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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [no longer in business], was our reliable and functional home for the second year running and looked after us well in every way.
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…