News from the Wildlife Officer programme in the Hebrides

23rd Feb 2018

Those of you who follow the fortunes of ORCA will be aware that we have been working in Scotland for some time now with our ferry surveys on the East coast to Orkney and Shetland and our cruise routes regularly crossing Scottish waters and visiting towns and cities within the region.  In addition we have been training Caledonian Macbrayne ferry crews on the west coast to collect vital data on whales and dolphins each year for ORCA’s OceanWatch project, and also placing Wildlife Officers on board their vessels in the Hebrides during ORCA OceanWatch to engage with passengers and help to raise even more awareness about the amazing wildlife that this region is so famous for.  We are particularly excited to be expanding that program with CalMac and bringing our regular survey and Wildlife Officer programs to the west coast.

Officially, I started in my new and exciting post as the full time ORCA Wildlife Officer in the Hebrides last Monday, based here at the port in Oban.  The Hebrides ORCA Wildlife Officer programme is part of a wider citizen science project, the CalMac Marine Awareness Programme, which launches in March.  Along with my ORCA duties, I was invited to take part in a similar seabird survey program run by JNCC, one of the CalMac Marine Awareness Programme partner organisations, also involving volunteer surveyors from the general public.  So I had a week of training based a little further south in the small town of Tarbert in Kintyre, travelling on ferries, surveying seabirds between the mainland and the Isle of Islay.  After a few chilly days at sea with some great sightings of hen harrier, white-tailed eagles, great northern and red-throated divers, harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins, I thankfully passed my ESAS (European Seabirds at Sea) course and will now go onto the next stage to mentor other volunteers on these bird surveys.  As soon as the course was completed I travelled back to my home in Devon, loaded up my car, and turned round and trekked back, 500 miles up the road, to relocate to Oban.

The first week has been a whirlwind as I found my feet and met the extremely friendly CalMac staff, had meetings with their environmental manager and my ORCA boss, started researching the new routes and began getting to understand the ferry network here. I attended talks by fellow CalMac Marine Awareness Programme partners, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, which is also conveniently located here in Oban.  But amongst all of this, as I spent days longingly looking out of the window at the snow-capped mountains and wanting to get out on the ocean, I have noticed small things that heighten my anticipation for the coming season. 

Despite the poor winter weather I can see that spring is really on its way.  The population of black guillemots that nest in the harbour walls here in Oban are starting to bob their heads and display to each other, the herring gulls are in brilliant shiny new breeding plumage, and eider ducks seem to be pairing up.  As I walk to work I pass the tiny heads of snowdrops, two inches high above the grass, and dunnock can be seen racing around with nesting material in their beaks. 

But there is a lot to do in the office before the season starts for us properly.  I have routes to trial, crews to meet, and surveys to organise.  And as part of my role I will be helping CalMac facilitate participation in the Marine Awareness Programme and lending a hand where I can to help with the smooth running of it.  We have a website in development and a launch event in March to prepare for where we are looking forward to getting together with all the organisations involved.  What I like about the ethos behind this is that every stakeholder is regarded as an equal partner no matter what their size or previous input.

The week was rounded off with Saturday spent doing what I love – at sea looking for marine wildlife and talking to members of the public about its wonders and also its problems.  The weather was relatively kind to me as I crossed back and forth from Oban to Craignure, on the Isle of Mull.  The views of the island with snow still covering the hills were spectacular!  Lots of travellers and families were on board making the most of the last weekend of half-term and everyone was keen to discuss wildlife and very enthusiastic about the project.  It would be wrong to claim it as the busiest day wildlife wise but we did have some good views of great northern divers, and shags with their breeding plumage crests on display.  In the distance, past Duart, Castle a white-tailed eagle could be seen and grey seals bottled and rested on the surface waters.  Sadly the cetaceans didn’t put in an appearance for us on this day but there were reports that bottlenose dolphins were sighted on the other side of the island around Calgary Bay. 

Do keep your eye out for my next weekly blog where I will tell you about a fascinating trip that I had to beautiful Mull to meet up with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and was lucky enough to visit their famous research vessel in Tobermory harbour.      

-Andy Gilbert, ORCA Wildlife Officer Hebrides