          another First for Sealife Surveys (SLS), on the 15th of September - 3 Northern Bottlenose whales! (This is the species that famously swum up the Thames in January -      the sad outcome of which was sombrely observed by the Nation.) Our "Scottish" Bottlenose whales were spotted by a local fisherman, heading out of Loch Sunart. He alerted us to their presence, assuming them to be Minkes and knowing we'd be interested! Two of our boats were near the area at the time, and it was only when one of our most experienced guides spotted a very obvious blow in the distance, still en route, that our fascination increased.

Such were the calm conditions, we would almost-never expect to see a Minke whale's blow - their's are very low and indistinct, and therefore rarely used as an observational tool.  Also, the size and shape of these animals we were glimpsing at the surface was all wrong for a Minke.. Bottlenose whales are 8-10m in length, about the same as a Minke, but with more rotund bodies, an egg-shaped forehead and long beak; quite different to the cigar-shaped body of a Minke, with a piked head! Both are a similar dark-grey colour, with relatively small dorsal fins set behind their mid-back, but their surfacing patterns are quite different!

Northern Bottlenose whales belong to a family of deep-diving whales called the beaked whales (Ziphiidae). Spending the majority of their lives in the cool, sub-arctic waters of the North Atlantic, these whales can dive to depths of 100m, for up to 2 hours, in search of deep-sea squid. So, NOT the easiest whales to watch from a boat then. Scientists, let alone members of the public, are rarely lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these elusive creatures. Their oceanic lifestyle has, in fact, led to a great gap in our knowledge of beaked whales, with many aspects of their ecology and life history remaining a mystery.

Curiously, Northern bottlenose whales turn up from time to time around our coasts, often very close to the shore. And this is a bit of a treat for any observers. Over the last decade, northern bottlenose whales have been reported to our Mull-based cetacean charity, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) just four times, previous to SLS's 2006 sighting. The whales seen here in September were thought to be 2 adults and a juvenile. All our crew and customers caught sight of was a few blows & the odd curve of grey body, as they surfaced briefly to breathe, before returning to the deep. A short sighting; but very sweet!

2006 was also remarkable for our (only!) Killer Whale (or Orca) sighting of the year. The largest of the dolphin family, SLS only see Orca a few times a year. Not strictly resident to the Hebridean coast, they travel through our waters, and not a great deal is known about where they go in between! However, SLS have recorded a total of nine individuals who have frequented local waters for over 20 years.  Our "dominant male", named John Coe, was first seen as far back as Christmas Day 1981!!

Now, Orca are one of the most wide-ranging mammals on earth, and are generally grouped into one of three categories: Resident Orca are thought to roam relatively locally, feeding on a variety of fish. Transient Orca are much wider ranging, thought to travel great distances to take seals and even smaller marine mammals, having a much broader diet. Little is know of the third group, the Off-Shore Orca, due to the nature of their habitat range!

Now, SLS and HWDT have previously thought of "our" Orca as Resident to Scottish coasts. From sightings reported to HWDT of recognised individuals, we assumed they "only" journeyed as far as Kintyre in the South, and maybe as far North and East as the Shetland and Orkney Isles, when they weren't with us. But our August sighting blew everything out of the water - quite literally!..

Our SLS whale-watch boat "Alpha Beta" was cruising off Staffa, tracking porpoises, when suddenly one of them BREACHED fully out of the sea!! As any of you who have been out to sea with us in the past will know, Harbour Porpoise just don't do that! In fact, one of the main distinguishing behavioural points between dolphin and porpoise, is that dolphins WILL breach (leap clear of the water), whereas porpoise "never" do... The explanation here wasn't far behind. Our breaching porpoise was followed out of the water by. the hungry face of a Killer whale!! Customers and crew alike felt privileged yet helpless, watching the red teeth of nature in action, like it was something off the telly! We just needed Sir David Attenborough for the vision to be complete..

Now, the Shetland Isles have had all-time record sightings of Orca this year, some observed taking Otters and even Eider ducks from very shallow waters. Yet, our only SLS sighting of the year is the first recorded sighting of "our" Orca preying on mammals off the West coast of Scotland.           Recognised through

the Photo-Identification work that we do, together with HWDT, enabling us to record individual whales, our only Orca sighting of 2006 proved to be one to remember, eh!?

So, quality not quantity.. Well, our Minke whale sightings this year echoed the trend that we began to notice in 2005. Really good sightings from May through to July (after our first sighting of 4 whales on 21st April in 2006). Followed by a much quieter August and September than SLS have been used to, for the last 20 years! And it wasn't JUST us. In mild panic that we may be losing our touch(!), we contacted wildlife operators up the West coast of Scotland.             And all were lamenting similar stories. This included colleagues who annually spend late summer off Arasaig, collecting Minke whale data for Sea Watch Foundation. In the past, this has proved to be the best time of year to spot whales further North (- as was the case off Mull). This year, these very experienced watchers spent weeks covering wide amounts of sea on fast boats (with even a spell of helicopter assistance!),. and nothing more to report than trusty Harbour Porpoise. Oh, and a courtesy visit from a pod of Common dolphins (- in sympathy?!...).

"So, where have all the whales gone!?..." we hear you cry! Well for a start, dear reader, they haven't "all" gone. And the fact that we can go to sea all-day, every-day, from April to October and still have a damn good chance of spotting these awesome marine mammals, within 300m3 of survey area, when they only need surface for 3 seconds to breathe, is a privilege in itself. And one we should never take for granted - we certainly have no right to expect daily whale sightings. Especially when you consider what Norway, Japan                and Iceland are increasingly doing, to relatively-local populations of these gentle giants..

The findings of an IFAW-sponsored independent legal panel are clear - Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling is      unlawful.  'Scientific' whaling is about whaling, not science.  Commercial whaling is a cruel and outmoded industry producing products nobody needs. Yet in October this year, Iceland              broke their 21 year-old international moratorium (ban) on commercial whaling, by killing an endangered Fin whale. Known as the most popular whale-watching destination in Europe, Iceland           has new targets to kill 9 Fin whales and 30 Minkes each year. (We have no idea whether these are "our" Minkes. It is quite feasible that whales seen off Scotland could swim                as far as Icelandic & Norwegian waters to feed. These "scientific" whalers do not practice any Photo-ID techniques to help us identify individual movements.)

The whales aren't saved. Japan doubled the number of  whales it killed in 2006 (to nearly 1,000) in an international whale sanctuary around Antarctica. Japanese whalers plan to  double the number they will kill in the next several years, adding 2 protected species, fin and humpback whales, to their target list. I'll come down from my soap box for now, but PLEASE visit to see what you can do to help IFAW save our whales, for all of us.

Now, for the last 20 years, September has been one of the best times to watch whales off Scotland's West                      coast (- with the exception of the last 2!) We know Minkes visit our waters each summer to feed. With herring and spratt reaching a very tasty size by the end of the summer, Minkes have made the most of feasting on this bounty, prior to their long journey South to breed in warmer waters. And I think it is at this time of year that we've seen most change. This year we had only 2 whale sightings in September - on the 4th, and the 23rd, which was our last sighting of 2006.

We could discuss lots of different theories by way of explanation. One very real threat is climate change, and we know this from trends seen in other cetacean species. Research published by Colin Macleod and a team from Aberdeen University in August 2005, shows, FOR            THE FIRST TIME, that climate change has been directly linked to a change in occurrence of a whale or dolphin species.  (Aberdeen University, the Scottish Agricultural College in Inverness & the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh have been examining trends in strandings of whales and dolphins since 1948).

Scientists found that cold-water species, such as the White-beaked dolphin, are now stranding less frequently, while warm-water species are being recorded more frequently. This includes the Striped dolphin, a warm-water species that had not been recorded in Scotland             before 1988. These findings follow the pattern expected if the warming of the sea around the UK is responsible for these            changes.

Colin Macleod's team found that trends in strandings are mirrored by changes in sightings of dolphin species. White-beaked dolphins are found only in the shallower waters of the northern North Atlantic. Until the late 1990s, the West Coast of Scotland had some of the highest numbers of this species in Europe. However, by 2003, this cold-water species had been replaced by Common dolphins - a species found only in warmer waters. This change accompanies an increase in sea temperatures around the UK, of                    up to 0.4oC per decade since 1981.

Some sobering science - are we going to see warmer-water whales "replace" our Minkes!?... We certainly had an awesome Common dolphins encounter on 24th June this year - with about 250 animals WITHIN the Sound of Mull! This is the most any of our Skippers can ever remember seeing, all together, so close in-shore. (Common dolphins, being an oceanic species, are usually seen further out to sea.). This just happened to be the day we'd arranged for a helicopter to film our SLS boats out on the water, as part of a TV advert being made for VisitScotland. So, someone up there was smiling on us, in the face of climate change..

2006 HAS been a fantastic year for Sea Eagle sightings, with an adult (6 yrs old) & juvenile (less than 4 yr old) appearing to have paired up in the romantic setting of   Bloody Bay (- well, they are BIG carnivores after all.) Without dorsal fins to distinguish individuals, RSPB monitor Mull's White-tailed Eagles by tagging them just before they fledge, & these tags are often visible to us when we spot Eagles from our boats, so we can report movements of individual birds. During August, we actually recorded more sightings of Sea Eagles than of Minke whales (- just!), seeing them an average of once every three days. (I don't know whether this is good for the Eagles or bad for the whales!...)

19th September was a particularly memorable White-tailed day, as our faithful "pair" of Eagles, that we had observed flying together for 2 whole months, were suddenly joined by another, usurper juvenile!! This caused much excitement for our RSPB Mull Officer, Dave Sexton (to whom we report all our Sea Eagle sightings). He speculated this young male upstart may well jeopardise the weeks of pair-bonding already established between our "happy" couple. "New blood" and all that? Or maybe she was doing a Mrs Robinson!? We shall have to wait until next season to find out which young male stood the test of time... Once bonded, Eagles do usually mate for life; unless something happens to their chosen partner & they have to pick again.

We watched a local pair of Peregrine Falcons successfully rear and fledge 3 chicks during Spring 2006, from the respective distance of our boats! These adult birds continued to be seen, maturing throughout August & into September, so fingers crossed they will return to breed successfully again next year. Sparrow Hawks have also been sighted a few times during this year's trips trips, and we have watched Hen harriers hunting over Calve Island. We even                spotted a Marsh Harrier over the Isle of Coll, in the second half of August! So our feathered friends have given us a splendid audience, when the whales were harder to find..

Now, you know it's been a tough day on the water when your Skipper comes back and writes "sunshine", or even "carrot cake", on the Sightings board. (Mind you, anyone who's sampled Jenny's cake from the Isle of Muck tearoom, mid whale-watch, won't be surprised that her home-baking skills are being recorded.)  But our ever-faithful Harbour Porpoises have been happily observed almost every day, through-out the whole season - woohoo! They really are rather special, as the smallest cetacean in Europe. And are still under serious threat in the U.K from By-Catch - accidental death through entanglement in fishing gear. So we ARE very privileged to see them here so frequently.

This August was also a bumper month for Basking Sharks, with sightings EVERY OTHER DAY!, & almost EVERY day during the first week of September! These huge fish, the second largest in ALL of the world's oceans, filter microscopic plankton; only needing to remain at the surface to feed, as they extract oxygen via seawater through their gills. And once you've seen one zig-zagging through plankton caught in the tide-lines, like they're mining a seam of coal, it's not unusual to spot a handful more, making the most of the rich feeding areas. A fair few times this summer our SLS boat was "surrounded" by 4 or 5 sharks. And they can reach 10m in length!! Our last Basking Shark of the 2006 season was spotted on 17th September.

Basking Shark sightings during August were almost rivalled by the numbers of Sunfish seen this year. And this may reflect climate change too. When I first started guiding for SLS, in the summer of 2004, I remember a total of 5 Sunfish spotted over the whole season. A year later, that figure reached a massive 23, and in 2006, 15 were sighted in August alone! Like the Common dolphins, these giant-flatterned-discs of fish prefer warmer waters, & have been reported in large numbers off the Cornish coast in recent years. August is usually their peak month in cooler Scottish seas, with the warm waters of the Gulf stream & the effects of the tropical Hebridean sun(!) heating up the sea all summer.. But this may be another trend to watch with sea temperatures rising, as another indicator species of climate change.

Regular seasonal changes for 2006 included "Baby" Puffins seen as late as 11th September, in the mouth of the Sound of Mull. These juveniles haven't yet got the characteristic  beaks of the familiar adults - their's are more slender, & lacking the vibrant colours, they look more like they've been up a chimney!

We also had increased sightings of Great Northern, Red-throated and Black-throated Divers during the third and fourth weeks of September. Lots of migrant birds towards the end of September, including plenty of Golden Plover, and even a rare, rather lost-looking Little Gull on 24th September!

For many, the end of Season highlight was a perfectly white, fluffy Atlantic Grey Seal pup, on the Cairns of Coll, on 29th September. This new-born, with protective mother close at hand, was being taught how to swim! in the shallows, watched respectfully by a boat-load of gooey passengers. And this was also a first for one of our SLS Skippers, which to my understanding, had him more excited than most of his customers - Bless. x So, even if you are out there on the sea all-day, every-day; you'll still see something new & unique to you, that gets your heart going like it's your first time on the water.

I want to end by sharing with you something that Colin Speedie has to say. He's respectively The Main Man of the Shark Trust, who SLS regularly swop sightings with during the season, as he sails and surveys the Scottish waters. Thanks to him, the Wildlife Trust, and his Earthwatch crew of volunteers, aboard sailing yacht "Forever Changes", for hours of endless dedication to our cause. In my humble opinion, this just about sums it up.. (- taken from Wildlife Trusts' "Natural World" magazine, Spring 2006.):

"Imagine a wilderness full of exotic creatures, some bigger than an elephant, some as flamboyant as a parakeet, some as cute as a meerkat. Imagine too, that it's no more than a few hours away from home,. without the pollution of long-haul flights, and it's there to see all year round. You'd want to visit it, wouldn't you?

Well, you can. It's called the sea, and it's right here.."

(- All the rest written by Sealife Surveys' Head Guide,     Erika Hearn.)


Sightings Summary for Season 2005,
Isle of Mull

Minke Whale
Minke whale sightings in May and June were regular and consistent, both in geographic location and type of feeding behaviour observed. Feeding was found to be taking place in roughly the same areas during these first two months of the season - between entrance to the Sound of Mull/Ardnamurchan and the North Coll coast. Lots of surface feeding was observed with strong associations with feeding seabirds, the main species being the auks (guillemots and razorbills) and kittiwakes. The sightings during this first half of the season were usually of individual whales or occasionally two or three whales at a time. No close associations with the boat were encountered during May or June.

There was a noticeable shift in the distribution of the feeding whales from mid-June onwards with a low number whales sighted in the feeding grounds between Ardnamurchan and Coll. Instead, sightings were concentrated further south, between the Treshnish Isles and Staffa. Again, Minke sightings were strongly associated with feeding seabirds (guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes) and large numbers of Manx shearwaters. By the last week of June, the whales had shifted further south into Loch na Keal, an open sea loch. Whales continued to feed almost exclusively in Loch na Keal for the next four weeks with few reports of whales anywhere else within our search area. The number of whales in Loch na Keal appeared to remain fairly consistent with an estimated 10 and 20 whales feeding in the loch at any one time. However, it is believed that different groups of whales were periodically moving in and out of the loch during this time, rather than the same individuals staying in the area for the entire four weeks. This assumption is based on the presence of mainly juvenile whales in the early observations which were later replaced by larger adults in the latter part of the four week period. It is worth noting the presence of two calves (approx 2.5-3 m) throughout the entire four week period which were usually seen feeding together, along with other juveniles. Sightings remained consistent in terms of feeding behaviour and number of whales feeding at any one time. Whales appeared to be feeding in groups rather than individually as sightings were often of more than five or more whales at a time. Feeding was mainly taking place at the surface with lots of lunge feeding and a few close associations with the boat.

From mid-July onwards there were no more whales sighted in Loch na Keal. The sudden disappearance of the whales may indicate that they left the area around the same time. Reports of feeding Minke whales off Shetland, Orkney and in the Moray Firth coincided with the sudden absence of whales in our area. Comparisons between dorsal fin Photo-ID shots of the Loch na Keal whales with the Moray Firth whales will help to establish whether the same individuals were seen in both locations and will provide important information on the movements of the North-East Atlantic population of Minke whales. Minke whale sightings from mid-July to mid-September throughout the rest of our area were few and far between. Sightings were mainly of individual whales and no more surface feeding was observed. Instead the feeding behaviour consisted of long dives (5-8 minutes) in between brief surfaces, indicating feeding/foraging was taking place lower down in the water column. Since the whales disappeared from the area, very few seabirds were observed feeding. Of particular concern was the absence of kittiwakes and razorbills from mid-July onwards, around the same time the whales were last seen feeding in the area. In addition, few guillemots were spotted with their chicks and the puffins on Lunga (Treshnish Isles) left the burrows two weeks early. Instead of leaving the burrows at the end of July/beginning of August the colonies were empty by mid-July, indicating that perhaps they did not breed. Manx shearwaters and Gannets were seen fairly regularly throughout the season. Gannets began to appear in noticeably larger numbers during August and have been seen feeding since then very close to the coast, most likely feeding on mackerel. After the complete absence of kittiwakes from mid-July, they started to come back into the area at the beginning of September although no 'hurries' of kittiwakes feeding were observed.

Other sightings
Basking sharks were sighted throughout the season from May to mid-September, with the highest numbers sighted in August.
Other interesting observations include the high number of sunfish sightings this season. Sunfish are brought up with the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream. They are usually only seen a few times a season. It is possible that the unusually high numbers seen in 2005 is an indication of warmer sea temperatures.
Common dolphins have been seen on six separate occasions throughout the season with one group of about 30 individuals seen on two consecutive days in roughly the same area (between Coll and Muck).
Bottlenose dolphins were sighted on 9 separate occasions with one sighting in September of approximately 30 individuals. This group spent a couple of days in the Sound of Mull, slowly travelling northwards. They were last seen heading down the west coast of Mull towards the Treshnish Isles.

Laura Mandleberg
Crew 2005



I'm afraid my optimism for a return to normal in the seas in our area during August proved to be unfounded. Very poor to nil levels of feed in our waters have proved disastrous for our sea bird colonies breeding this year, and this has also manifested itself in the very marked lack of whales this month. The reasons for all this are difficult to explain, but climatic and environmental changes appear to be the cause. The marine picture, however, is always very complex, and we shall have to be patient, and wait to see if this is a one off phenomenon this year only, or whether things will be back to normal next year.

However not all has been doom and gloom. We have had some exceptionally good sightings of basking shark, whose numbers have been well up this month, and really good numbers of harbour porpoises. We have also seen far more sunfish than in past years.

Regrettably this is my last report. After some 18 years or so running sea trips here on Mull, Jenny and I have decided to retire from business, and hand over the reins to the Tobermory based Sea Life Surveys, who we have worked very closely with over the years. They are intending to continue running Inter-Island Cruises from Croig in the same manner that we have done. We wish them every success in the future.

To all our past customers, many of you returning year after year, we say farewell, and thank you for your support over the years. To all our past crews, who worked so hard with such enthusiasm during their seasons aboard Flamer, my grateful thanks. I couldn't have done it without you.







We concluded the previous month with some wonderful days whale watching in Loch na Keal in the south west of the island, and I am pleased to be able to report that we continued the beginning of July with day after day of excellent whale watching in the same location up until the 15th of the month, when suddenly the feed supply was exhausted, and the whales left the loch. Unfortunately whales do not leave a note of where they are going next, so we have spent quite a number of days since, hunting in and around our area trying to locate their presence.

During this search we have encountered a good number of harbour porpoises, a lot with calves, some good sightings of basking sharks and on the 22nd of July, a very active group of about 20 common dolphins, mostly mothers and calves.

The 24th and 27th July saw us with some brief sightings of minke whales. These were travelling through the area, and did not appear to be feeding.

We have come across 2 sun fish this month. One was quite small, but the other was massive, and with very distinctive spotted skin.

As the month came to an end, we have started to see much better feed levels in the water, and mackerel have arrived in larger numbers now, as have the number of gannets feeding on them. Here's hoping for a really good August, with minke whales back in our area in the numbers we expect at this time of the summer.









What a great month this has been for whale watching. Not so the weather here on the west coast. We are still waiting for our summer to start, but at least we had to make very few cancellations.

We have had some very early sightings of basking sharks off the north end of Coll, and in one or two other places. Our first sightings were on the last day of May, and then on the 3rd June, we saw 5 big adult sharks to the west of Coll. Common dolphins appeared on the 4th June and we had a big group of some 40 common dolphins on the 6th and again on the 8th of the month. On both days the dolphins were feeding in the same area, and we recognised a number of familiar ones on the second occasion. Although they were busy feeding, they stayed with us for about an hour, and we had the usual wonderful displays that only these wonderful creatures can produce.

The 11th of June produced our first blank day of the season when we failed to find any whales off the usual grounds off the island of Coll, so we moved areas to the south and spent practically the whole of the rest of the month around the Treshnish Isles, Staffa and Loch na Keal with some of the best days whale watching we have ever experienced. The culmination was a flat calm day on the 21st of the month when we had 10 whales around the boat, and we stopped with the engine off for 3 hours, and watched a continuous display of lunge feeding, including breaching, and many close associations with the boat including spy hops and circling around and under the boat.

The whales in Loch na Keal have been feeding on vast shoals of sand eels, and we have also enjoyed the huge hurries of sea birds that have accompanied this feeding.

It is now the first week of July, and the settled weather has been broken by an unseasonal southerly gale, so we await to see what effect this will have on the whale distribution in this favoured area.








Well, here we are again at the start of a new season, with the first month of whale watching under our belt, and it has certainly been a very encouraging start. Although summer weather has yet to arrive on the west coast of Scotland, we have lost very few days to bad weather, although the very heavy and prolonged rain and wind over the Spring Bank holiday did cause a few cancellations, and apologies to the people who we were unable to take out over that time.

Sightings have been really good right from the start, and we are proud to say that to date we have had 100% success rate on all our trips, even on our Treshnish Isles trips, which are not whale watching trips!

Our 20 days at sea so far have produced some excellent sightings of lunge feeding on what appears to be really good stocks of sand eels, with masses of bird hurries, and some very exciting close feeding experiences. ( photographs to follow )

Amazingly, we have had some fairly regular sightings of basking sharks from 14th May onwards, which is very early for this species, but does demonstrate the quantity of plankton in the water at the moment.

On the 24th May we had the privilege of enjoying the presence of a single bottlenose dolphin at the Cairns of Coll, that accompanied in and out of our lunch time anchorage, and put on a wonderful display of leaping and associating with the boat.

We did not encounter any common dolphins until the beginning of June, but more of that next month.

Welcome Laura as our crew and wild life guide this year. Laura is a marine biologist, and an experienced whale watcher, and oh boy! Can she spot whales.


MINKE WHALES 64 ( sighted )





© Jeremy Matthew


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