It may look like we are always making excuses for our pelagics this year, but we really have had no luck at all with conditions except- adding insult to injury- the one trip we had to cancel because of low bookings! The 29th looked like being even worse because the wind was wrong and yet this came after one of the best week’s sea-watching of the year so far locally, so expectations were higher than usual right up to the late night forecast on Friday. Add to this the fact that 3 of our passengers were “coming-down” after the highs of seeing Red-billed Tropicbird and Hump-back Whale from Porthgwarra on the Friday and you will understand why I worried about our trip.
My fears seemed well founded at first; there was a very light south-westerly that dropped to almost nothing, a deceptively big swell still running after the previous high winds, and almost inevitably the 100s of Gannets which had been feeding around the Runnel Stone the day before, along with a few Cory’s Shearwaters (not to mention the Tropicbird and Hump-back!) were nowhere to be seen. We did come across our first Grey Phalarope – a moulting adult- off Tater Dhu which instantly meant this trip could not be as bad as the infamous 8/8, but again we could not get as far west as we hoped due to the swell so our chum “drift” would barely clear Longships.
Despite the wind, we did attract several Storm Petrels at first, but as time wore on the wind died to nothing, the sun came out, and the trickle of Stormies dried up.
However, it was then bought to our attention there was a pod of Pilot whales close by. There followed an anxious and intense journey to catch up with these great mammals. Finally we glimpsed them away to our south-west. Despite the relief, Adrian was almost too cautious in approaching them and I thought they would leave us behind – but we need not have worried! We stopped a couple of hundred metres off the group and then began one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we will probably ever have!
No sooner had we stopped when more than half the pod started to swim straight at us- lead by the females with calves (4-5 in this group). There were about 19 animals and soon all of them were surrounding the Mermaid II within touching distance as the males (about 7m long and with distinctive “elbowed” dorsal fins with deeply down-curved and rounded tips) joined in. They may have been trying to drive the females and calves away from the boat as a couple of times they went under our hull and released huge columns of bubbles. However, the youngsters wouldn’t be put off and they began spy-hopping (to look at us?) and the whole pod seemed to relax. We then had almost an hour where you did not know where to look; the 2nd group of about 10 animals rejoined our pod (the only time there were signs of aggression as a couple of males began tail-slapping, but this was brief), youngsters were spy-hopping, many of the older animals began rolling on their backs waving their long, tapered pectoral fins in the air (conveniently identifying them as Long-finned Pilot Whales – Globicephala melas melas), there were whales constantly rolling and jostling all around the boat, and all this accompanied by what I can only describe as a chorus of comedy farting noises!!!!
I have no idea if these were deliberate “vocalisations”, or just an unfortunate consequence of blowing through partially submerged blow-holes, but as the whales only made the usual puffing noises when producing a blow it is tempting to think these noises were deliberate. There seemed to be two main types; a short, relatively soft “raspberry”, and extremely loud, almost percussive “wet-farts” that sounded like the slapping of a huge cow-pat, apparently given by the males – and the first clue I had that the second group were approaching- like a herd of marine Spike Milligans!
To put this into context I, and especially Adrian are used to seeing dolphins playing around the boat, and we will never tire of it. But this was different! Common Dolphins are more cat-like; they come to the boat to bow-ride, surf the stern-wash or even scratch their backs on the hull, but if we slow or stop they usually drift off, and – if they are feeding- ignore us altogether. The pilot whales were much more laid-back and seemed both interested in and accepting of us. I will regret to my dying day that I didn’t at least reach out and touch one as I doubt I’ll ever have another chance, but it seemed wrong at the time and is probably un-ethical. However, knowing that these whales are the species prone to mass-stranding, and worse are murdered by the Faroese for the sake of tradition, made the encounter all the more special.
It was a real wrench to have to leave the whales behind in the end as we were running late, and I was almost emotional when we did head off as for the first couple of hundred metres a few followed us and rode the wake. But these whales live in extremely tight-knit social groups and they clearly didn’t want to go far. The rest of our pelagic was therefore a bit of an anti-climax, and I have to admit the excitement and media chaos meant I forgot to tally up our sea-bird totals; we saw about a dozen Storm Petrel, 5 Balearic Shearwaters, 6 Grey Phalaropes, a couple of Bonxies, Common Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise etc, but I can’t remember if we saw Sooty Shearwater or Arctic Skua and I don’t think those lucky enough to be on board will mind either! Thanks to them for coming, thanks to Geoff for guiding us whale-wards, and thanks to Adrian for sticking by the pelagics when he could have made more money from mackerel-fishing. This will be the last pelagic of the old format- we will do shorter, early morning/ late evening trips from now on, but what a season’s finale this was!