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The morning started misty with drizzle, not the sort of conditions for whale watching. However, on listening to the coastguard’s weather forecast for the area at breakfast, our skipper, David, decided to go to the feeding grounds of the minke whale. Once leaving the quite creek in Loch Sunart, in which we had anchored overnight, the seas became choppy to moderately rough, with gale force winds promised later in the day. For three hours the 60 foot twin-engined motor cruiser battled with a head wind. Clinging closely to the southern coastline of cliffs, coves and small settlements of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, the most westerly part of mainland Britain, we eventually headed out to sea. After travelling in westerly direction, we turned north to round the Point of Ardnamurchan, with its spectacular lighthouse. Quite soon we were in quieter waters, although very much aware of the Atlantic swell. To the north were the islands of Rhum and Eigg, the latter with its massive volcanic cliffs; to the west was lowly Muck. There were a few inland trawlers about.
Over the intercom between various boats, one trawling skipper asked David if he was looking for minke, for he was surrounded by them. David was well known to the local fishing fraternity, for over twenty years he had been taking wildlife cruises in and around the Western Scottish islands. We headed towards the area in question at 8 knots, keeping a constant eye out for a surfacing whale. By now the clouds had dispersed. Everywhere, there were flocks of guillemots, Manx shearwaters and kittiwakes, with the occasional sooty shearwater, which would often take to the air on our approach. These sea birds were feeding on large shoals of small fish and the whales knew it. Suddenly, the cry went out, “A whale”. David would redirect the boat slowly towards the sighting and then cut the engine. The aim was to get within the whales’ feeding circle. Drifting silently, we stood on the poop deck and watched. The atmosphere was electric!
Minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostera, according to David, usually surface several times, their blow relatively short and often unobserved. Within a short time the whale surfaced again, this time nearer to our boat. All we saw was the black back and a characteristic dorsal fin. At no time did we see its pointed snout nor its yellowish-white baleen plates. Eventually, after some time, we were able to get closer and closer and get some idea of their size, for, by now, we had seen six whales. They were massive. After several blows, the whale may remain submerged for some time and could be same way off from the observers. For the most part, minkes are solitary or in pairs, but, as on this occasion, they do aggregate in a small group for feeding. They would get into a circle, driving the small fish into larger and larger shoals or a protective ball. Then one of the whales would charge into the centre, with its mouth open and chase the fish from behind, in what is called lunge-feeding. We were able to observe lunge-feeding, but never saw any of them breaching, in which the whale comes right out of the water.
Although the smallest of the of the baleen whales in British waters, minke are large mammals. Some have been recorded as being 10 tonnes, but those we saw, so David told us, were between 6 and 7 tonnes. The baleen plates in the whales’ lower jaw allow the animal to expand its mouth and throat in catching its prey, which, in British waters, is mainly small fish. Throughout the world, minke are common whales, especially in the northern hemisphere: there is another species of minke, according to biologists, known as the southern minke Balaenoptera bonaerensis and their ranges overlap.
Sea watches and scientific surveys have established that there are about 40 minkes in these waters off the Western Highlands, but, more recently, their numbers have fallen to 25. Although protected by international law from commercial whaling, the Norwegians continue to take a small number for scientific research. Another considered reason for this partial decline has been the tourist trade. Whale watching has become a popular pastime and day trippers from the mainland often demand to see them. They set off in high-speed boats, with noisy engines. Travelling too fast, the boats can potentially collide with a whale, giving it little time to take avoiding action. The wash and turbulence disturb the fish and the whales, so they simply move off. David’s quiet approach is much more successful and conservation-orientated.
The spectacle over, we made for the island of Muck, passing a few harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena, another common cetacean in the area) on the way. Much smaller in size, the porpoise briefly surfaces, displaying its back and dorsal fin. Unlike the dolphins, which we were unluckily unable to see, porpoises rarely leap out of the water. So ended one of five days cruising around the Inner Hebrides, a day of high quality wildlife watching.
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