ORCA Wildlife Officer sees array of marine wildlife from CalMac vessel during ORCA OceanWatch

31st Aug 2017

- The Loch Nevis vessel approaching the beautiful island of Canna

“Would you like to work on a Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferry in the Hebrides for ORCA during OceanWatch?” was a question that demanded little response besides an immediate YES! 

The Hebrides are famed for their wildlife and during the summer months the waters are known as a hotspot for a number of marine species.  After three amazing months as wildlife officer for ORCA in the Bay of Biscay this would be an equally exciting experience, as well as a change of scenery and ship.  It would be a long way for a westcountry lad, currently based in Devon, but I had already put my name forward for an ORCA Marine Mammal Survey in August from Aberdeen and this fitted in very well, allowing me to take on both roles and spend some time in between, chasing Scottish wildlife and remote spots in my old, but trusty, camper van.  So to the Hebrides I was bound.

CalMac ferries serve the Hebridean Islands and are both a lifeline and a point of access for residents and tourists alike.  The ship that I was allocated was the Loch Nevis which travels from Mallaig in Lochaber between the Small Isles archipelago (Rum, Canna, Muck and Eigg) which is situated between Skye and Mull.  I had been told by a number of people that this was a “classic” route for wildlife and I was certainly not disappointed.  Working onboard was great with such a friendly crew and happy passengers all heading to and from adventures on the islands and I soon settled into it.

The first morning was a joy and set the scene as the ferry skipped across the water with the distant peaks of Skye beckoning to us from the north.  On the water a multitude of different seabirds led the way to our first island stop of Rum, famous for its study of red deer, which has been ongoing since 1953.  As gannets dived on bait, and Manx shearwaters 'sheared' over the water I knew that it was only a matter of time before larger marine animals showed.  But it was on the journeys between Canna, Muck and Eigg that the best sightings we had with minke whales, and basking sharks appearing.  One particular minke surfaced three times heading towards the ship, giving us incredible views before it dived and turned away, no doubt following the line of its prey.

Over the coming days a few basking sharks serenely passed us, mouths wide open, filtering the sea, seemingly oblivious to our close proximity.  One early morning I and a couple of passengers watched from the ferry through our binoculars as a splendid white-tailed eagle flew over the water along the coast beside Rum before alighting on a tall tree, and in Eigg harbour we were privileged to enjoy watching an otter fishing from the rocks as we loaded passengers.  Red deer grazed on the distant beaches of Rum as we sailed by and puffins were still on the water off Canna each time we approached the island.  It really was turning out to be a stunning wildlife experience for both myself and the likeminded passengers travelling to the islands.

- Basking shark approaching the Loch Nevis.  Here you can see the dorsal fin (front of photograph) and caudal fin (tail) (back of picture)

We also saw bottlenose dolphins and from time to time small groups of common dolphins came to bow ride.  And on calm days as we headed out of Mallaig lots of harbour porpoise popped up everywhere suggesting that there is a good population of this small marine mammal in these waters.  Minke whales continued to show their backs and fins to us but regardless of whether any cetaceans appeared the bird life kept us happy.  Lots of black guillemots would fly across our path with their ruby red legs trailing and their distinctive white wing patches catching the attention of those visitors from the southern part of the UK where they aren’t generally found. 

- The characteristic triangular fin of the harbour porpoise

- Acrobatic common dolphins approaching the Loch Nevis to bow ride

One particularly memorable evening as we cruised back to Mallaig in the fading light, just off Rum, we experienced tens of thousands of manx shearwaters coming into to land on the shiny surface of the sea and forming huge rafts.  It wasn’t unexpected as Rum has a breeding population of 60,000 pairs of these extreme migrants but it was spectacular nonetheless.  What was happening was that the birds that had been out in the ocean foraging for food for their chicks were waiting for darkness before they landed on the island.  They are so specifically adapted to a life at sea that their bodies aren’t designed for the minute proportion of their life that they spend on land and it is an environment that leaves them vulnerable to attack from gulls and raptors.  Thus they wait offshore in massive numbers until it is deemed safe for them to return to their burrows and their young.

So whether it is cetaceans, sharks or birds that tick your boxes the Small Isles ferry is certainly one worth using.  I recorded some good marine mammal data during ORCA OceanWatch and the bridge crew of the Loch Nevis and other CalMac ships did as well and this will go towards protecting these animals and their habitats.  If you would like to get further involved and become a volunteer ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor on CalMac ferries, we are running a training course at the Scottish Marine Institute in Oban on 9th December 2017. 

Thankyou to CalMac Ferries and the captain, first officer, and crew of the Loch Nevis for making me so welcome. 

- Andy, ORCA Wildlife Officer