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Credit: Seacoast Science Center

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Every storm cloud has a silvery lining….

It’s been a challenging few weeks as we have been subjected to gale force wind … wind … and even more wind. But it’s when times are the toughest that the gems sparkle the brightest and we have had some real corkers in the small weather windows available to us!

In an earlier blog we introduced you to a pod of bottlenose dolphins that we had encountered on several of our surveys last month. It would appear that the pod have been hanging about and foraging close to the coast. Apparently surprisingly for some, bottlenose dolphins are not considered common in these parts, however we have encountered them two out of the three years that we have spent surveying here. When we came across them most recently off Tiumpan Head this week, they were in the mood to spend some time with us. Any doldrums that had been brought on by weeks of high winds were quickly forgotten. There were three youngsters in the pod and Nicola immediately recognised one of the distinctive females (with quite a large mark at the base of her dorsal fin) and her young calf as we had seen them a month ago on one of our earlier boat surveys. The young calf appears to be doing incredibly well! The foetal folds were still visible on the sides of its body as it leapt clear of the water beside us with the sun shining behind it, but they were much reduced and it was almost twice the size as when we last saw it! Life must be good off the east coast of Lewis 8)

(c) WDCS / Nicola Hodgins
A wee newborn bottlenose staying close to mum
(c) WDCS / Nicola Hodgins
Here’s mum and her calf again a month later!

Pretty quickly we realised that mixed in amongst the group was a startlingly white adult Risso’s dolphin! This individual, with a much bigger dorsal fin and different surfacing behaviour, was mixing with the bottlenoses like a trusted old friend and was behaving just like a bottlenose, even riding on the wake of the survey boat briefly. We watched it travel alongside the boat, beneath the water (and surfacing much less regularly than the bottlenose dolphins), but its startling white colour gave its presence away below the surface.

(c) WDCS / Nicola Hodgins
Cheeky pale Risso’s pops up amongst this bottlenose pod!

We got photographs of their dorsal fins and recorded the times that they were close to our acoustic equipment, hoping that we will be able to hear and differentiate between them and then we left and let them be.

As if that encounter wasn’t heart pounding enough, we soon came across a wibbly-wobbly finned sunfish in the shallows off Bayble, in the heart of our survey area!

(c) WDCS / Nicola Hodgins
Rare in these parts, a sunfish! An omen for better weather hopefully 8)

We took advantage of a reducing sea towards the end of the day to retrieve the first of our four acoustic devices that we deployed in June. They sit quietly in the water and wait for a porpoise or a dolphin to pass and then they spring into life and record any dolphin chit chat. Not only did we find a couple of spider crabs and a squat lobster on our ropes but we got 100 days of lovely dolphin and porpoise chatter!!

(c) WDCS / Nicola Hodgins
First POD retrieval of the summer! Three more to collect…

And as if all that excitement wasn’t enough, we were on our way back to the harbour (dodging the rainy squalls) when the glint of a true slimy sea monster – an 8 metre basking shark [yes, EIGHT METRES long!] – was spotted by our eagle-eyed skipper. This gentle giant was busily feeding in the rushing tide, in front of a beautiful fat and colourful rainbow that settled on the surface of The Minch. He was much bigger than our survey boat!

(c) WDCS / N Hodgins
Unusual treasure found under this rainbow!

Although autumn feels like it has arrived here and the auks and skuas are much fewer in number, gannets still dive around us on the water and The Minch is clearly still full of life. We arrived back on dry land with big smiles on our faces and our spirits restored – and ready for the next watery adventure!