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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!)

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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