My kit list for a weekend in the wilderness

IMG_1130

A room with a view!

Yesterday I opened a message from my friend, Clare.
She’s going camping for the first time soon and, knowing I love sleeping under the stars, she wondered if I could advise on what she should take.

I’ve had a few friends ask me similar things recently so, rather than replying to everyone privately, I thought I’d share my thoughts in a blog post.

162314e4-a093-424a-b874-656fa0929836

Wild woman! Looking dishevelled after 6 months of living in the woods (photo by Rob Pattinson)

The first thing I should say is that I’m certainly no expert on camping, this is simply what works for me! It’s my basic starter list.
If you’re a seasoned camper you might think there are too many items… Or you might think I’ve missed things.
For some folk a stovetop coffee pot is a vital necessity, for others it’s a proper pillow or a good book… Whatever makes you happy!

Each different style of camping has a slightly different packing list.
Are you taking a tent? Bivvying? With tarp or without? Have you got a camper van? Are you going to build your own shelter or dig a snowhole?

IMG_6077

Making a basic shelter using found materials and existing structures (photo from my island trip)

I usually choose to bivvy, the most basic way to sleep wild.
There’s no tent involved, just a waterproof (aka bivvy/bivvi) bag to keep out the elements. There are no walls so you can fall asleep watching for shooting stars. If lots of rain is forecast I’ll also take a tarp so I can sit outside of my sleeping bag.
I’ve based my list on this way of sleeping out but it’s easy to adapt. If you’ve got a campervan with all mod-cons feel free to replace practical roll mats and tarps with heavy bottles of wine -enjoy!

IMG_5917

Cider with Pip the pup on a recent camp out

Over time you’ll find out what works best for you. You’ll swap the things that you rarely use for little luxuries or favourite foods.
Sometimes I’ll have a bag stuffed to bursting that I can barely carry and at other times I’ll pack little more than sleeping gear and a toothbrush. It all depends on my mood, where I’m going and what the weather is like.

DSC_0828

I rarely camp out without a book or two; it’s the perfect opportunity to switch off and chill out.

That said, it took a long time for me to learn that I didn’t always need to fill my bag with additional stuff ‘just in case’. I used to make sure I packed clothes for all eventualities, a spare set in case I got wet, some clean stuff, maybe I might need this extra thing, how about a choice of breakfast foods or books?

Then I bought the ‘Microadventures’ book by Al Humphreys* and my whole attitude to sleeping out changed.
A microadventure is an achievable adventure that is short, cheap, simple and usually close to home. They can be enjoyed on a weekday night, after work, even just in the back garden. And you don’t need much stuff.

IMG_1615

Bivvying near Inverness airport -a cheap and fun way to catch the first flight of the day

The bit that really stood out to me was where Al (with apologies to his Mum!) said he doesn’t always bother taking spare socks or pants if he’s just heading straight home the next morning.

It reminded me of doing a similar thing during sixth form. On weekends, after raiding someone’s parents’ wine cellar we’d grab as many coats and scarves as we could and trundle out into the night in the direction of Windsor Great Park. Once there we’d curl up under a big oak tree and giggle and get spooked by nocturnal noises until we fell asleep. At dawn we’d wake up, shivering and damp, with huge smiles on our faces.
We’d call it ‘going trekking’ and laugh about it as we walked home towards the inevitable ticking-off.

1928777_509748987149_2106_n

From the archives… Baby Katie & friends getting spooked by owls in Windsor Great Park circa 2002.

In many ways, reading ‘Microadventures’ was a lesson in returning to that youthful spontaneity. We don’t need expedition-style prep to enjoy a night or two under the stars. It’s simply about having fun.

Since we’re here I want to take this chance to tell camping newbies the rule number one of enjoying wild spaces…
Leave No Trace!

18010806_1687658701274907_1044746719069573210_n

Litter, firepits and scorch marks -bad camping practice that ruins these beautiful places for everyone (photo from Facebook group ‘Glen Etive: The Dirty Truth’)

This probably seems obvious but, with a growing interest in wild camping, there’s been a huge (and not very nice) impact on our natural environments.
I see it first hand here in Skye but it’s a growing problem across the UK so it’s important that we all know how to camp responsibly.
There are a number of basic principles that all new campers should know and I’ve detailed ‘The Big Three’ that I think are most important in my previous VIB** blog post here.

So, after all that, here’s what I’d pack for a weekend living wild…

IMG_1013

Tea, chocolate and a good book in a beautiful place… perfect!

MY BASIC WEEKEND KIT LIST…

SLEEPING
The main activity! My sleeping bag and bivvy take up a good 75% of the space in my rucksack (mostly because I’m a stuffer, life’s too short for rolling and folding a sleeping bag).

Sleeping bag
Rollmat or air mat: I prefer a military-issue rollmat, not as comfy but I usually pop the others!
Bivvy bag: Over my sleeping bag to keep me dry.
Tarp/waterproof blanket/tent (optional): An optional additional barrier against wet weather. I like to take a small tarp so that I don’t have to retreat to my sleeping/bivvy bag when it rains at mealtimes.
Bungees/paracord/tent pegs (optional): For securing tarp (or tent). Bungees are especially helpful as you can also use them to secure bulky stuff like roll mats to the outside of your bag.
Pillow (optional): I never bother, choosing instead to use a rolled-up jumper or whatever is at hand  but some people find it makes a big difference to the quality of their sleep.

IMG_7155

Enjoying a cosy lie-in thanks to my trusty Alpkit bivvy bag

PERSONAL KIT
This will obviously vary depending on how long you’re off-grid for and also how mucky you don’t mind being!

Toothbrush and toothpaste
Soap: Those small, individually-wrapped soaps you get from hotels are perfect.
Lip balm/hand cream: These aren’t essential but I find both really helpful, especially if I’m away for more than a couple of days.
Spare socks, underwear and baselayers: Unless it gets wet you only really need to change the layers closest to your skin. It’s only a weekend and no-one’s judging you! I never bother with pyjamas or swimming kit as it’s easier just to strip off.
Warm kit: Hat, neck buff, gloves. Even if it feels warm it’s worth having these just in case the temperature takes a dip.
Waterproofs
Towel (optional): You can get great lightweight camping towels that fold up neatly. I prefer a ‘proper’ towel despite the bulk.
Tissues: I add these with reluctance as seeing dirty scrunches of tissue paper discarded in natural places is one of my biggest pet peeves… If you need a wee why not embrace your wild side and try out some moss instead? If you must use tissue always bag it up and take it away with you.
Tissues can also be handy for fire lighting, drying tech and runny noses.
Sanitary items (if needed): As above, please take your rubbish away with you!

Compostable dog poo bags: For used tissues, sanitary items and even, ahem, number 2’s! (Remember not to flush the bags themselves when you get to somewhere with plumbing)

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1517.

You can’t beat nice dry socks after a long walk!

COOKING/EATING
Part of the pleasure of camping for me is a brew with a view, a quickly-scoffed chocolate bar after a long walk or a dram of whisky whilst looking at the stars.

Tin mug: I always take two as one can double up as a cooking vessel.
Cutlery: I don’t bother with specialist camping cutlery as I usually break it or lose it! A fork, dessert spoon and a couple of teaspoons usually do for me (with my regular bushcraft knife)
Mess tins
Cooking system: There’s a huge variety to choose from. The easiest type to start off with is a simple gas canister with a stove attachment. My favourite is a Kelly Kettle system which uses natural fuels. You can see a range of different types here. Take a look around to see what suits your needs best.
Metal scouring pad: I’ve sacrificed far too many pairs of clean socks and knickers because I’ve forgotten to bring something to wash up with!
Food & drink: This is a whole blog in itself so I won’t make a list here. Just be aware of weight, ease of cooking and whether things will keep without being refrigerated. Take more calorific food than you would eat at home and don’t forget treats!

IMG_5946

A ready-to–heat pouch of curry quickly warmed in a cup over the stove/fire is my favourite easy supper

SAFETY:
You probably won’t need most of these but you might regret it if you forget them!

Headtorch: I take two, just in case!
First Aid Kit: You can make your own or buy a ready-made kit (Lifesystems has a great selection here) I also like to add extra medicines such as burn gel, rehydration sachets, Imodium, Anthisan, etc.
Insect repellent and an O’Tom Tick Twister.
Emergency shelter/silver blanket.
Map & compass (if needed)
Mobile phone/GPS/radio: To call for help in case of emergencies. Be aware that in remote places you may not get phone signal. I use a GPS Spot Tracker and have an old Nokia as a back up.

IMG_1606

Don’t let injuries or disabilities keep you inside. You don’t have to hike a mountain to enjoy camping out (I ended up in this cast after a trip in my house -staying indoors is risky!)

PRACTICAL
The handy stuff.

Water bottle: I take multiples as well as a collapsible water carrier.
Lighter/matches/flint and a back-up.
Knife.
Superglue, string, duct tape: For repairs… I never regret packing these!
A waterproof bag or two: For keeping things dry, storing rubbish, wet clothes etc. Alpkit’s drybags are my favourite.
Trowel: To dig a 6-8″ hole in case nature calls. Check out this article to see how to poop responsibly in the woods without causing harm to the environment, other people or wildlife.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1532.

A few strategic scraps of duct tape stopped the tiny holes in my tarp from ripping further. It’s not that tidy but it works.

MY FAVOURITE HANDY EXTRAS
These are the things that I take to make living outside a bit easier or more comfortable. You might agree or think they’re a waste of space. That said, once you’ve tried a hot water bottle on a frosty winter night it’ll be hard to go back!

A Kelly Kettle: Probably my favourite bit of kit for spending time outdoors. In the right conditions I can boil water faster than my electric kettle at home. I use it for making hot drinks, filling hot water bottles and for even heating water for laundry. It’s more useful than 80% of my ex boyfriends.
Hot water bottle: Pure joy for frozen toes and long chilly nights. I now find it quicker, easier and more fuel efficient to make a HWB than to build a fire (not to mention less risk to the environment!)
Whisky: Central heating.
Large bags for beach cleans/impromptu litter picks.
Slip-on sandals/wellies/Crocs: for putting on quickly around camp.
Bottle opener/tin opener: Forget at your peril!
A small axe/hatchet: Good for making kindling. Equally good for digging, levering and for opening cans when you’ve forgotten the tin opener!
A notebook and pen: A bit of peace usually gets my mind sparking with new ideas and future plans.

IMG_7259

My beloved Kelly Kettle boiling water for my morning brew

…Aaaaand a rucksack to carry it all.

It looks like a long list when written down like that but it all packs up fairly easily, especially if you attach bulkier items like mats or Kelly Kettles to the outside of your pack.
Sometimes it’s also handy to bring a smaller backpack for when you’ve set up camp and want to go exploring. I call this my ‘handbag’ and use it for keeping a bottle of water, my safety kit (phone, emergency blanket, first aid kit etc) and warm/waterproof clothes close to hand.

IMG_2779

Big enough bag?!

The safety stuff is pretty important but the rest of it is all just personal preference.

Hopefully my basic guide is of some help but it’s also worth checking out other blogs for different ideas. What things would you add or remove?

Happy Camping folks!

>Very Important Blog, please read!  camper van cuppa[/caption]

**
*

**Very Important Blog, please read! 

*Buy this book. You will not regret it.
Al has probably been my biggest inspiration in getting outside so far. He makes it feel manageable and easy as well as exciting and his enthusiasm is infectious. Microadventures taught me a whole new way of enjoying nights spent under the stars with the ‘5-9’ idea and a more casual approach to adventuring. He’s also written a much more comprehensive guide to packing than I have here!

Advertisements

The first rule of camping: Leave no Trace!

One of the most important guidelines for anyone keen to enjoy the great outdoors is this…

Respect the natural landscape!

ash beach bonfire campfire

With wildfires raging in the UK this summer, campers must avoid lighting fires near vegetation. Beach bonfires are a good alternative.

‘Responsible Camping’ is something we all need to learn to do.

I’m probably preaching to the converted here but if just one person reads this and thinks twice about starting a campfire on a dry summer’s day then I’m going to keep yelling it from the hilltops!

At the bottom of this post you’ll find MY BIG THREE RULES FOR CAMPING RESPONSIBLY.
(Obviously there are more than three but we’ll just start with the basics for now…)

adventure camping feet morning

Sleeping outside is awesome! (Photo by Pexels.com)

Leaving your trail or campsite as you found it isn’t just the decent thing to do for animals, the environment and other people; it also means that we all get to continue having the freedom to enjoy these wild spaces.
Irresponsible practice leads to rules and legislation that may restrict our access or activity.

This is a subject close to my heart as I’ve seen first-hand the damage caused by carelessness. And it’s definitely getting worse.

activity adult adventure backpacking

Though big fires might look great on Instagram, building one of these can often be a really shitty thing to do (Photo by Pexels.com)

Over the last few years, as Skye’s popularity has increased, so has the impact on the environment. Magical glens and dramatic vistas are now littered with cigarette butts, scorch marks from campfires and even human waste.

Not only is it heartbreaking to see, it’s also dangerous to wildlife.

It’s not just the Highlands and Islands either; Dartmoor, Snowdonia and the Lakes are also struggling with similar issues.

At best it’s just dirty but at worst, irresponsibility can cause fires like the ones we’ve seen in the news recently.
Last month there were three major fires raging in and around Skye at the same time. Acres of woodland and the wildlife within it, including nesting birds, were lost.

35836864_10214204178471889_5661832881241063424_n - Copy

A wheatear fledgeling surveying the remains of its habitat in Harlosh, Skye after summer fires. Many younger birds were not as lucky. (Photo by Paul Meany)

Glen Etive just off Glen Coe has long been one of my favourite places to stop if I’m travelling between Skye and England; I’ve often stopped for a swim, a pause, a break from hours upon hours spent behind the wheel.

A week ago I was returning to Skye after visiting family. It was late and I was tired. I had missed sleeping under the stars and so I headed to the Glen to get some rest somewhere beautiful.
I wasn’t the only one with this thought.

36788593_610967945403_5201617622122102784_n

One of my favourite swimming spots. At 5am I had it all to myself.

 

It was dark when I got there but the meandering river was lit up with the glow of scattered campfires. Multicoloured tents dotted the banks like a field at a festival. A few groups were playing music.

Every passing place and makeshift layby contained one or two campervans or cars, accessorised with the odd plastic basin piled with washing up and vacated folding chairs.

36840255_610968758773_6821732268889866240_n

Litter on Harris (Photo by Cat Webster)

I drove on to find a quieter spot but none appeared. I finally gave up and turned around near a sign that said ‘No Fires’. It had the remains of a fire behind it.

When I returned at 5am the next morning the glen felt silent but the evidence of the night before was clear to see. Wisps of smoke drifting from smoldering fires. Bits of rubbish.
I looked for a place to swim and came across loo paper and human waste on the river rocks and banks.
It was like someone had vandalised a work of art.

36880786_610967960373_5809895612413378560_n

Wet wipes and other nasties 5 mins downstream of the swimming spot in the photo above.

Glen Etive is a small sampler of a wider problem. As outdoor pursuits have become trendy more and more people have been heading for the hills.

The rise of social media photography (especially Instagram), the need for healthy exercise and financial accessibility have all helped the boom.
My home on Skye has been particularly affected, resulting in a number of ‘Skye is full’ articles appearing over the last year.

36780820_610967980333_1219774272591888384_n

Photos like this one of Loch Lomond are inviting because they seem unspoilt. What you don’t see is the cigarette butts, beer cans and used nappy on the shore behind me.


So, here are my BIG THREE rules for camping responsibly…

DON’T LEAVE LITTER:

It goes without saying, please take your rubbish home with you. Not only does it look awful but it can also be harmful to wildlife.

This includes ‘natural’ litter such as banana skins and orange peel which can take up to two years to disappear!

Untitled

Fellow #GetOutside Champ, David Wilson, is being driven bananas by peels left in the Peaks


GOING TO THE LOO:

Piles of discarded loo paper are my biggest bugbear. It’s gross and I hate it. These places may look remote but they’re our homes and it really sucks to see used tissues and human waste in our favourite places.

I guess most folk think tissue just dissolves but even with our crazy Hebridean weather I’m still walking past paper left from over a year ago. Many people also don’t realise that wet wipes are made from plastic, not cotton!

20638816_10214537920581274_5109391909002568750_n

A grim sight. Unless it’s picked up it could take up to 2 years for this tissue to break down (Photo by Matt Harrison of ‘I Love Skye’)

As for the human waste, that’s not just disgusting, it’s also incredibly dangerous for other people, pets and wildlife.

Girls, if you need a nature wee please either bag up your tissue in a dog poo bag or, since you’re doing the wild woman thing anyway, use moss, grass or seaweed.

For pooping, try to do it before you leave. If that’s not an option you can either bury it using the methods explained here or take it away with you in a dog poo bag. Whatever you do, take the paper home with you -leave no trace!

36776649_610967990313_8941881087160745984_n

New scorch marks that appeared at my favourite secret Skye swimming spot this week. The stones make it look small but this was at least half a metre wide.


LIGHTING FIRES:

We’ve all seen the big black scorch marks left on grass by disposable BBQs. Campfires leave similar ugly burns and they’re becoming more and more common at our national beauty spots.

Fire lighting is a divisive subject, especially since there have been so many wildfires caused by carelessness this summer.
Some folk consider fire building an integral part of camping. Some forego them for the reason given above. Some of us think they’re best on the beach or shore. I rarely light fires because I love the efficiency of my Kelly Kettle.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR2351.

Lighting your fire on a rocky shore or beach is a good way of having the benefits of a campfire without damaging the area or endangering wildlife.

Whatever your views on them, the rules on fire lighting are universal:

1. Leave no trace. This should go without saying but the amount of scorch marks appearing here on Skye shows otherwise -you could play aerial dot-to-dot. Never have a fire on grass and, if you have a fire elsewhere, bury all evidence.

2. Don’t have fires on heathland, moorland or in forests during dry weather because of the risk of fires spreading (it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid some of theses places for fire lighting altogether)

3. Don’t leave your fire unattended.

36763227_10155231046736792_2474277307141849088_n

New warning signs in the Peak District after recent wildfires in the area (Photo by Andrew Dobb)

4. Listen to signs that prohibit fire-building. These places are often prone to fires spreading or are significant to wildlife; there’s usually a reason these signs are there.

5. Dig a pit for your fire. This is for containing the fire as well as helping to leave no trace.

6. Make sure that the embers have cooled down before covering and leaving your fire. Even a fire that seems to have been out for hours can spark up again when you least expect it.

36807401_610968768753_1287021172545814528_n

The remains of a huge campfire on Harris. They might have covered over the embers with sand but they definitely failed to Leave No Trace (Photo by Cat Webster)

There are plenty more guidelines on how to camp responsibly… don’t cut down healthy living trees, close gates, don’t disturb livestock, etc etc.
But really, it’s all just common sense and everything just comes down to the number one thing…

Please, Leave No Trace.

Once you’ve got that sorted then you can move onto the second most important rule of camping…
Have an awesome time and enjoy it!

23967140_1979780695624011_1375619291231027200_n

Sunset over Uig Bay. A place worth looking after.

Ps: In case I haven’t said it enough… LEAVENOTRACE LEAVENOTRACE LEAVENOTRACE! Please 🙂

I’m A #GetOutside Champion!

GetOutside

The 2018/19 Get Outside Champions team!

So something exciting happened to me earlier this year…

At the start of 2018 I was lucky enough to be chosen to become one of Ordnance Survey’s #GetOutside Champions, a team of ambassadors tasked with inspiring others to spend more time outdoors.

Did you know that the average child today spends less time outside than a prison inmate?
This is a ticking time bomb health-wise; the children of today are expected to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Also, how can we expect them to appreciate and protect nature when they have little knowledge or experience of it?
These are just two of the many reasons why the #GetOutside initiative has been created.

27577151_2059666947613993_2209923856779444224_n(1)

Cheese!

 

At our first get-together the team list read like a who’s who of British adventurers.
It included names such as…

-Ben Fogle, TV presenter and adventurer.
-Mel Nicholls, Paralympic medallist and endurance wheelchair racer.
-Dwayne Fields, TV presenter and the first black Briton to reach the North Pole.
-Sean Conway, endurance adventurer and the first person to swim, cycle and run the length of Great Britain.

27067606_607218369583_8603337993501893913_n

Our Everest experts

There are folk who have climbed Everest (multiple times!), world record breakers, book writers, TV personalities, photographers, filmmakers and charity founders.

How on earth did I manage to slip in there? Was there a mistake?!

That’s what ran through my head at the big launch event in the New Forest.
I remember being sat at a table with Sarah Outen MBE and being a bit starstruck.
Sarah completed her round-the-world circumnavigation in 2015 and was the first woman and youngest person to row the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Like many of the other Champions, I’ve followed her on social media and for a number of years she’s been a bit of a hero of mine. Getting to meet her in person felt surreal.

26994331_607218499323_8627852195054862571_n

Table of dreams: Medals, MBE’s, world record holders… but most of all, simply wonderful people!  (I still can’t believe I got to hang out with this lot!)

As we listened to our introduction talk I glanced around the room. I could almost feel the sparks of energy coming off this crowd of 60 inspiring, highly-motivated, extraordinary people. It was exciting.
And terrifying.

Don’t they know I’m a fraudster!

I don’t have the skills or expertise to be sitting amongst this lot!
I’m not an athlete or sportsperson or record breaker, I’ve never scaled a mountain or rowed an ocean, I’m fairly new to proper map reading and I get wheezy when I climb hills.
I enjoy bumbling around outside, soaking up the joys of nature and a gorgeous view. I just love being outdoors.

Just chillin’ by the sea

But that’s where I fit in…
This is EXACTLY why I’m a #GetOutside champion.

Whilst I’ll always feel like a bit of an imposter next to the likes of Sarah or Ben, I’m here to prove that you don’t have to be super fit or especially sporty to enjoy time spent outside.

IF I CAN DO IT ANYONE CAN.
(Excuse the capital letters but this really needs to be shouted from the rooftops! Say it again folks!)

This is a vital part of the #GetOutside campaign.
Alongside the professional mountain climbers and endurance athletes we have Champions who are veterans, people with various disabilities, people from different backgrounds, asthmatics, families with kids and even a couple of four-legged companions.
There are a number of us who use the great outdoors as a tool to help our mental health.
Our aim is to show that anyone, whatever your ability or fitness, can enjoy time spent outside.

img_5988

All different ages, backgrounds, abilities and sizes (and all slightly silly!)

For me it’s all about getting close to nature, exploring this beautiful and weird natural world around us. It’s about curiosity and learning.
I firmly believe that one of the keys to being happy is to find joy in the smallest things… an unusual cloud… a spot of unexpected colour… even just a bee having a scratch!
Once you start noticing those things you’re able to start appreciating these little bursts of happiness more often.

It’s all about the little things

All this may sound flippant but it’s rooted in something important.
It’s been medically proven that time spent outside is good for people suffering from depression or other mental health issues.
When life gets stressful or if I’ve had some bad news I find it soothing to take a break, go for a walk or sleep out under the stars. It helps me to clear my mind.
Fellow Champion, Eli Greenacre, talks about the benefits of getting outside for mental health better than I ever could. Check out her story here

As a self-confessed tree-hugger I also think it’s incredibly important to spend time in nature to fully realise how valuable it is. When you see how varied and interesting wildlife and the natural landscape is you’re naturally more inclined to want to protect it.

So here I was, sitting in a conference room amongst the most inspiring group of people I’ve ever met; all ready to spend the next few years encouraging as many people as we can to spend time outdoors.
And do you know what? Their energy was infectious.

Getting to know each other by causing general chaos during orienteering!

Whatever I’m going to do for Ordnance Survey, it’s nothing compared to what I get out of it…

-I hadn’t expected to spend an evening round a table with a group of new friends, laughing so hard that my sides still ached as I packed up my stuff and drove home.
-I hadn’t expected to chat to Anna Humphries aka ‘Mountain Girl’ about the wonders of the moon or enjoy a few too many drams of whisky between ruggedly-bearded adventurers, David Wilson and Sean Conway (#adventurehangover)

Sian Anna Lewis and I wondered whether we could get an honorary membership to the exclusive Adventure Beard Club with David Wilson and Sean Conway

-I hadn’t expected to giggle uncontrollably with two absolute heroes, Sarah Outen and Mel Nicholls, and for them to continue to bring sparkle and smiles into my days whenever I need it (and even when I don’t!)
-I hadn’t expected to come away from the launch event grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
-And I really hadn’t expected to come away feeling like I was involved in something that is truly special.

Over two days we laughed, cried, discussed, messed around and then laughed some more. I genuinely feel like I’ve become part of a family.
Now that I’m part of the Champions team I feel like I’ve got a whole army of encouragement behind me. They send me advice if I’m uncertain and messages of motivation and support if I’m feeling down.
I feel ridiculously lucky!

 

A Sunday stroll that turned into a boggy ramble! (And a rare photo of Mel before all the mud splatters!)

Now I’m excited to see what lies ahead.
I’ve already had great support from the OS team with a trip that I’ve recently completed and I can’t wait to represent the brand at Countryfile Live this August (come and say hello!)

I’m feeling absolutely, tremendously, brilliantly inspired.
Now it’s my job to try and pass some of that inspiration on to you!

Woohoo! They even put up a picture of Skye at the launch event!

The Sea Monster

So we get a lot of interesting things washing up on the beaches here on Skye. Not only have we got a lot of coastline, we’ve also got a lot of activity going on in the surrounding waters.

IMG_5418

Looking for shells and seaweed at Coral Beach

Some flotsam and jetsam can be beautiful; rare shells, pieces of old ship or historic kitchenware.
More often it’s a frustrating mixture of throwaway plastics and discarded or lost fishing gear (grrrr!)
Every now and again it’s something more interesting…

Last week we found one of the most unusual things I’ve come across: the remains of a rare ocean giant…

GOPR1289.JPG

About a month ago there had been reports from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme of a possible minke whale carcass washing up nearby in North Skye (marine mammal medics and SMASS volunteers often go out to investigate reported strandings to identify and record data on the animals that wash up on our local coastlines).

A friend had agreed to have a look for it but they couldn’t safely find it.
We assumed it had been washed back out to sea.

bc1ae0ed64341a0987395481b59145ac

A minke whale carcass found near Elgol, South Skye (photo by skye-birds.com)

That was until my landlord, Donnie, mentioned seeing some bird activity over a pile of large bones from his boat.

On hearing this, Rob and I armed ourselves with cameras and a tape measure and set off for another investigation. The tall basalt columns of the cliffs can be dangerous (and neither of us are particularly brave around precipitous heights!) but with the added safety of being in a pair we were able to look more thoroughly than before.
Eventually, with me holding on to the back of Rob’s jacket whilst he peered over the edge, we found it.

DSC_0755

Rob at the top of the cliffs

It was not what we expected…

A very clean spine. None of the usual bird activity. A bearable smell.
( You usually catch a whiff of these things before you see them. I once went to identify a long washed-up minke…
The rotten blubber looked like a giant, formless mass of old chewing gum and the stench was unbelievable. It took weeks to get the Eau de Dead Whale out of my clothes.)

The thing we noticed first was the vertebrae, even from a distance we could see that the bones of the spine were perfectly round, not winged like mammals have. It looked like one of those strings of floats you get for dividing lanes in swimming pools.
This was a very big… fish!

thumbnail_IMG_2694

Measuring the individual vertebrae

To reach the remains took careful navigation down a steep cliff path and an hour of scrambling over car-sized boulders skirting the shore. It’s not surprising it was hard to find.
Beetroot-faced and breathing heavily we reached the little beach.

It was easy to identify the species… a basking shark.

Baskers are the second largest fish in the world (after whale sharks). They are gentle giants who arrive in the Hebrides each summer when the warm currents are full of plankton, their main food source.
There was once a lucrative business in capturing basking sharks here for oil. Their numbers plummeted and they are now listed as a IUCN ‘Vulnerable’ species and are legally protected (yay!)

11996957_570829767633_1735172111_n

Watching my first basking shark at Rubha Hunish

I look forward to spotting them when they arrive each year (I wrote about my first sighting here)
The ones I’ve seen have all been relatively small (3-4m max) but they can grow up to 28ft (8m) long!

Now, upon seeing this skeleton, the most awe-inspiring thing was the size.
The spine that had looked teeny-tiny from the clifftops stretched to over 14ft in length. …and that was only a part of it; the rest lay about the beach, scattered by birds.

DSC_0776

Rob with the scattered skeleton

We found 94 vertebrae in total. The biggest ones were as wide and thick as a muscleman’s neck.
When we put the measurements of all the pieces together we worked out that the length of the shark would have been over 24 feet long (and that’s probably with a lot missing!)

DSC_0784

The vertebrae up close. It’s believed that, like a tree, the age of the shark can be determined by the number of rings

The rest of the skeleton was mostly bits of unfamiliar cartilaginous shapes; most pieces as long and thick as my arm.
The scavengers had feasted, meticulously cleaning off all the flesh and leaving perfect off-white pieces. We had them to thank for the (almost) lack of smell.

Aside from the spine, the other most identifiable pieces were two fins, probably pectoral. Again, it was their size that was striking, two great white wings.

DSC_0779

It was a strange-looking skeleton.

Historic incidents of washed-up basking sharks have led to many stories of sea monsters… The way they decompose led to people thinking they were modern-day plesiosaurs, Nessie-like creatures with long necks and big flippers.
The most famous cases are the Zuiyo-maru carcass and the Stronsay Beast; two stories well worth a read if, like me, you find that kind of stuff interesting.

Even picked clean, it was unusual.
Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons meaning that these pieces were not bone; they had a translucence and slight wobble when moved.
Unlike a fish or whale it was hard to know which bit was which or what went where. It felt truly alien.

DSC_0761

A mystery piece. Could this be a part of the jaw?

Whilst it’s sad that such an incredible animal no longer graces our local waters, it was a fascinating thing to investigate.

The even sadder thing, for me, was to find the skeleton surrounded by plastic water bottles. Whilst it’s unlikely that it was this litter that caused the shark’s demise, it was a sorry sight.
We took away a rubbish bag filled almost entirely with discarded bottles.

10731129_556826340613_2537497004431649080_n

Plastic on the beaches is a constant problem

We left the remains as they were. As a protected species, they were not for us to move. The quickly-decomposing ‘bones’ would be reclaimed by the sea soon enough.

That evening we sent our report with measurements and photos to SMASS.
Washed up shark carcasses aren’t common so hopefully the information will go towards helping learn more about these incredible creatures.

It’s now coming towards the end of the shark season on Skye.
There still haven’t been any sighting here in North Skye this summer (which makes this skeleton even more curious) but I’ll be making sure that I get to see a live 
one before the year is out…
At the beginning of October I’ll be heading down to Mull to take part on a research trip with Basking Shark Scotland. I can’t wait… It was fascinating to see this skeleton but nothing beats the magic of seeing a real, living shark.

11899887_1617264678545620_1116574331622541376_n

Still looking…

Guesthouse Katie opens for August: Family, friends, filmmakers & photographers (and my first basking shark!)

(Most of) my August visitors

(Most of) my August visitors

September rolls in and it’s the calm after the storm here at the cottage.

Since moving to Skye I’ve always had a nice little trickle of visitors travelling up from the South; it’s super lovely to be able to share my new home with friends and family.
Then this August came around and someone turned the taps on full… it was Guesthouse Katie open for summer season! It’s been totally manic but great fun at the same time.

Mum and I rocking the bobble hats on Scarista Beach, Harris

Mum and I rocking the bobble hats on Scarista Beach, Harris

My first visitor was someone very important, my Mum.

Her visits are always special. As I grew up it was just the two of us so it’s not easy to have left her so far away.
It’s her third time up here but this was the longest stay so far. Having 10 days meant that I got to take her to some places that are a little further from home, like Applecross and the Outer Hebrides.

We did a little potted tour of the area which included some Highland Games, a Michelin star lunch and even helping out with some sheep shearing!

We did so much that I think I’ll have to write a separate post about it (otherwise we’ll be here forever). To be continued…

Mum looking out towards Skye from Applecross Bay

Mum looking out towards Skye from Applecross Bay

Week 2 of August and here came the next set of visitors… The Boys

Will, Dickon and Hugo are some of my oldest friends. We met way back, at the end of our A-levels, when we spent that entire carefree post-exam/pre-university summer together just hanging out and enjoying the sunshine.

With life and geography getting in the way I rarely see them now but when we do it’s always comfy and fun. We’ve argued, laughed and cried together and I love them to bits. This was to be a fun week.

Will, Patrick and Dickon at the Quiraing. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait

Will, Patrick and Dickon at the Quiraing. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

We also happened to be joined by my friend Patrick, a Savile Row tailor and adventurous cyclist whom I’d met for the first time a couple of years ago a Polo Awards bash.

I was slightly apprehensive about whether they’d all get along, what with the boys being a big scruffy bundle of energy and Patrick being a suave London gent (though I have seen him pull some epic moves on a dancefloor)…

I needn’t have worried, they got on fine and enjoyed a day out hiking the Quiraing together whilst I put in a shift at the gallery.
The only wobble was with the introduction of a new board game, The Settlers Of Catan. I’m not sure I’ve witnessed competitiveness at that level before; the Tunn Christmas Scrabble Championship has nothing on this.

Serious competitiveness. I stayed well out if it!

Serious competitiveness. I stayed well out if it!

A house full of boys is a beautiful but chaotic thing. Lots of catching up was done over many bottles of whisky.
Patrick stayed for two days before he had to leave for a meeting somewhere near Oban.

Despite the dull weather we filled the next few days with walks along the beach, fossil hunting and a very (VERY) cold swim at Loch Shianta.

Loch Shianta is a really deep little pond billed as the ‘healing loch’ and is the most stunning vivid blue colour. There’s something eerie and magical about it; I’ve wanted to swim there for ages but have been waiting for company to go with (safety first!).

Since our dip my views on it have changed slightly.
I mentioned our swim to a girl from work and she looked at me in shock “Oooh, we don’t swim there! They used to drown cats in there. It’s dangerous, full of death…”
Err… lovely!

Will about to make a splash (photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait)

Will about to make a splash. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

Each day with the boys was lovely but the last one was particularly special…

The sun had finally decided to make an appearance and I decided to take them on my favourite walk; straight out of the back door and up to The Lookout at Rubha Hunish. It was chilly and blustery but the view over the bright blue sea over to the mainland was as good as ever.

When we got to the bothy we sat down for a rest on the clifftop overlooking the headland below. We swigged our water and I automatically scanned the water in the bay below. I rarely spot anything interesting but I look anyway, just in case.
But this time, for once, I did spot something. Dark, almost black, two parts above water….
OH HOLY SHHHHH…
Basking shark!

Me (about 30 seconds before I noticed the shark and that weird grimace turned into a grin!) -Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait

Me (about 30 seconds before I noticed the shark and that weird grimace turned into a grin!)
Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

The poor boys. I was up and running to the cliff path in an instant (those of you who know me will know that I rarely move fast if I can help it)
I yelled some general directions to the path over my shoulder and slipped and skidded down the path as fast as my clumsy little trotters would take me.
This wasn’t actually the first time I’ve slid down a rocky cliff on behalf of a (supposed) basking shark, but that’s a story for another time.

Now, I know that this might seem like an over-reaction to some people… to most people, probably…
But where some people have a favourite football team others of us have favourite animals. Bucket list ‘To See’ creatures.
I’ve been desperate to see a basking shark for years and I’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for them to arrive in Skye (they’re late and few this year here). Imagine watching your favourite team winning right in front of you, that’s the feeling.

Watching the shark

Me and the shark

By the time I got down to the rocky shore Will was already there (long legs for easy overtaking).
We clambered down to the barnacled tideline and watched this huge, dark creature gently weave through the water just metres in front of us (although technically this one was quite small for a basker, only 3-4m long).
The adrenaline was running and I was high as a kite.

Will, Dickon and I on the rocks (photo by Hugo-Donnithorne Tait)

Shark watching positions. Photo by Hugo-Donnithorne Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

We sat for ages.
The sun came out and the water glittered as we watched this giant fish meander back and forth between clouds of jellyfish.
We’d been watching the gannets diving all week but now we had a front-row view. The water was so clear that you could even see their bubble-trail once submerged. At one point a gannet surfaced and had to swerve off-course to avoid flying straight into the shark fin.
It was incredible.

Watching these awesome animals in one of my favourite places on Earth with some of my oldest friends is an experience that’s going right up there in the top 10 best moments of my life.
I’ll never forget that amazing afternoon.

Hugo's picture of the shark -a million times better than any of my snaps. Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

Hugo’s picture of the shark -a million times better than any of my snaps (but he is a pro so what do you expect?) Photo by Hugo Donnithorne-Tait, 2015 (www.lightorflight.com)

On week 3 my visitors were Dom, his son, Leo, and their dog, Kit.

Dom is a filmmaker and he was up here to make a short mini-video featuring me for the outdoor equipment company, Alpkit.
(Alpkit, by the way, have a company motto that I love: ‘Go nice places, do good things.’ Is there any other rule for life needed really?)
So Dom’s making a series of these films for the company, each featuring a different person living a different kind of outdoors lifestyle. I’m the arty girl who left London-life for island life and loves anything ocean-related.

I’ve only met Dom once before and I did try to tell him that my life certainly isn’t interesting enough to be filmed but they weren’t persuaded…

Dom setting up his camera in the garden

Dom setting up his camera 

Unfortunately things didn’t exactly go as smoothly as planned…

First of all Dom’s camera drone broke and wouldn’t get started again (if you know what the landscape in Skye is like you’ll know how incredibly frustrating this was!)
Okay, we said, lets get some of the in-the-water swimming footage instead…
We drove to Coral Beach but it was so busy we couldn’t even park, let alone find a quiet spot to get some filming done.
We to Kilmaluag Bay to try there instead. As we wetsuited up I noticed that the bay didn’t look as pretty as usual. When we reached the water we saw that it had turned a murky, peaty brown; completely different to the Carribbean blue of just a few days ago. Argh!

A bright blue Kilmaluag Bay just a few days earlier

A bright blue Kilmaluag Bay just a few days earlier

Despite a barrage of hiccups, we managed to scrape together enough footage for Dom to use.

He’s actually just sent me the first rough cut of the film and it looks fantastic. Of course, hearing your own voice is always pretty cringey (and I have a terrible lisp!) but the boy’s done good. I’ll share it on here once it’s out.

In the meantime you can see more of Dom’s stuff here:
Land and Sky Media

Kit the dog looks on whilst Dom catches some footage of light on the Quiraing

Kit the dog looks on whilst Dom catches some footage of light on the Quiraing

Towels in the wash. Bedsheets changed. Week 4 begins…

My guests seem to have been staying in order of decreasing familiarity; my last set of visitors were two people I’ve never actually met before in person, Anthony and Anne Sophie.
Anthony is an incredibly talented photographer and a friend-of-a-friend; at one point we moved in similar circles in the London art/alternative scene. He is best known for his brilliant Self-Styled project which you can check out here.
His girlfriend, Anne Sophie, is an extraordinarily ingenious costume designer and, to my delight, fellow sparkle-lover. You can see some of her pieces here.

I was slightly nervous about putting up two people who I’ve never met before, especially when they’re both artists whose work I admire.
Would they mind being stuffed into the twin room with my mis-matched sheets? Would they be expecting something a bit fancier? Our mutual friends can be fairly ‘quirky’… what would they be like?

Sophie photographed by Anthony in the Welsh mountains as part of their collaborative project (Photo by Anthony Lycett Photography, www.anthonylycett.com)

Sophie photographed by Anthony in the Welsh mountains as part of their collaborative project. How aresome is this shot?! (Photo by Anthony Lycett Photography, http://www.anthonylycett.com)

I needn’t have worried, they were two of the nicest ‘strangers’ I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with.
Genuinely sweet people.
Plus, having Sophie working on one of her rainbow-coloured, glittering costumes in my home was an absolute delight (imagine waking up to a riot of colour in your normally neutral living room)

A detail of one of Sophie's creations. How can you not be happy when waking up to colours like these?!

A detail of one of Sophie’s creations. How can you not be happy when waking up to colours like these?!

Like Dom’s visit the week before this was a trip with a mission…

Firstly Anthony took some pictures of me in the studio for one of his recent projects where he’s been photographing all different kinds of artists in their working environments.
Of course, it’s a massive honour to be photographed by someone with his skills (when he’s working you can tell his brain is whizzing with ideas) but when I found out that some of his other subjects include names like Gavin Turk and Micallef I almost keeled over! (If you don’t know who they are let’s just say they’re VERY successful artists. Or you could just Google them…)

My scruffy little studio didn’t feel worthy of this kind of attention!

One of Anthony's photos in his artists series: Sue Kreitzman in her London studio. (Copyright: Anthony Lycett Photography, www.anthonylycett.com)

One of Anthony’s photos in his artists series: Sue Kreitzman in her London studio. (Copyright: Anthony Lycett Photography, http://www.anthonylycett.com)

The second half of the visit was spent snapping Sophie in one of her magical costumes on location in the Quiraing.

Sophie and Anthony are working together on another series where he photographs her wearing her creations in various locations all over the UK.
Putting this vibrantly-dressed girl in the midst of these dramatic natural landscapes creates images with a surreal, dream-like quality.
It’s a really cool project.

Anthony shooting Sophie on location in the Quiraing. To see the actual picture you need to visit Anthony's website!

Anthony shooting Sophie on location in the Quiraing. To see the actual picture you need to visit Anthony or Sophie’s website!

Also like with Dom’s visit we had our fair share of hiccups.
A good few hours were spent huddled in the car waiting for the rain to pass so we could get a clear shot of Sophie. Then as soon as the sun came out so did the midges. It was a fairly speedy photoshoot once they’d turned up!

But we did get a good picture and I finally managed to get Anthony the local chippy supper that he’d been wishing for since he’d arrived. We ate our chips on Portree Harbour and celebrated the successes of the day.

Don't feed the seagulls! Anthony and Sophie in Portree Harbour

Don’t feed the seagulls!

Then, as fast as everyone had turned up, they had gone again.
August is over and Guesthouse Katie has closed. Time for a wee sleep until the next visitors arrive…

that turned up on the doorstop last week. Lots of memories here, thank you boys xx

that turned up on the doorstop last week. Lots of memories here, thank you boys xx

The Staffin Whale Strandings

Note: This is by far the longest post I’ve written (so long that I haven’t even proof-read it yet).
It’s quite different to my usual ones as I wanted it to be a true account of my experience of the day. If you’re a regular reader and this doesn’t interest you please just skip through as I’ll have another new post up towards the end of the week.
-Katie
****

Staffin slipway after the stranding

Staffin slipway after the stranding. Hoping that the whales are now far from here.

 

As some of you have noticed, my last blog post described the night before the mass whale stranding in Staffin last week. What started off as an evening of fun and awe turned into a day of struggle and emotion.

This post is a personal account of events and is not endorsed by BDMLR or any other official body.
I write from the perspective of someone who is devoted to marine conservation but who has no official qualifications or training in the subject. That might sound like hyperbole but it’s not; looking after our ocean environments is one of the most important things in my life and to be nearer to the sea is one of the reasons why I left London for Skye.
Yet all the report reading, the project launching, the networking, the weekends at Whalefest and the constant campaigning means nothing when you’re faced with a struggling creature that you know so much about but, in reality, you’ve had no hands-on experience with.

Like most people who love wildlife, I’ve always wanted to get as close to animals as possible, to study them and see how they work. After the strandings I think we’d all prefer to watch these creatures from afar (in fact, I’d prefer not to see these particular ones ever again).

***

It’s an overcast Tuesday morning and indulging in a few extra minutes in bed means that I’m cutting it fine for getting to the gallery on time.

The road through Staffin from the North skirts round the bumpy slopes just under the heights of the Quiraing. Once you pass through the strange little hillocks around Flodigarry you can catch a glimpse of Staffin Bay far below in front of you. The flat water catches the morning light in a way that makes it look like it’s made out of that textured foil used to wrap chocolate; it’s a beautiful thing to wake up to and I always make a point of trying to take it all in.

Staffin beach at sunset

Staffin beach at sunset

Today something was different.
In the exact spot where I’d stood the evening before there was some kind of commotion; a group of people and a boat in the water nearby.
If I had stopped I would’ve been late to open up the gallery so I carried on. But passing by I couldn’t help feeling that something was wrong.
I wondered if it was an animal in trouble or whether someone had somehow been injured or got into trouble in the water. As I drove on into Portree I tried to assure myself that it was just a group of tourists whale-watching (as I had done the night before) but I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that something bad had happened.

Arriving at work I forgot about the people on the beach and set about opening up the gallery.
The usual routine… Lights on. Set up till. Music on. Grab a cup of tea. Check phone.
My usually-minimal screen was flooded with little notifications. Whatsapp, texts, Facebook… everything.
‘A mass pilot whale stranding in the North of Skye’
Oh shit.
I rushed to scroll through them and came across a message from Liza who owns Skyeworks: “If you want to go and help with the whales I can look after the gallery…”
My coat was on and I was out of the door within 30 seconds.

I didn’t just drive North; I flew.
I’ve always been a very cautious driver up here, slow and steady like a tourist, not a local. This time I could have overtaken any lifelong island resident.
A quick stop off to pick up a wetsuit (thanks Birdy at Single Track), some water socks (thanks John at Skye Adventure), some juice for the volunteers and some towels and sheets for the animals then it was straight to Staffin.

The first stranding at Brogaig Beach. Photo copyright: BBC Crown Copyright

The first stranding at Brogaig Beach. Photo copyright: BBC Crown Copyright

The rescue effort had moved from the Western side of the bay (Brogaig Beach) to Staffin Slipway by the time that I had arrived.
21 long-finned pilot whales had stranded that morning on Brogaig and 18 had been re-floated successfully. Of the whales that didn’t make it one was a mother who had been having difficulty giving birth to a calf (this is the suspected reason for the stranding).
Despite the ease of this initial effort, 10 of the whales went on to re-strand on the rocky shore of nearby Staffin Island. This wasn’t just harder for volunteers to reach but also a nastier surface for the animals to be stuck on.

The road was lined with cars when I got there and most people were being turned away. I was lucky to be allowed through and I arrived to see a number of familiar faces by the slipway: Skye Ghillie Mitchell and his wife Sam, my neighbour Mo, Andy the Coastguard…
There were even some familiar faces who had also volunteered at my Art For Oceans beach clean just a few days earlier (a marine conservation/ocean-heavy week, we quipped).
As I looked to find out what was happening I noticed a constant stream of local people turning up with snacks, towels, blankets and offers to help. A result of the Skye jungle drums
but proof of the kindness of people here.

Staffin Slipway (at the end of the day)

Staffin Slipway (at the end of the day)

I don’t have any formal training with British Divers Marine Life Rescues so I might have been turned away but in the end I was allowed to be zipped into a drysuit and loaded onto a boat with a pile of equipment to transport us over to the stranding site.
It was an ironic turn of events… I had been planning on doing a course with BDMLR ever since meeting their co-ordinator, Stephen Marsh, at Whalefest earlier this year (we both stayed at the house rented by the Earthrace team) and I was going to book into the Stornoway course in a month’s time. Not only that but the day before the rescue I had emailed the Scottish Marine Animals Strandings Scheme replying to a Facebook appeal for new volunteers.
It was a ‘just in case’ situation, I didn’t think I’d ever actually see a stranding so close to home.

 

Stranded whales on the rocks at Saffin Island. The boat in the background is a Marine Scotland vessel (the fisheries security organisation that send officers to come and help). Photo by Adam Williams

Stranded whales on the rocks at Saffin Island. The boat in the background is a Marine Scotland vessel (the fisheries security organisation that send officers to come and help). Photo by Adam Williams

As we landed on the island we were able to see how spread out the animals were and how far up the rocks they had managed to beach themselves.
They were large dark masses draped in wet white sheets and towels to keep them from drying out. Small teams sat around each one whilst other volunteers went between them relaying information or equipment.

I was directed towards a lone juvenile in a group of 4 whales.
The largest of the group was being held upright by a pontoon and attended by three guys who rocked it back and forth and poured water over the whale’s body. The second largest was on its side and was being helped by a volunteer called Laura. The smallest of the group had died before rescuers had arrived and it sat forlornly next to the others.
I sat down next to the second smallest, a juvenile, and stared.

The group of 4 whales. The largest on the pontoon at the back, the female on her side is on the right, the juvenile is in the foreground and the passed calf is on the left. Photo by Adam Williams

The group of 4 whales. The largest on the pontoon at the back, the female on her side is on the right, the juvenile is in the foreground (with Anne) and the passed calf is on the left. Laura is standing up in the middle. Photo by Andy Kulesza

On first sight, they don’t look like real animals. With their eyes closed their thick black skin makes them look like some kind of rubber model; they seem unreal.
But then I sat down next to this one and a sharp breath rushed out of the blowhole. As it did so, all the muscles under that blubbery, tough skin tensed and the tail tremored. Whether human or animal, it was instantly recognisable as a kind of physical discomfort; it was struggling.
And suddenly it was all very real.

I didn’t expect to be as emotionally affected by the whales as much as I was.
Yes, I love cetaceans and I cried when I saw my first sperm whale and my first fin whale (on the same Turmares research trip -it was an emotional day!) But I’ve seen pilot whales many times before, I’m used to them.
I’m also used to seeing wildlife in really, really awful situations. One of the downsides of being even slightly involved in conservation means that you regularly come across examples of how careless and cruel humanity can be. There are photos and videos out there so horrible that they’d make even the most hardened old man burst into sobs.
But even being familiar with footage of pilot whales being hacked to death in the Faroese grindadrap hunt didn’t desensitise me enough to come away from the Staffin rescue unscathed. I will never forget those sharp breaths and tensing muscles. That physical struggle.

One of the whales showing signs of injury from the stranding. It's hard to not be moved by pictures like this. Photo by Andy Kulesza

One of the whales showing signs of injury from the stranding. It’s hard to not be moved by pictures like this. Photo by Andy Kulesza

The creatures needed to be rocked gently back and forth to help keep their bodily fluids evenly distributed. The ones laying on their sides were most in danger of having blood build up on the lower side which causes problems with the lungs (the lower one can fill with blood which overstresses the upper one). This additional weight would also cause listing when they reached the open water, making the animal take longer to right itself.
Apparently the juvenile I was assigned to had the best chance as it was young and upright. I took my place next to it and began to rock it.
“NOT NEAR THE BLOWHOLE!”
I looked up and a masked face was telling me to move.
He warned me that the bacteria in the blasts of breath from a blowhole could make a human seriously ill, to the point of hospitalisation and even death.
You’ll notice in all the pictures we’re wearing gloves and most of us are wearing masks. This is why. Although Mitchell and I got blowhole spray in our eyes more than once when refloating the larger animals so I suppose we were lucky to not get contaminated.

I moved back along the body of the whale to a safe distance and the masked man in charge gave me a quick explanation of what to do…
The whales needed to be kept moving, to stay wet and to be made calm. They respond well to human voices, especially to women singing. Don’t get close to the blowhole and don’t let water get into it or they could drown. Make sure that they’re eyes and blowhole are kept moist with KY Jelly.

Rocking the whales to stop their organs from failing under their weight. Photo by Andy Kulesza

Rocking the whales to stop their organs from failing under their weight. Photo by Andy Kulesza

Laura, the volunteer attending the large whale on it’s side next to me, coached me as we sat.
Many of the other volunteers were people who had done the BDMLR medics course but hadn’t yet experienced a stranding. Most had dropped everything and driven for 4+ hours to get to Staffin.
This was Laura’s first time but you could tell she was trained and she remained steeled and calm with her whale despite having sat in that same spot for hours on end in the cold.

Rain and drizzle was a relief. We volunteers got chilly but it kept the animals wet.
We waited and talked and rocked and sang and poured water. I mumbled incoherent sentences into the big rubbery flank and willed this whale to be okay. I hoped that, like dogs, they could somehow sense feel how much care and love was around them.

At one point the two whales that Laura and I were attending started calling to each other; a conversation of sad, distressed whistles. I’ve always loved the dolphin noise and whalesong but this was horrible.

It was when the large whale resting on the pontoon had gradually slipped down and needed to be propped back up again that I was really hit by the helplessness we all felt at some point that day.
My job in the action was to tuck under the lower pectoral fin so that it wasn’t pushed out of place when the whale was moved. I went to grasp the fin and noticed how the skin had been grazed off one side by the rock. It was a rich red with blood and looked so sore. I tried feebly to cushion the fin away from the rock with seaweed but I knew it wouldn’t really stop any pain. I don’t know why this got to me more than anything else.
As the command came to move the whale I concentrated hard on the fin and didn’t look up; partly to make sure I’d put it in the right place but mostly to hide my face so that no one saw the tears running down into my mask.

The large whale being propped up by a pontoon. Just looking at these pictures brings back a lot of feelings. Photo by Sam Nicolson

The large whale being propped up by a pontoon. Just looking at these pictures brings back a lot of feelings. Photo by Sam Nicolson

When the whales stilled it was easy to forget again that they were living beings. Hours spent staring at the still, scarred dorsal fin felt like looking at a battered old plastic rudder. But then these little things jerked them back into being conscious creatures.
I had no need to hide any tears that day (I’m sure everyone there went through the same range of emotions) but all the other volunteers were so determined and focused that I wanted to show I could be too.

And so we waited.
The animals had stranded at high tide meaning that we had to wait until the next one to get them back out. Looking at the low water so far away, this felt like forever.
Every now and again we got up and switched places with another volunteer, warmed up with a cup of tea or popped to the loo.
Then more waiting.
A vet came to assess each whale and one that was bleeding heavily had to be euthanised. Whilst it sounds harsh, I considered how it was ‘lucky’ that these whales were small enough to be put out of their suffering rather than be left to die slowly like larger great whales.
More waiting.
A boat came laden with soup and coffee. After hours of being damp and cold we said that this might have been the best coffee we’d ever tasted.
More waiting.

When the tide finally returned we were ready. As we’d been briefed, it was going to be a case of ‘wait wait wait, GO!’
It was all hands on deck with the rescue effort. No more hanging around, suddenly we were all needed.

Because we were so focused on our particular animal I can’t give an accurate general account of what happened.
As the water reached each whale the creatures slowly began to stir, moving their tails in response. Teams of volunteers went to each whale, ready to guide them backwards out of the rocks.

Getting ready to refloat the whales on the incoming tide. Mairi and Sam look after the juvenile whilst the larger whale is refloated. You can see Adam and I using a towel to raise the blowholeout of the water. Photo by Sam Nicolson

Getting ready to refloat the whales on the incoming tide. Mairi and Sam look after the juvenile whilst the larger whale is refloated. You can see Adam and I using a towel to raise the blowholeout of the water.
Photo by Sam Nicolson

I found myself attending Laura’s whale with Mitchell (Skye Ghillie), Anne (from The Royal) and Adam (a neighbour who runs the Shulista wigwams).
The main effort was concentrated on getting this whale upright so that it could be pushed back out. However, those of us at the head end noticed that the rising tide was beginning to breach the blowhole and it suddenly became a rush against time to raise it away from the water.
I’ll never forget the stress of trying to hold that whale’s head up. For the first few minutes I sat with my knee wedged underneath, the entire weight of the head crushing it against the rock. As the water rose Anne got her knee under too. Then eventually Adam suggested using a towel as a sling and we grunted and struggled as we tried to grip the towel holding all that weight.
Seconds later the whale was righted and we were out in the water.

We worked the fins and tail up and down to get the blood and feelings back into the muscles. As we did so the whale began to gain strength and started kicking back against us.
Mitchell was getting the full force of awakening fins and as I looked over the blowhole at him I thought of how different this evening was to the one that I’d bumped into him and Sam at the night before….
7pm on Monday: Bosville restaurant opening with champagne and canapes.
7pm on Tuesday: In the sea wrestling a whale.

Moving the whale in the waterto get the muscles working again. Mitchell and I are the two in masks at the head end.

Moving the whale in the waterto get the muscles working again. Mitchell and I are the two in masks at the head end. Photo by Sam Nicolson

 

It’s not as easy as just putting them back in the ocean and watching them swim off. We had to wait for all the whales to be back in the water and moving again before we could let them go. If this didn’t happen there would be a risk of them re-stranding.
It wasn’t long until they were ready and, on instruction, we released them. We watched them glide away from us and willed them to regroup.
We watched them get their bearings and then circle back towards us…
NO NO NO NO!
We rushed towards them to shoo them away from the shore as they barrel-rolled over a rocky outcrop. Stumbling and falling over the stones and seaweed we pushed them back and splashed the water to frighten them away.

And then they turned and started to leave.

 

The moment we all wished for; the whales make their way out into the open water. Photo by Adam Williams

The moment we all wished for; the whales make their way out into the open water. Photo by Adam Williams

The feeling of elation in seeing them swim free in the water is incredible, there really is nothing like it (again, not hyperbole).
I glanced at the tired, wind-beaten faces next to me and every eye was bright with hope. From a silly sentimental bugger like me right up to the big tough guys from Marine Scotland (the maritime law enforcers), by now we were all 100% emotionally invested in this little group of cetaceans.
I don’t think any of us have ever willed anything to bugger off so much in our lives!

As we cleared up and watched the last whales being guided out by the other teams we noticed a rainbow appear. After a grey, drizzly day the sun was breaking through and it felt apt to smile.

6 of the 10 whales that stranded on Staffin Island were returned to sea. Two had died before rescuers reached the island and two were euthanised whilst we waited for the tide. With the three earlier losses on Brogaig beach it was a hard day. Over the course of it we had all gained an acute awareness of the intelligence of these creatures; not least because of their connection with each other (so much so that they would all strand together).
Our personal experiences with the whales were diverse and we’ll all take away different memories from that day but a general respect and sadness for the loss is something everyone will share.

With that said, the rescue still had a positive outcome. 6 were rescued on Staffin Beach and 8 were refloated from Brogaig and didn’t re-strand. At one point there was a suspicion that none would survive from the second rescue attempt.
This was a hard rescue in tricky terrain so the outcome was good.

For me, the most positive outcome was seeing the hard work and effort of everyone involved. Everyone. From the BDMLR guys to the vet, the Coastguard, the team from Marine Scotland, Andy from Stardust Wildlife Tours…
There’s the volunteers who dropped everything to come down and help. Businesses and shops were closed and some people drove from the other side of the country to help.

Then there’s the support from all the people who stayed onshore. There were the staff at Columba 1400 who made soup and sandwiches, Sally from Shulista Wigwams with coffee and snacks from Staffin Stores and all the local people who came down with food and blankets.
As we all said (many times), “Faith in humanity: restored.”

(I also owe a huge thanks here to my boss, Liza, who was kind enough to let me go and help, knowing how much whales and marine conservation means to me)

I think we all made some good friends that day; the trauma brought lots of us together, people who live near to each other but who’d never had a chance to meet. As we waited for the boat to ferry us back to Staffin slipway we chatted and promised to keep in contact and share pictures.

Being ferried back to Staffin Slipway by Marine Scotland. Photo by Adam Williams

Being ferried back to Staffin Slipway by Marine Scotland. Photo by Adam Williams

Back on the slipway itself we peeled off our wet clothes (only one person’s drysuit stayed dry!). My toes had turned white from being damp all day and I was half surprised that I hadn’t sprouted webbing between them. We shivered as we unloaded the equipment from the boat.
Next to the slipway lay a pile of the deceased whales, towed over from Staffin Island when the tide had come in. They looked elegant and beautiful and unreal. A sad reminder that not everyone made it.

I drove my neighbour, Adam, home then staggered into my cottage.
It was cold and dark. I felt chilled so I stripped and walked straight into the shower and just stood there.
I  might have been standing for half an hour, maybe even a whole hour.
When I got under the warm water something hit me. This stillness after a day of adrenalin was almost paralyzing; the shock of being back in a familiar space after a day of something so dramatic and strange.
There’s only one word that accurately describes this feeling: overwhelmed.
I was totally and utterly overwhelmed.
As the hot water slowly defrosted my bones and brought me back to my senses I couldn’t help let tears flow freely with the soap suds. It was only a whale rescue but this reaction to it was almost like a reaction to some kind of trauma.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m over-reacting here; I’m sure lots of the other volunteers had exactly the same experience.

IMG_7956
And so that was my experience of the Staffin whale strandings.
It isn’t exactly the end to the story but these are the events of the day and the follow-up isn’t as relevant anyway.

I usually like to wrap up my blog posts with a tidy little paragraph summing everything up but to be honest I’m too tired to do it this time. Reliving the events, even just through typing, is emotionally exhausting (I’ve had tears in my eyes many times whilst typing this).

Perhaps all I will say to finish is this…

Firstly, that I’m completely humbled by the kindness shown by the people involved in every part of these rescues. I have often felt down and disheartened by what people can do to wildlife/nature but seeing this amount of love and care is something I will always carry in my heart.

Secondly, I have sometimes felt like a bore, peppering my Facebook feed with whale articles and seeing my friends cringe when I tell them that something is bad for the ocean. But after witnessing these creatures first hand I don’t care about judgement, I’d fight tooth and nail to do anything for these animals (something I’m sure the other volunteers would agree with)

And lastly, I hope and pray that this will be the last and only stranding post I ever write…
But, if another stranding does happen then we’ll need all the help we can get again. This would be through trained volunteers or via fundraising for local equipment.
Noel H from British Divers Marine Life Rescue has set up a campaign to raise money to buy a pontoon for rescues in NW Scotland. If anyone can help to put a few pennies into the fund then please visit his Just Giving page here: Noel’s BDMLR NW Scotland Pontoon Campaign.
If you think you can help out by becoming a medic then please check out the BDMLR website to find a course in your area here: BDMLR Courses. If you fancy coming on the Stornoway one in July then I’ll see you there!

Katie x

The huge amount of equipment needed to help rescue wildlife

The huge amount of equipment needed to help rescue wildlife

 

A familiar sticker on a  BDMLR box... One of my favourite organisations :)

And finally… a familiar sticker on a BDMLR box. The Black Fish is one of my favourite organisations 🙂

The Otter License

Hello! Apologies for being a bit quiet recently… I’ve been buzzing about down South and up North, partying over in Germany and on Skye and all over the place.
I hope to catch up a bit over the next week or so. Watch this space!

In the meantime I thought I’d tell you about something exciting that I received recently…

I am now the proud owner of an official otter license!

Grrr!

With the otter skull… Grrr! (It’s missing the fangs here but they’re also pretty impressive gnashers)

You might, quite rightly, ask what an otter license is (everyone else has…)

You may remember a few blog posts ago I mentioned finding an otter skeleton on a walk from Rubha Hunish down to Erisco village. What I didn’t write in the post is that I bagged it up along with all my other beach-combed treasures and took it home with me.

Because otters are a protected species I had an inkling that I needed a special license to possess the skeleton legally (an intuition that turned out to be right).
Licensing laws such as these aim to protect certain wildlife from being exploited (alive or dead) by the taxidermy trade and other kinds of nasties that might lead to the decline of an already pressured species. Other animals listed as Eurpoean protected species include bats, wildcats and sturgeon.

So I duly printed out and filled in the application form. It required a fair bit of detail and I had to prove that I will be using it for educational or learning purposes rather than for simply keeping as a cool beach find. (Luckily, I can use it to teach volunteers about the effects of marine debris on wildlife at my Art For Oceans beach cleans, so that box is easily ticked)
Once popped in the post all I had to do was wait…

And here it is!
It might not be the most normal thing to get excited about but I’m chuffed to bits to get it through. One step closer to being my own Natural History Museum!