What do students do after a Wildlfife course?
The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:
ACS Distance Education
Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.
Well, everybody said it, and everybody was right. Three weeks in Bristol was plenty long enough. By the end of that time I was ITCHING to move. Heaven only knows how I’m going to cope with 12 months in one place once I’m back home!
I was able to leave the bulkiest of my things in Bristol while my backpack, sleeping bag, laptop and I hefted ourselves aboard a bus to get to London Victoria station. Finally I was on my way up to Scotland to work with dolphins and whales, via a brief detour to see my sister and get some much-needed family time. The detour took a little longer than I expected since I managed to get myself onto the wrong train platform. I wonder what it is with train platforms lately, since I also managed to be on the wrong one on leaving my sisters’ place. Yes, it is clearly the railways fault, and not mine!
I’m still trying to fathom what it was it that made me think a night bus to Scotland was a good idea. The fare, probably. It was hardly the most restful of rides, and it was long-winded. 9 hours to Glasgow, then 3 hours waiting for my connection to Aberdeen, a 3 hour ride to Aberdeen and then once getting there, another two hours on a bus to Banff, to finally be picked up around 5 in the afternoon. A marathon journey for such a relatively short distance!
At least once in Aberdeen I wasn’t travelling alone. As it happened, all 4 of my fellow volunteers converged on Aberdeen station at roughly the same time so we were able to travel up together. I’m sorry to say the voyage wasn’t without its drama – about 20 minutes out of Aberdeen the bus broke down and we had to wait an hour for the next one to come along and get us. I can’t remember why but we decided it was the English lad, Connor’s, fault that the bus broke down and from that point on he was the culprit when anything went wrong.
Once in Banff we were greeted by ... Gary, long term CRRU staff member. Somehow we and all our luggage shoe-horned into the CRRU landrover, and 20 minutes later the Landrover was shoe-horning its way down the alarmingly narrow “street” on the sea wall at base camp in Gardenstown. We were famished, and exhausted, but far too excited to rest. After dinner we all went for a walk along the sea wall to another village alongside Gardenstown called Crovie – which, for some inexplicable reason, is pronounced “Crivvie”. The views up to the hills and over the Moray Firth were stunning, the villages picturesque, the sunset beautiful beyond description, and I decided then and there that were it not for Scottish weather, I could happily live in this quaint little corner. We all eventually had to get some rest despite the almost constant twilight of Scottish nights at this time of year.
Day 1. We start pleasantly late. First lectures at the very civilised hour of 10am, though I’m up long before. This morning we cover cetacean ID and boat safety. We’re all confused about which species is what by the time we’re done – there are so many of them! I personally am extremely confused about the knots we’ve been taught to tie. We’re assured that the zodiacs can’t tip over; that should anything go wrong we have the radio, a mobile phone and, as a last resort, the EPIRB, to alert the coastguard. We’re fitted with our sea-faring gear which consists of woolly bears – black fleece “onesies” that I know for a fact I’m going to be glad of; survival suits with zips that must be wrestled with and which, in theory, are watertight; wet-boots – mine don’t quite fit and I look like I’ve got penguin feet but then, so does everyone else; and the obligatory life-jacket which one must forego any sense of decorum to get properly clipped into place. The sun is shining and the sea is in magnanimous mood – in fact, it’s dead flat - so after lunch we make ready to get out on the Firth! This will be the first trial of my new chemical helper, Stugeron, and all I can do is hope that my lunch doesn’t end up decorating the zodiac as soon as we leave the harbour.
2.30pm before we have the trailer packed and make the 30 minute journey to Whitehills where the Orca II is moored. First we make an obligatory toilet stop, then have to don our gear – this is never done before we reach harbour since otherwise, we’d be dying of heat exhaustion. We’re novices at this, so it’s a lengthy process. I’m over-generous with the talcum powder that coats the rubber seals of the survival suits, and it’s all over everything. Being our first outing it also takes us a while to get organised with filling the fuel tanks and packing everything onto Orca but the theory is that, after this, we will be a well-oiled machine. Looking at the way some of the younger volunteers work, I fear this may be wishful thinking. There is an inordinate amount of gear that needs to go onto the Orca – massive watertight camera box and equally large storage box which usually contains the drone and it’s remote control, the GPS, GoPro and it’s stick for filming underwater, sunscreen, people’s cameras and most importantly, the boat keys and a mobile phone; a 20 litre jerry can; the small hydrophone; and a couple of dry bags which contain snorkels and masks (you never know), hats and gloves, and above all, our snacks. On top of this, we need to fit 7 people – the 5 of us raw recruits, Gary, and Kev who is the founder and director of CRRU. Today we’re doing a bottlenose run which means we hug the coastline and watch out for telltale signs of bottlenose dolphins. We’re all assigned places and tasks – two at the front of the boat are watching so hard for dolphins that Kev laughs at us; one is designated recorder in case we see anything and their job will be to note time, sea state (how big the swell is and whether there are any waves), whether we’re seeing anything and if so, at what GPS co-ordinates, what species and how many of them. One is up on the little viewing platform on the bow – she later tells me her seasickness pills were making her fall asleep up there - and I get to switch places with her and to do my Kate Winslet impersonation. My eyes are streaming from the wind blowing across them from the moment we set out, but I’m determined to see something if there’s anything to be seen. As it turns out, there are no dolphins but we do see 5 grey seals basking on some rocks. Kev makes up for this lack by letting Connor drive the boat for a while – something we will all have to do at some point, as Kev is insistent on all of us knowing what to do in the event of either he or Gary being injured or otherwise unable to get us back to the harbour.
I’m thinking Kev could have provided us with a little less excitement. We run out of fuel. Gary fills up the tank but then can’t get the motor started again. After some cajoling, Kev manages to get the motor to fire but we limp along with the engine in what’s called safety mode. It will take us hours to get back to Whitehills. This is not good enough for Kev. He thinks that if he stops the engine and re-starts it, all might be well. Gary looks alarmed and I’m pretty sure we’re all thinking the same thing.
Yup. The engine is now completely refusing to co-operate. Connor has obviously broken Orca II. But it’s OK because we have the radio and can raise the coastguard. Or can we? We can hear them. It seems they can’t hear our calm and controlled “PAN-PAN”. Connor has now also broken the radio.
Gary goes for his mobile and I’m hoping a) it’s charged b) there’s a mobile signal and c) Connor hasn’t broken it. Gary doesn’t have the number for Aberdeen coastguard so has to call 999 instead. From here on it all gets a bit messy with garbled messages being relayed, and our position shifting as we drift with the current. It appears that communications between emergency services and the coastguard are not as seamless as they could be.
But I’m not worried. The Stugeron is still in effect. Not only am I not seasick, I also seem to have no ability to feel anxiety. I think I like my new chemical friend. I’m lolling on the side of the Orca just as if I was sitting back in a big comfy armchair. We’ve still got the EPIRB and if all else fails, I’m pretty sure I saw a flare in the bottom of one of those boxes. Won’t it be funny if Connor has broken those, too? I’ve still got most of my bottle of water and the only problem I foresee is – what happens if I need the loo?
At last we hear over our broken radio that the Aberdeen coastguard has been despatched, and we can see an orange speck coming out of the harbour. They know where we are – right? Maybe not. They’re heading away from us. No point in standing on the prow and waving our arms about – they’re too far away to see us. Never fear – Gary gets on the phone again while the rest of us keep the coastguard in sight. Emergency services want to know if we moved. Erm…. yes, but we didn’t do it on purpose. At last that lovely orange speck turns and grows bigger on the horizon. Kev says the coastguard regularly rescues CRRU boats. We’re apparently a perfect training exercise for new crews.
We’re towed into harbour in good spirits and the most cordial relations with the coastguard crew, but are unprepared for the locals who line the harbour walls. I get the distinct impression that they’re disappointed at the lack of drama. Once in the harbour the coastguard unties us, Gary and Kev row us to our mooring and then Kev has to go and file a report with harbour officials while Gary instructs us in unloading and washing down the Orca.
It’s 10pm by the time we get back to Gardenstown. Luckily Kev’s girlfriend has cooked for us – in fact dinner was ready hours ago. We take the tables down onto the sand while the tide’s out, and eat on the beach. The others want to go for a walk up to the ruined church on the hill but I’m knackered.
Despite what you might think, it’s been a wonderful day. Sure, we didn’t see any dolphins but we saw seals, and loads of birds – gannets, kittiwakes, black-backed and herring gulls, cormorants, razorbills and terns. I do feel for Kev and Gary – tomorrow they have to nut out the logistics of getting Orca II fixed.
What do you do with a broken Orca?
What do you do with a broken Orca?
What do you do with a broken Orca, ear-ly in the mornin’?
Day 2. I do like late starts! Today it’s windy and too choppy to see anything in the Firth so we’re having a “shore day”. Besides which, Kev has to spend time nutting out a plan to get Orca II out of the water and off to be fixed. We sit in the cosy office and have lectures – first on individual cetacean ID, and then we start on the marine mammal rescue course. I’m very impressed, not only with the professionalism of Kev and Gary, but also with the complete lack of ego surrounding their research and their openness in sharing it. Any information we want is ours for the asking. So different to most scientists, and even wildlife rehab centres, who can be incredibly proprietorial. We break for lunch, load the trailer and head out to a disused outdoor pool near MacDuff, about 20 minutes away, for the practical component of the rescue course. Kev disappears with the Landrover, to pick up Orca II and get her to a boatyard.
We suit up and hit the pool. The water is murky and I’m not sure I want to know what that stuff is that’s coming off the bottom as we move around. At least it’s warm. Which is a bit of a bonus really, because it’s at this point that I discover that my suit leaks. Fortunately it’s only my left foot that’s getting wet.
Gary passes us the rubber pilot whale which will be our “rescue” animal, and we stretch her out in the water ready to fill with seawater so that she weighs roughly what a full-grown pilot whale would weigh. We know she’s female because even though her fin is in the wrong place for a pilot whale, she’s otherwise anatomically correct and has mammary slits. Time in the classroom has not been wasted!
Time in the pool is another matter. Nikki, the dozing figurehead of yesterday, hopefully holds one end of the hose while Gary tries to get the seawater pump going. Connor has struck again… even though he’s holding on to the sucking end of the hose and is nowhere near the pump. It takes three attempts to get it running, and to provide us with anything more than a trickle. In the meantime Nikki and I submerge the whale’s bung so we can at least get her partly filled.
Once the pump is running, the whale is filled reasonably quickly. Even this is not without drama, as Gary has to make a mad dash for the edge of the pool at one point to stop the pump from falling in. It’s then that we discover that the whale has a slow leak. Wildlife rescue is always full of challenges, and this is proving to have more than its share!
We all crowd round the whale in our designated positions and go through the checklist of what to look for. Well - for one thing, she’s not breathing and I’m pretty sure she’s got neurological problems, because there’s a definite list to starboard. Keeping her stable in the water entails kneeling on the bottom of the pool, and I am now fully aware of how significant a leak in the survival suit boot is. I am wet up to my waist.
Having gone through the checklist, some of us are despatched to get the re-flotation equipment, which consists of a heavy duty plastic stretcher and two inflatable pontoons. We deploy the stretcher first. It’s got a lot of metal rings to attach the pontoons, and has to be rolled the right way to fit under the whale. We have a couple of goes at getting that right. The challenge then, is to approach the whale the right way so we can unroll the stretcher and actually get her on it. This takes more than one attempt and quite a lot of confused discussion. In addition to this we have to be careful to position the whale’s pectoral flippers so as not to damage them.
That achieved, we now attach the pontoons. Again we have the discussion about which way they’re supposed to face, but eventually we get it sorted out, and the mysteries of why we place the stretcher in a particular way are solved. The pontoons are attached by industrial strength metal clips, and it’s all I can do get mine open enough to clip to the stretcher. Now we have to inflate the pontoons but before very long we realise we’re almost out of air – Connor!! Somewhere around this point the thunder starts and the rain pelts down. I’m just glad the lightning holds off.
We’re just finishing up as Kev comes back with treats for all. Nikki sits on top of the whale while Kev takes photos ...
Rescue complete, everything has to be emptied and packed away into the trailer. Luckily I brought dry clothes with me, so I don’t have to sit in sopping leggings for the return to Gardenstown. Once there it’s up to us to unpack the trailer and hang out our gear. It’s late and we’re tired but hey, we wanted to be research assistants!
Day 3. 10am start and we head out to Lossiemouth, which is about an hour and a half to the west of Gardenstown and where Ketos, CRRU’s second zodiac, is moored. I can’t stand dithering so I’m hefting boxes for loading while most of them are still standing around, taking their sweet time to suit up. There’s a long drop down to the jetty from the seawall, so this means attaching ropes to jerry cans and the like to get them down safely. Kev and I can’t figure out why the others are so slow – I’m raring to get out there. Stugeron is a wonderful thing.
Gary has shore duty today. He’s watching for cetaceans from the shore and meeting us at Portsoy harbour, a little closer to Gardenstown. Lossiemouth is too far away to be practical if we have a short window to get out on the Firth and see something.
Since it’s looking a bit choppy to go out very far, we’re doing another bottlenose run. The observation platform is higher and bigger than on Orca II but it won’t take much weight – so by default I get to go up and be Kate Winslet. My eyes are streaming again but I keep a sharp lookout and am rewarded by joint first sighting of a breaching dolphin closer in to shore. Now I see why Kev laughed at us that first day. Once you know what you’re looking for, the signs are unmistakeable.
We have two wonderful encounters with bottlenose dolphins. The first group is of 8 dolphins and yes, we do have to count them and try to keep track to make sure we’re not counting the same animal twice. Connor joins me on the platform – two sets of eyes are better than one. Some of the dolphins bow ride and I can see them clearly through the water just alongside us. One of the males, known as Twister, leaps higher than anyone else and crashes back into the water on his side. I wonder if he’s greeting us or showing us who’s boss. I am as happy as a pig in the proverbial.
Our next encounter is further to the east at Spey Bay. Eventually we count 13 bottlenose but this is tricky, because they’re all going in different directions and three of last year’s calves are just playing. 4 dolphins swim towards us from the bow and pass directly underneath us – one is on his side and I’m sure, looking up at us and thinking “oh, it’s you lot – again”. Kev somehow knows them all by their dorsal fins and colours but then, he ought to – he’s been doing this research for 18 years.
Today, it’s me who has to learn to drive the boat. Stugeron can’t help with this. The steering responds nicely when I want to go right, but is stubborn when I need to go left. This is clearly Connor’s doing. Keeping to 13km an hour is a mission. I can’t just leave the throttle in one spot because of the waves and the current – I have to give it little nudges and then pull it back. Between reefing the wheel to the left and trying not to either leave us dead in the water or surf at breakneck speed over the top, I’m finding it extremely stressful and, our ride is less than smooth. I’m never so glad as when Kev needs to take control again, and I’m pretty sure everyone else is feeling the same way. I’ll do anything rather than drive the boat!
There are a lot of schoolkids lining the harbour seawall as we make our way in. They’re all waiting to jump in and douse us with their collective splash as we pass. We foil their plans, though this isn’t deliberate. We run out of fuel with about 50 metres to go. I’m wondering if, given our luck so far, we should rather carry 2 jerry-cans than one.
Back on land, Gary tells us he saw a minke whale about 100 metres from us early on in the day. We missed it. D’oh!!!
It’s the staff night off so Sandra, another volunteer about my age, and I do the cooking. The boys do the washing up. ...
Day 4. 10.30 start and the plan is to do focal follows with minke whales. I have no idea what that is but in any case, it’s too rough for that so, we’ll do a bottlenose run instead. Damn. It’s also getting too rough, even inshore, for that.
We pull into Portsoy, have lunch, and offload all the equipment, Gary, and 3 volunteers. They’re going off to take Orca II to the engine doctor. Kev opts to take me and Sandra with him for safety – if it comes down to Kev being injured, Sandra is a much better boat driver than me! He tells me we’re the most useful to him, since everyone else seems to get seasick. Kev’s decided to take Ketos to harbour at Whitehills, which is even closer to Gardenstown. We all 3 pile onto the equivalent of a motorbike seat in the middle of Ketos, and off we go. The sea is getting rougher and there’s not a lot of Kate Winslet-ing today.
Did I mention that I love Stugeron? The seas are awful, especially round the headlands, and there’s a lot of up and down stuff that would normally have me turning green and deciding to swim for it. Instead, I’m loving it. I don’t know how worried anyone else is, but it’s kind of exhilarating braving the Firth like that. I look around and see loads of birds wheeling and performing aerobatics against the cliffs. Why anyone wants to cage a bird, when they are so at home in the air, is beyond me. There are gulls, guillemots, razorbills, kittywakes and cormorants, all just doing what they’re designed to do, and filling me with wonder and awe. There’s also a black guillemot which is a real find, since they’re quite rare.
We get back to Whitehills before Gary and the Landrover, so we decide to walk to Banff. It’s good to iron the kinks out of my back from bouncing around on Ketos. Once back at base, it’s Sandra and I who end up doing most of the hefting and hauling to get the trailer unpacked and gear hung up to air. This is turning into a habit.
Day 5. Miserable weather so the plan to go to the local festival in Portsoy is canned – and there’s no getting out on Ketos either. Instead we have another shore day. Today we’re helping with photo ID on our two dolphin encounters, and catching up with some old data that still has to be plugged into the database.
Gary is gearing up to do his PhD on the minke whale, so this afternoon we help him sort out some protocols and forms. I help design a form for observations he wants to do on his focal follows. A focal follow is following one individual for 30 minutes and noting a range of things including how often they dive, how long the dives last, whether there’s any feeding or other behaviour, as well as all the usual data on depth and distance and GPS co-ordinates. We all have specific jobs to do and mine will be to call out the direction the whale is travelling. Given my sense of direction, I feel this is a tactical error.
Gary has new toys…. A new hydrophone, and a crossbow with which to gather biopsy samples. More stuff to try to stow on Ketos. I’m in charge of collecting the sample with the crossbow. I’ve never shot a crossbow. I’m working with Connor and we decide we’d better get to grips with how to load and disarm it. While we find information and practice that, the rest of the team has a series of dry runs in aseptically processing the samples once we get them. It’ll be tricky work on the boat not to contaminate the samples with any other DNA.
We decide we really ought to see if the crossbow has been sighted in. At the end of the day Gary, Connor and I find a secluded part of the beach to practice and to adjust the sights. We get some odd stares from locals. A fishing company ... has been illegally shooting seal pups around Gardenstown because they claim they’re eating all the salmon – a claim absolutely negated by necropsies which have shown no salmon in dead seal pup stomachs. Sea Shepherd is here on and off, trying to keep (them) honest. I’m not sure whose side the locals think we’re on.
Day 6. Our first early start! We’re up at 4 to be out of Gardenstown by 5. All is going according to plan until I notice that the trailer has a flat tyre. We have no spare. Before we can go anywhere, that tyre needs to be pumped up. CONNOR!!!
We’re still on track despite the flat. Sandra and I get the trailer unpacked at Whitehills, and then Gary realises we’re missing two crucial pieces of equipment - the camera box and the boat keys. Exit Gary in the Landrover, looking frazzled. Sandra, Connor and I load up Ketos, make sure the tanks are full, and find space for the extra hydrophone and the crossbow. Who knows where the others are, but neither Sandra nor I are feeling very charitable towards them.
Gary’s back with the boat keys and camera box, and it doesn’t take us long to get out into the Firth. There’s a swell but no wind, and the sea is like glass. It’s probably because of the fog, which started to roll in as we left the harbour and is now like pea soup. We go 6km out into the Firth but the fog’s not lifting, and it’s colder now than when we set out. We head back to the marina to eat our lunch – which has become a second breakfast - and have a nice hot cup of tea. Maybe the fog will lift.
We set off again around 10. It’s a little clearer now so we head out to the 50 metre line, where the minkes usually feed. Curses, we are foiled! – the fog descends again. There’s too much swell to Kate Winslet so Connor and I ride shotgun, standing each on one side of Ketos’ prow.
It’s not a wasted trip, even though we can’t do a focal follow. We watch hordes of gannets ripping into the water to feed. Our friends the razorbills, guillemots and gulls are with us, and there are even a couple of puffins bobbing about on the surface. And we see minke! We also smell them. There is a very particular odour to a minke “blow” which, once experienced, can never be forgotten. The fog just seems to make it more pungent. We see 6 minke – or the same one 6 times, we can’t be quite sure – and then decide to call it a day. I continue riding shotgun until the swell gets too much. I plan a graceful transition to a sitting position but end up misjudging the swell, and fall 50cm to the deck, knocking the boat out of gear in the process. The young Texan lad we call “Fort Worth”, whose turn it is to drive today, is taken completely by surprise.
The fog is thicker than ever, and we are colder than ever, as we make our way in. Once landed, the others dawdle getting their gear off while Sandra, Gary and I unload and wash down Ketos, then load the trailer. The tyre is flat again. It’s been a long morning.
Back at base by 2pm. There’s a load of data capture to do but Gary’s not in the mood. Instead, he takes us to Troup Head which is a RSPB site and right up my alley. The fog still isn’t lifting but we can see over the edge of the cliffs to the raucous gannet colony below. Some are only a few metres from where I stand. I see gannets beyond count, and giant fluffy chicks – one per nesting pair. I doubt they could cope with more. I see guillemots and razorbills, and one lone pair of puffins. There’s also a pair of fulmars nesting. I could sit here forever, watching the gannets glide in and out from the cliffs, and marvelling at those fluffly babies. I also get to add two new terrestrial bird species to my list – a redpoll and a skylark. When we get back to base, there are loads of black-headed gulls on the shore.
What more could I want? Whales in the morning and birds in the afternoon!
Day 7. We scramble to get out on Ketos at 10. The weather is perfect and we’re aiming for a focal follow with minke whales. The trailer tyre is flat again and the plan is to drop the trailer at Banff to get it fixed. This means the Landrover is full of all our gear AND us. Kev is with us today so we’re once more a crew of 7. All our toys, except the drone, are with us and it’s cramped. But we have sunshine and we have a sea state of 0, while the swell is a 3. It’s not flat, but again it’s like glass. I have the first sighting for the day – harbour porpoise, and we’ve barely left port. How happy am I!!
I can Kate Winslet and escape the madding crowd. Kev comes up with me. I take watch in the clock direction of 10 - 12 and he takes 12 – 2. Everyone below has their station as well. While we’re up there, I quiz Kev about how much use his trainees really are on a 10 day course, and ask him if he’s thought of extending it to a month per team. Already, I don’t want to leave.
We head out to the 50 metre line, watching for bird rafts – large congregations of different bird species - as well as any sign of cetaceans. We can now tell where the 50 metre thermocline is, because the water looks different.
It takes a little while but we find the minkes. I’m given the crossbow just in case one comes close enough to get a biopsy sample. We spot one surfacing and circling as he corrals fish. Another one further on does a couple of subsurface feeding manoeuvres, then makes the classic above water scooping move for a mouthful of fish. Yet another minke comes close to the surface belly up – an unusual move, apparently. The harbour porpoise are there as well, and we see a group of 4 together. They’re so small, and very cute. It’s only on a flat sea like this that we’re able to spot them, but they must be everywhere.
We break for lunch, turning off the motor and just lolling in the sunshine for a while. This is very pleasant, and I’m enjoying watching the birds. The gannets are making awe-inspiring splashes as they rocket into the water from on high. I catch a very brief glimpse of a manx shearwater and two other birds which I’m not certain of – later I find out they’re great skuas. But I want to see more cetaceans. The team before us saw humpback whales and orca, and I’m holding thumbs we can do the same.
After lunch Gary is up on the observation platform with me, and I relinquish the crossbow. One juvenile minke comes close – close enough so that we think we have a chance at getting a biopsy sample. The crossbow fires with a most unconvincing “thunk” and the bolt plops sedately into the water, at least 20 metres short. Gary and I burst out laughing, and so does everyone else. From below, they tell us it looks like Gary threw it.
We see 9 minkes altogether, many of them quite young animals. The youngsters are curious and come right up to us. I have the best view, as from my vantage point I can watch them swim alongside and dive under Ketos’ bow. I can clearly see the length of these youngsters – as long as Ketos – and the distinctive white patches on their pectoral flippers. One larger minke circles us, checking us out.
Some surface close enough that Gary decides to have another go at getting a biopsy. The bolt still looks like he threw it, and it still falls short. The minke is not impressed. He startles at the sound, and disappears with a tail slap. Gary is shocked – he tells me that minke never tail slap. Well – it was there and I’m not the only one who saw it. I’m beginning to rethink whether biopsy samples are such a good thing after all. I know there’s no other way to find out what the levels of toxins are in their bodies, or to make up a genetic profile of the population in the Firth. But these babies are getting freaked out, and biopsies hurt. And I think – is it right to abuse their trust like that? They come to check us out of their own free will. How long will that continue if their friendly overtures are met by what can only seem to them like hostility?
Gary can keep the crossbow. Even he’s having moral issues. Me? - I want nothing further to do with it. The only positive from the attempts to biopsy is that we now have a baseline for behaviour, and know that firing a bolt will affect it.
The focal follow has gone out the window. The minke are feeding and not travelling, which is not what we need for a focal follow to work. We’re not deploying the hydrophone either. What we really need is two teams on two separate boats. We don’t have the manpower – or, at the moment, a second boat. The wind picks up and the sea state changes, which means conditions for spotting minke are not so good. We decide to head for shore. We’ve already been out for the maximum time Kev’s bladder will allow.
On our way in, a minke calf surfaces in the wake directly behind us 3 times, before losing interest and going off to do his own thing. We have a short pit-stop and then head to Whitehills on a bottlenose run. I think I see two harbour porpoise but with the sea as it is, I can’t be sure. The weather changes again and we don’t quite make it back to harbour before a drizzle sets in. I’m getting rained on but I don’t care. My leaky survival suit boot should be able to withstand this.
It’s late by the time we collect the trailer and get back, and Sandra and I are doing all the donkey work – again. Turns out that we’re the well-oiled machine. I’m dog tired but I’ve had the best day. All those minkes and harbour porpoise – and new birds to add to my list. There are only two days left and I will miss Gardenstown. I will miss the whales, dolphins, porpoise and birds. I will miss being Kate Winslet.
Day 8. The weather is being Scottish again. We’re having a shore day. There’s a lot of old data still to get into the system, and we need to input all our minke data from yesterday. My office admin skills come in handy as Kev is having trouble with his software licenses, and leaves it to me to sort out. Six of the minke from yesterday haven’t been seen before so we put them into the database, and then we all get to name one. Mine is Munchie. She – or he – has had her dorsal fin munched on. Makes sense to me.
We dabble a bit more with Gary’s observation forms and I keep looking out the window – the Firth is not being kind today, and there’s a mother eider duck with one little duckling bobbing around just below us. He keeps getting swamped by the waves and I’m petrified that he’ll either be dashed against the seawall or drowned. I’d go down there and rescue him but touch wood, he’s OK so far, the tide is on its way out, and he’s far better off with mum than he would be with me. She had a whole string of babies when we arrived and now there’s only this one left.
Kev is off to collect Orca II, who we are promised faithfully is now fixed. We plan an evening sortie on the Firth, if conditions improve. Data collection is as interesting as everything else, but given that we’ve only got one more day, I want to be out there. I want to see all the other cetacean species that I know are here, but that we haven’t spotted yet.
Kev eventually limps back with Orca II. It seems she’s not fixed after all. Connor has really done a number on her! The fog rolls in then out again, just like the tide; the wind picks up, it begins to rain, and the fog sets in again for the night. Any hopes of going out this evening are dashed. We’re so absorbed in what we’re doing that it’s 8pm before we realise what time it is.
Day 9. The storm last night was horrible, and this morning there are gull bodies along the shoreline. It makes me heartsore to see dead animals of any description, be they babies, juveniles or adults. I mourn for them all.
We start at 10am with a lecture on how photo ID fits into the broader research. That runs till lunchtime, then we’re off on a mystery tour. It’s such a mystery, that even Kev isn’t sure where we’re going – a bit of a worry since he’s driving. Our eventual destination is Willows, a domestic animal sanctuary which Gary is as keen to visit as the rest of us – he has a favourite horse he wants to see. But Willows is closed to visitors today.
... At Strichan there are some standing stones, cordoned off in the middle of a field, which have been there for who knows how long, or for what purpose. Gary stands up on the “altar”, and I manage to stand in a fresh cowpat.
... Our way back to base takes us through the delightful villages of Rosehearty and Pennan. At Pennan I take a photo of the famous phone box, used in the film Local Hero. I also move a juvenile herring gull off the road. He’s looking for his mum. I hope she’s here somewhere, because he’s not ready to fish for himself and can’t fly yet. I hate leaving him and can’t help looking behind me for as long as I can see him as we drive off. I hope mum found him.
When we get back to base it dawns on me that, though I’ve had the camera with me every day, I’ve taken no pictures at sea. I’m not too fazed. I have precious memories, and prefer not to see everything through the lens of a camera. It’s been enough to take in every wonder as it unfurled, ... in any case, I can download shots from the shared team folder on the CRRU network.
We have our last team dinner and are presented with our certificates. We’re all now marine medics, and have proof of our participation in the research project. We also have our first and only board game – a sort of auditory version of Pictionary. I’m teamed with Gary. We’re supposed to take turns describing an object, person, verb, whatever; and the other person has to guess the word. I suck at describing, and Gary commandeers that role after the first round. Thanks to his descriptions and my ready answers, we win!
Day 10. This doesn’t really count as a research day. This is a travel day, and we’re all going back to our normal lives. Well – what counts for normal, in my case. I’m off back to Bristol via yet another night bus, for another adventure.
The morning is spent in packing, and cleaning the volunteer house. I have a very emotional farewell with my sleeping bag. It’s been with me since the predator course in Africa last year, and I couldn’t have survived without it. It’s rated for freezing conditions and I won’t need it again for at least a couple of years. The luggage is getting tiresome and I need to lighten the load. All the same, I’m tempted to strap it to the backpack – is this a goodbye I really need to say?
Sandra, Nikki and I all get a ride into Banff for the bus at the same time. It’s hard saying goodbye to Gary and Kev. They’ve made us feel like family, and that our time and effort has been crucial to the project. Sandra is getting a bus to Inverness, but Nikki and I are heading for Aberdeen together.
I wish we could have got out on the Firth one last time. I wish I wasn’t leaving. I wish I’d seen the humpbacks, the orca, the white-lipped dolphins, the common dolphin. I never feel that I’ve done enough, and I wish I’d been more use to the researchers. I know I’m going to have to make a plan to get back here. I have a feeling it may be for a whole season."