Am Bratach No. 311
September 2017

Nature’s call
by Paul Castle

You should have been here yesterday”, is a sentence which can send shivers down a ranger’s spine as it sometimes accompanies an unsuccessful wildlife-watching activity. I thought I was going to experience such an event this season.

On August 1, as part of the national whale and dolphin watch programme run by the Sea Watch Foundation, I had programmed a sea watch to take place at Holborn Head by Thurso. On Monday, July 31, I arrived at the Seadrift Centre in Dunnet Bay, which was flat calm with an overcast sky: perfect sea-watching conditions. Using the telescope I checked the bay and instantly spotted six Risso’s dolphins out from Dunnet Head. After making a record of the dolphins, I ran downstairs to get the Caravan Club wardens, who came upstairs to take a look. These were the first cetaceans they had seen since being up here and they were delighted, as was I.

Later that morning I was heading west and, passing by Drum Hollistan on the Caithness-Sutherland boundary, I decided to check how many puffins were still around the colony there. I walked down to the viewing site and was greeted with the sight of thirty-plus white-beaked dolphins spread over a large area and slowly moving east. Some animals were breaching and tail-slapping and all of them appeared to be feeding regularly.

White-beaked dolphins are large, robust dolphins with adults reaching 2.8m in length and 275kg in weight. They have white, grey and black bodies with a white stripe on each side and an obvious pale area on the tail stock behind the prominent fin. They are typically fast, powerful swimmers and when swimming at speed they can lift their whole body out of the water as they rise to breathe.

I hadn’t seen a large group of white-beaked dolphins for a number of years, despite them previously being the most regular species encountered in this area. This predominantly cool-water-loving species of dolphin appears to have deserted this area over the last number of years. Ironically the decline coincided with a project I was involved in which installed an interpretation panel at Strathy Point describing white-beaked dolphins as the most regularly sighted species — Doh! Risso’s dolphins are now seen much more regularly in this area. The increase in sightings of this predominantly warmer-water-loving species is perhaps another indication of the increasing sea temperatures occurring around our north coast.

Of course I was delighted to once again see a fine group of white-beaks but I couldn’t shift the nagging thought, “you should have been here yesterday”. I was thinking how much better it would be to get them this close the next day on the public sea watch at Holborn Head. Instead I was here at Drum Hollistan, alone, being treated to a fantastic show. Not being in possession of a smart phone I rang a local contact to ask if he could mention on the Caithness sea watching page that the dolphins were slowly moving eastwards and suggest folk head to Sandside Bay to watch them. The very day before my programmed sea watch I had witnessed two fantastic cetacean sightings virtually by accident.

The next day, the day of the sea watch, I woke to calm but sunny conditions. Bright sun can make it more difficult to spot cetaceans due to the glare from the water surface. At least the wind was low; the wind causes most problems when sea-watching. I was joined by five people for the sea watch at Holborn Head including a family with two young boys. On the walk to the site we met with a local resident who watches regularly and she informed us that the white-beaked dolphins were about but a long distance from shore.

With the sunny conditions it took me about twenty minutes to finally see the first tall, falcate, fins about 2.5 km out from shore. Unfortunately, trying to help folk spot them in the scope was proving difficult. In the past, it’s at this point I have had some folk begin to question if I have really seen something or am I just trying to keep them from leaving a watch early? Hand on heart — I have never lied about seeing something on the sea!

After some time and frustration the father of the boys eventually saw the fins too, then a couple of dolphins began breaching and everyone finally managed to see them through the scope. A group of five white-beaked dolphins was the largest group we saw but we also saw several pairs of porpoise much closer to shore. One of the young boys was fascinated watching the dolphins and he soon became very efficient at following them with the scope and proudly setting it for others to take a look. As a ranger it was really satisfying to be able to allow this young lad a chance to enjoy a real north coast sea-watching treat.

After about an hour huge, imposing, dark grey clouds began to appear from the south-east. The parents with the two kids decided to head back as they were dressed in summer clothes and without spares they didn’t fancy a soaking. The other lady and I decided to stay for longer but after about another fifteen minutes we also decided to head back due to the ever increasing threat of a downpour. We just got back to the vehicles in time when the rain came on and boy, did it pour! By the time I drove back to Thurso the roads were flowing like rivers. I don’t think we could have timed our return any better.

All the records we collected were later sent to the Sea Watch Foundation to help with the study and conservation of all UK species of cetaceans. If you should spot any whales, dolphins or porpoises around our coast, please send your records to Sea Watch to help with their important work. Records can be added directly through the website at Details required are date, species (if known), location and travel direction.

Paul is a Highland Council ranger, based at Dunnet in Caithness and at Bettyhill.

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