What We Did On Our Summer Holidays

What we came to record – two basking sharks engaged in courtship behavior

What we came to record – two basking sharks engaged in courtship behavior

It’s often said that the best way to deal with stress is to find another form of stress to relax with. And if that’s true (and I think it is) then there’s no more relaxing form of stress than our annual shark survey in the western isles of Scotland, two weeks of hard work and good company in the sailing paradise of the Hebrides.

These snapshot surveys follow on from many years of more extensive work we carried out in the area, during which we identified two discrete hotspot sites. The sharks at these sites are regularly sighted at the surface in large numbers, taking part in what is believed to be courtship behaviour such as close following, parallel swimming and breaching.  As such, these may be highly important places for the future survival of the species.

Each year we return to monitor those sites, and to explore other even more remote areas to establish whether there may be further hotspots to add to the existing ones. For the last three years we have been able to charter a suitable yacht and recruit a crew to carry out this valuable work through the generous support of the Swiss Shark Foundation.

The morning view from Inverie, Loch Nevis

The morning view from Inverie, Loch Nevis

Of course, being the west of Scotland (at 56-57°N) there’s no guarantee that the weather will let you survey these areas, let alone find a shark, but we have been lucky for the last two years, and so had everything crossed in advance for this season. And our luck was spectacularly in, as the western isles basked in the best summer weather they’ve enjoyed for years, sunshine and light winds being the order of the day.

For the first week we tracked back and forth across the Sea of the Hebrides and the Little Minch, carrying out our line transect surveys. Perfect weather means long days, working from the knowledge that such conditions can’t last, and so far from being relaxing it can be really hard work.

And just as there are people who breathe a sigh of relief when the engine is turned on, there are others (like us) who do the same when it’s turned off, and when there’s little or no wind, there’s not much chance of that. To us, motoring is always far more tiring.

 A minke whale surfaces close by

A minke whale surfaces close by

But the calm conditions also have their upside. Conditions for sighting wildlife are perfect, and many exquisite anchorages that are normally off limits become usable. As we had never seen the Sea of the Hebrides so calm, we explored that opportunity to the maximum, visiting favourites old and new, falling reluctantly asleep in the remotest of places to a symphony of seals on the nearby skerries.

The lonely beach at Feall Bay on Coll

The lonely beach at Feall Bay on Coll

We didn’t have much success on the shark front to begin with, although we had plenty of other company, especially from some wonderful seabirds.

Once again we were supporting our colleagues from Scottish Natural Heritage and the University of Exeter as part of a major tracking programme designed to establish how the sharks use the area, and we knew that they were making good progress to the South of us, but it seemed that the season had not really taken off yet farther north. Frustrating, but that’s the nature of this type of work, as we know only too well.

A fulmar performs aerobatics around our stern

A fulmar performs aerobatics around our stern

So the first week played itself out against a backdrop of islands and quiet seas.

The second week promised to be different though, with the GRIBs looking far more challenging as the huge area of high pressure we had been sheltering beneath finally drifted away to the northeast.

A quick pit stop in our old home port of Arisaig to change crews saw us immediately on our way again, this time with an additional work project, taking part in National Whale and Dolphin Watch week, the UK’s major citizen science event for lovers of those beautiful creatures.

Night falls on Arisaig

Night falls on Arisaig

We’d already recorded several hundred of these creatures in week 1, so we were hopeful that even with the weather turning we’d be adding to our tally. The dolphins must have heard that we were coming as we were treated to repeated encounters all the way across the Sea of the Hebrides, with Risso’s, white–beaked and common dolphins accompanying us at different times. Minke whales, too, surfacing at such close proximity that we sometimes smelled their fetid breath before we saw them.

White-beaked dolphins put on a show for us

White-beaked dolphins put on a show for us

As the wind filled in we were at last able to escape from the tyranny of the engine. Careful reading of the forecast allowed us to sail most of the time within acceptable survey parameters, essential for this type of work to be valid. Luckily for us the worst of the weather predictions failed to arrive, and we were able to achieve a huge amount of survey work before the hammer finally, inevitably, fell.

Force 7 in the Sound of Sleat – storming along

Force 7 in the Sound of Sleat – storming along

What a magical, exhausting, rewarding two weeks. We’d had the chance to be out in the islands at their best, and explored many new anchorages that we’ll want to return to in the future – if the weather conditions will let us.

We completed more transects than our wildest expectations and during the second, the sharks finally had the decency to turn up to satisfy the inner Ahab that inhabits us all.

Sandpiper, Our Sun Odyssey 43 from the great people at Skye Yachts, was our reliable and functional home for the second year running and looked after us well in every way.

Sandpiper in the lovely anchorage at Acairseid Mhor, Rona

Sandpiper in the lovely anchorage at Acairseid Mhor, Rona

The Hebrides remain their unique, elemental selves, every island different, every anchorage with its own claim to perfection in some small way. As an ideal introduction to higher latitude sailing they offer many unparalleled advantages, not least islands and mountains, wilderness and civilization, wildlife and charming self-reliant people.

Even the weather can be good, although we’ll be the first to admit there have been times over the years when we’ve wondered what on earth we were doing there! It can be hell, but it’s mostly heaven – but you’ll have to discover that for yourself…

WIDOMH 10

Night skies you can’t forget

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Marc Dacey October 13, 2013, 12:41 pm

    Lovely description, Colin, and I found it unusual to see such glassy seas in one of the wilder corners of the ocean. I hope to see the Hebrides by sail some day; my grandmother’s people came from Harris.

    I was once in Edinburgh on June 21, the summer solstice. It did not get dark so much as got “purple” and I can only imagine that the effect is more pronounced and goes later into the summer than in southern Scotland. Sailing in full sunlight at 23:30 and again at 03:45 would be magical, if a little annoying in the off-watch.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie October 13, 2013, 3:00 pm

      Hi Marc

      No more surprised than we were – the weather can make or break these surveys.

      The long summer days extend right into the night further North, so much so that around the solstice it never really gets ‘dark’. And if the weather is so good it’s often hard to head for bed – you keep expecting something else to draw your attention.

      So, if you get the chance to get up there – don’t pass it up.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Jim Patek October 13, 2013, 12:44 pm

    Hi Colin

    Wonderful post. Great photos. You make it sound such a compelling place to cruise and I am sure it is. “falling reluctantly asleep in the remotest of places to a symphony of seals on the nearby skerries.”Now that is a truly romantic description. Really sorry I had to sail on by. And I now know that you did find “sharks”.

    All the best,

    Jim

    Reply
  • Colin Speedie October 13, 2013, 3:04 pm

    Hi Jim

    It is a wonderful place, and it’s very close to my heart (in case you hadn’t guessed..) but then we’ve yet to sail Newfoundland, Alaska, British Columbia, New Zealand or Tasmania, all of which I suspect will challenge our current favourite place as our number one cruising ground.

    Glad you liked the post, and thanks for the kind words.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply

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