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…

Mackerel!

Mackerel stripes

How do you spot someone who really loves their food?
Well, they’re the ones who manage to write an almost 1000-word blog post about a single ingredient…

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So, recently I’ve felt like I haven’t done a lot in the way of proper hands-on marine conservation. There are things in the pipeline… beach cleans, a few training courses, Art For Oceans stuff… but they’re still a few weeks off yet.

To make up for this I’ve been trying to do a little ‘mini beach clean’ every time I go for a walk along the shore.
It doesn’t take any effort to bundle an extra bin bag into a coat pocket just in case. Plus it’s no hardship to pick a few bits up here and there.

On a recent visit to Camus More, a local beach in the North of Skye, I did just that. I’d been in the studio for days on end and needed some fresh air so threw on my wellies and went to find a sea breeze.

A quickly-filled bag

A quickly-filled bag

It never takes long to fill a bag. Soon I was lugging around a big bundle of old rope, crumpled milk bottles and plastic strapping.
Once full to the top I flung it over my shoulder like a really rubbish Father Christmas and picked my way back up the rocks to the car.

To road to Camus More leads onto a pier and at the top I came across a couple of fishermen gutting and filleting a box of fish. I’d seen them take their little boat out only an hour or so before. It had obviously been a successful trip.

We chatted for a while and they ended up giving me two beautiful mackerel. Firm and iridescent, they were probably the freshest fish I’ve ever had in my hands (well, apart from live ones).
They joked about my fish-matching trousers as I left.

Unintentional co-ordination

Unintentional co-ordination

I cleaned a beach and was rewarded with a gift. That’s some pretty instant ocean karma right there!

Now, as a rule I generally don’t eat fin fish.

Most people involved in marine conservation wont touch seafood.
This isn’t because of some mermaid-like affinity with fish; it’s because they’re aware of the pressures of the fishing industry on marine habitat. The realities of commercial fishing can be really shocking, especially when it comes to bycatch and catch-size.

Scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp that's caught, up to 10 pounds of other marine life is discarded. That's things like turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks and other important and precious marine wildlife.

Scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp that’s caught, up to 10 pounds of other marine life is discarded. That’s things like turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks and other important and precious marine wildlife.

But a couple of fisherman landing a few mackerel isn’t commercial fishing.
I watched them catch the fish with lines and hooks; no bycatch or dodgy fishing methods involved here.
Bar not trying to catch anything at all, this is the most sustainable way to fish that there is (in fact, fishing like this is something that I’ve wanted to try myself on Skye but it’s just another thing I’ve yet to get around to doing).

I also think that, if we do have to eat fish at all, it should be a one-off treat sourced from individuals and small businesses rather than the huge trawler ships that supply our supermarkets. Sustainability should also consider livelihoods; to be pro-conservation isn’t necessarily being anti-fishermen.

*Right, end of marine conservation talk (unless you’re genuinely interested, in which case please see me after class)*

Anyway, I was thrilled with this gift and I my conscience was happy to take them too.
Despite a few unsuccessful attempts to catch my own salmon (turns out I suck at fly-fishing) this was the first time I’d get to eat fish in over a year.

All the gear and no idea; my first attempt at fly fishing for salmon

All the gear and no idea (my first attempt at fly fishing for salmon on Lewis)

At home I made my first attempt at gutting them.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it so easy. Those who complain about gutting fish have obviously never had to tackle something like a goose.

It’s impossible to ignore how beautiful these fish are; their holographic skin and tiger stripes shone bright under the running tap water.
Strange how something so pretty has been relegated to just another everyday ingredient in a British shopping trolley…

Holographic creatures

Holographic skin

It hadn’t even been an hour since they’d left the ocean.
Mackerel is always best eaten on the same day it’s caught but it’s rare to find some this fresh. I’d make the most of it and eat the first one raw.

Before I gave up fish my #1 favourite food was sashimi; there’s a subtlety and cleanliness to it that I find delicious. I’ve missed it.

A foodie’s anticipation in returning to their most desired dish cannot be underestimated; greed is a force to be reckoned with.
My ham-fisted attempts at filleting had no effect on the taste; it was perfect.

Simple sashimi

Simple sashimi

I sipped my wine and pondered course two.
Ceviche.
Lime, chilli, coriander, spices. Eaten before I could contemplate taking a photo.

Course three…
How far can you stretch just two mackerel?
I’d made some bread dough earlier so I stretched out a disc and floured it. In a smoking pan it became a flatbtread accompaniment to go alongside the second fish, simply grilled with a simple squeeze of lemon and a dollop of aioli.

Grilled with homemade flatbreads

Grilled with homemade flatbreads

Could I eke out a fourth course?

It would have been trickier if I hadn’t made such a rubbish attempt at filleting the first one. My beginners attempts left me with enough offcuts to fry up and mash with some lemon, butter and pepper.
Spread onto pieces of toasted flatbread these made tasty little pate canapes.
Short of making a stock with the bones, I’d used up every little bit of mackerel that I could.

There’s a lot of talk in foodie circles of ‘doing an animal justice’ and using (and respecting) every part. I think it’s safe to say that my mackerel were appreciated as much as they possibly could be.

Because of my interests in conservation and animal welfare I’ve always had a complicated relationship to meat/animal products.
Since moving to Skye my food choices have shifted more rapidly. Although I’m happy to eat eggs now I can see the chickens, seeing the bond between the cows and their calves on the croft makes it difficult for me to justify eating dairy. My diet is mostly vegan now.

But I still think that ‘wild’ food is wonderful when there’s enough of it to eat once in a while as a treat.
Maybe next year things might have changed but for now I’m looking forward to the next time I bump into some generous fishermen. I’ve got the wasabi ready.

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The Hunt for a Home…

Settled in a lovely B&B (thanks to Nat & Emma) it’s now time to start looking for a more permanent place to stay. With peace, quiet and proper wifi I can take my time and look for somewhere really special. I’ll be working from home for most of the week so it’s important to me to find somewhere just right, however long it takes.

I have three requirements for my new home:
1. It must have a real fire (for those long winter nights).
2. It must be relatively secluded.
3. It must have a view over water.

Okay, the third one might seem pretty hopeful but on Skye a view over the sea or a loch is the norm, not an expensive luxury.

I had a bundle of offers to work through after putting an ad out in the West Highland Free Press. One that stuck out most was one offered by a lady called Patsy who was so friendly on the phone that I wanted to live in her house just to have her as my neighbour!
Her house in the remote North End area house ticked all my boxes so today I agreed to drive over for a viewing.

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The drive into Duntulm, the Northernmost point on Skye

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Coming into Duntulm

The drive up the left hand side of Skye along the Trotternish Peninsula was spectacular. It’s the kind of scenery that you couldn’t even imagine exists in the UK. With landslipped cliffs on one side and a vast expanse of ocean on the other it was almost impossible to keep my eyes on the wiggly, winding tarmac.

As I neared the far North the coastal side of the landscape flattened and the trees started to peter out (an indicator of very high winds!) Next came the inevitable sheep, dotted on precipitous rock faces, sitting hidden in bushes and trotting down the middle of the road. Very Skye.

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An Aird/Duntulm

Patsy met me at the house and she was even more lovely in person than I’d imagined (she even put out a tea set for me to have a cuppa whilst I looked around!).
The house was old fashioned but had lots of little rooms where I could close the doors and get cosy. There’s no phone or internet. The carpets were thick and fuzzy, the main one being a dark brown shaggy number. But, you know what, that didn’t matter. There was something about this place, a charm.
I have no doubt that a lot of that charm was to do with the view from almost every window. It may often be grey and drizzly on Skye but when the sun comes out can you imagine waking up to this every day….

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A sea view

When I left I was buzzing, literally shaking. At some point during the viewing it had hit me. I’ve left everything at home and come up to a wild, remote place that’s completely new. But it wasn’t, isn’t scary. It’s adrenaline and excitement and… adventure.
With being busy with accommodation and gallery work in Portree I hadn’t had a chance to feel the enormity of my move. So it arrived, and it’s still kind of here this evening. I’m just so EXCITED!

This wasn’t the end of my house viewings today but this’ll do for now. Just down the road from Patsy’s house I stumbled upon the Single Track cafe and gallery and a couple of wonderful women, Lorraine and Indi. But that’s a story for tomorrow….