Monday, 16 August 2010

Isle of Mull to the Isle of Muck

A leaden, rain-saturated sky dulled the ocean surface as we boarded the Sula Beag: perfect weather for picking out the dark silhouettes of fins amid the confusion of shapes cast by everchanging waves...

I was going on a whale-watching trip with my dad!

We booked our trip with which charges £80 per person for a 7 hour trip.

We left harbour at 9:30am and sailed around Mull's northern shores. Passing the steep cliffs near Rubha Nan Gall, we saw the steel-grey back of a Peregrine Falcon.

Our vessel was followed for several minutes by a hungry Great Skua (Stercorarius skua) which soared directly overhead.

Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)
Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)
Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)
Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)
Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)

Great Skuas are ferocious scavengers and predators, capable of robbing seabirds (up to the size of Gannets and Herring Gulls) of their catch and able to kill Puffins and Rabbits with ease.

60% of the world's Great Skuas nest in Scotland during the Summer (mainly concentrated on Shetland and Orkney) and then migrate southwards to spend their winters on the coasts of Spain and Africa.

Our first fins of the day - a pair moving in lazy tandem, the first larger than the second - belonged to a Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus).

We came remarkably close to the sinuously synchronous fins, their owner's vast bulk concealed beneath the dark waters. Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) floated above the shark, unperturbed by the benign leviathan's fins cutting amongst their company.

Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Basking sharks move at a leisurely pace with a distinctive snake-like, side-winding movement: very different from the fast, fluke-thrusting motion of cetaceans.

The Basking Shark is one of only 3 shark species which feed on plankton. It swims with its cavernous mouth agape and plankton are trapped on its gill rakers with the aid of mucus.
These Sharks are highly migratory, travelling thousands of kilometres in search of zooplankton blooms (in Spain they are known as peregrino, meaning 'a pilgrim or wanderer'. In winter they feed in deeper waters and only 'bask' in surface waters during the summer months.

The second largest fish in the world, Basking Sharks can measure up to 11 metres from nose to tail and weigh as much as 7 tonnes (roughly equivalent to a male African Elephant).

Overfishing for fins (shark fin soup), meat and shark liver oil, has led to a drastic decline in numbers and the Basking Shark is now listed on the ICUN redlist as 'Vulnerable' and is protected from capture or disturbance in British waters. The main threats to Basking Sharks are illegal fishing, accidental entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats.

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus)

Birdlife included distant Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwakes which bobbed in the boat's wake with their black-collared young, Puffins (already in their dull, sooty-faced winter plumage) and several Guillemot dads supervising a single youngster each.

Further out to sea, North of the Ardnamurchan penninsula, the Isle of Eigg came into view: a towering plateau over which gloomy masses of rain cloud cascaded. Ahead, to the left, lay the smaller, flatter Isle of Muck.

Isle of Eigg

The ship's resident salty sea-dog, a good-natured Border Terrier, began to whine - said by the crew to indicate the presence of whales...Seconds later, a pod of Minke Whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)appeared to our right: small grey fins atop gracefully sloping humps.

Not long after, we encountered a small pod of Harbour Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena): grey-black, falcate fins moving with great haste, slicing the water as if attached to rotating wheels.

The Isle of Muck is a mostly tree-less isle covered in reedy marshes and turfy fields of multicoloured sheep. We disembarked and spent a short hour exploring the isle.

Floral diversity was limited to thistles, various shades of Eyebright and ruddy Sorrels.

Isle of Muck

Musical twittering drew our attention to a large flock (+25) of Redpolls (probably Lesser Redpolls, but too far away to be certain) which flitted about the island and eventually alighted on a large tree.

Isle of Muck

On our return to Mull, through a torrent of rain, we again sighted the pod of Harbour Porpoise, more Basking Sharks and a Sunfish was spotted by some people on the upper deck.

Stained glass window of Tobermory Free Church

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