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…

DOWN WITH KRILL OIL!

 



Following on from my last post about the Niteworks video I thought I’d share something else that came to fruition whilst I was away in Eden…

If you read this blog you’ll probably have worked out that much of my life revolves around the ocean, wildlife and marine conservation volunteering.

There are so many problems facing the ocean but there’s one thing that’s particularly weedled its way under my skin… mostly because of how completely pointless it is… the sale of krill oil.


Krill oil, unsurprisingly, is the oil that comes from mushing up billions of tiny free-swimming crustaceans called krill.

Krill oil in the UK is sold straight to consumers as a dietary supplement. It’s peddled as an anti-ageing product, a miracle pill to keep away the wrinkles and fine lines.
Carol Vorderman didn’t seem so clever to me when she became the desperate face of Bioglan Krill Oil.

In the Southern Ocean, krill is the primary food source for many Antarctic animals including whales, seals and penguins. Strong krill stocks are vital for the existence of the entire Antarctic ecosystem.

In the last decade or so, bigger and bigger fishing boats have been engineered to hoover hundreds of thousands tonnes of krill out of the ocean.
Wildlife populations have declined as a result with case studies reporting malnourished humpback whales stranding off the coast of New Zealand and penguin populations plummeting.

So, to put it simply…
THEY NEED KRILL, WE DON’T

Grrrrraaarrrrrrrgghhhgghhhhh! It makes me so mad!

I mean, come on Carol… I’d rather be a wizened old prune sunning my raisin-face whilst humpback-spotting than know that my vanity has contributed to wiping Great Whales off the planet.

So, I’ve been writing to supermarkets, spreading the word via social media and executing my own one-woman campaign against the stuff using good old pen and paper…

 

For legal reasons I’d just like to point out that I was terribly sad to have mislaid these notes whilst out shopping for groceries. Silly me…

As thrilling as guerilla educating is, ‘accidentally’ leaving notes in shops was never going to change much so I started writing to those at the top.

My main target was Waitrose. I’d had various emailed conversations with them over the last 4 years or so as they market themselves as one of the most environmentally conscious supermarkets in the UK. It’s a long story but they were reassured of sustainability by the WWF and MSC labelling, two organisations that receive funding from fisheries.
They dug their heels in, put their head in the sand, whatever. So I created a petition: Petition: Waitrose: The sale of krill oil is destroying the Antarctic ecosystem

The first 500 signatures was easy, after that it slowed down. Then I had to abandon the campaign to enter ‘Eden’.

Coming back to ‘real life’ after Eden was emotional. I got to talk to my family again, see my favourite places, feel freedom.
Yet the first thing to bring a tear to my eye was to see that Waitrose had finally taken krill oil off its shelves.

It might not have been anything to do with me, they may have already begun investigating it by the time that I started the petition, but to think that I may have played even a teensy-tiny part somewhere along the line is incredibly special to me.

Krill might be tiny, my voice amongst millions of others might be tiny, but maybe even tiny things can try to make big changes.

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.

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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 🙂

Not the M25

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As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I work two days a week at the Skyeworks Gallery down in Portree.
There’s a lot of things I enjoy about working there but one of the things I least expected was the commute.

Originally I had looked at living only just outside of Portree; I didn’t know if the roads on Skye would be treacherous in winter so I thought that was the sensible option.
Of course, falling in love with my funny little house sent the sensible option flying out of the window (although I’ve since found out that the warm, salty sea air here prevents it from getting too icy here anyway)

So, twice a week I drive 45 minutes down the Trotternish Peninsula to work and 45 mins back

…And I love it.

Rush hour

Slow moo-ving traffic

No journey is ever the same.
Morning rush hour on the A855 is when the young farmer walks his characterfully shaggy ‘coos’ down the middle of the road.
Stubborn, wild-eyed sheep threaten to make me late most mornings. Once in a while my journey is blocked by the solid figure of Charlie the bull.
Sometimes I’m greeted by the collie at the end of my road who runs alongside the car as far as it can. At other times I find myself swerving around the chickens, turkeys, ducks and bunnies who congregate at the bottom of my hill.
I usually see a couple of birds of prey perched on posts as I pass the croft cottages and if I’m lucky I’ll spot a sea eagle or two circling over the clifftops just past Staffin.

Rush hour in Kilmaluag

Rush hour in Kilmaluag

On a particularly busy day I might even see some people too.
I like the way the other drivers thank you here, not just a finger lifted from the steering wheel or a solemn nod, you’re more likely to get a proper wave and a grin. Of course, you get the grumpy ones too, and the bewildered tourists, but I enjoy sharing a “Good Morning” smile with the postman, the bus driver, the farmers on their quad bikes…
If it sounds a little like living in an unusually cheery children’s TV show, Postman Pat or Balamory, you’d pretty much be right.

The Quiraing

The Quiraing

Whilst all this is lovely the really incredible thing about my commute is the landscape.
My journey takes me past some of the most famous sights of Skye; the Quiraing, Kilt Rock and the Old Man Of Storr. The spectacular views seem to look brand new every day under different lights and weathers.
Sometimes the tops of the hills are spookily encased in mist with a dark, stormy background. At other times the jagged rocks look like they’re on fire from the neon-red sun setting behind them. When the light has been soft, almost misty, I’ve felt as if I’m driving through an old painting come to life, like that bit in Mary Poppins where the jump into the chalk drawings.

Heading home past The Old Man Of Storr

Heading home past Loch Fada and The Old Man Of Storr

Even something as basic as the road itself is fun. There’s a straight-ish bit over little hills where I like to put my foot down and you can feel your stomach lurch over every drop, fairground-style. Then there’s the flat, open bit along the cliff where you feel like you’re flying along the top of the world.
My favourite part of the journey is where, from going parallel to the coast, the road bends to the right so you face straight out towards the open sea. At the same time the tarmac also curves downwards, disappearing from sight. It gives the impression that you’re about to drive off a cliff and plummet straight into the water hundreds of feet below, Thelma and Louise-style.
The first time I drove it it made my pulse quicken like at the top of a roller coaster before the drop. Even though I pass this way every day I still get that little buzz of exhiliration as I speed towards the waves.

Looking over towards the mainland from the cliff road

Looking over towards the mainland from the cliff road

Could I ever had imagined that I’d enjoy a commute enough to be inspired to write over 600 words about it? Not likely.

Yet with my favourite music on I’m reminded why I moved to Skye every time I make this journey; here’s something that should be ordinary but instead it’s extraordinary. 45 distracting minutes to ease me in or out of the working day.

As Graham, one of my new friends, put it, “If you ever get bored of that drive then it’s probably time to move on from here.”

Morning sunrise over Loch Leathan

Morning sunrise over Loch Leathan

Moving In

(This post is long overdue… I have been living in the North End for three weeks now. Yet each time I’ve tried to write about moving day something has happened, my computer crashes or the post won’t upload. Very frustrating but here’s one last try!)

My new home overlooking Kilmaluag Bay

Another cottage overlooking Kilmaluag Bay

After spending over 10 days hostelling and B&B-ing in Portree I was beginning to get weary of living out of bags, having limited kitchen access and needing to put on trousers to go to the bathroom.
Moving day couldn’t come soon enough.
Of course there was the added excitement of moving into my own place where I could wake up in the mornings and make friends with the new day by gazing out to the sea with a cup of tea. After all, Portree is lovely but I came here for the natural landscapes, not urban living.

So, just over a week ago, I stuffed my belongings back into their bags and hauled them into the car. On the way I stopped off for supplies and some flowers for my lovely landlady and then I was on the road.

Despite the postal address containing the line ‘Near Portree’, the house is a good 45 minute drive from Skye’s main town (or more, if the sheep have decided to park themselves on the road).
This distance was a big negative when I first started househunting. But then I made the journey… It’s probably one of the most spectacular routes I’ve ever driven.
It’s pretty much just a tour past the natural icons of Skye; The Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and the Quairang. The weather and the hour make it look completely different from one day to the next and driving this route has become one of my favourite parts of the day.

The drive along the A855 past The Old Mann Of Storr

The drive along the A855 past The Old Mann Of Storr

Back in the car I cranked up the music, put my sunglasses on and wound round the bends with the hills on one side and the ocean on the other. The sun was shining and the sea and sky were a vivid blue; much better than the grey drizzle of the previous day.

As I  turned onto the little road up the house I had to stop.
Sitting on the middle of tarmac in front of me was a bright-eyed collie dog. As I braked to a halt it got up and turned, then looked back over it’s shoulder at me. I inched the car forward and it began to trot along ahead of me. After a short distance I halted again in case it wanted to get out of the road and go back past the car. It stopped too, sat down again and looked at me. I started again and so did the dog. I followed it with amusement, this curious dog seemed to be leading me home.

As I crawled the car along the track I glanced up the hill towards the house.
On the cloud-shaded landscape I saw my new home sitting in a little spotlight of sunshine. It looked as if someone had put a light on to show me where to go. It felt welcoming.

And so I followed my little canine guide up to the only sunny patch in the bay; it was a curiously charming start to life in the North End and I got a little feeling that this kind of thing isn’t unusual here.

The keys were in the door as I got to the house. I meandered through each room and tried to take it all in. This is the first place I’ve ever lived on my own; no family, no housemates, no boyfriend. Just me.
I could make this space mine. An Englishman’s home is his castle, or something like that…

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I quickly noticed that Patsy had put a great deal of effort into preparing the place for her new tenant; the main bedroom was all made up with sheets and there were even fresh teatowels in the drawers and new pots and pans in the cupboards. But the thing that touched me the most was the main fireplace.
When I had first called about the house I had asked if there was the option to have a real fire, I had said that I know it’s a minor thing but that it’s important for me to have a fire to curl up in front of during the winter months. Patsy had agreed, saying that we all need our home comforts. Today I found the fireplace ready set with a bucket of coal, some long matches and even a couple of candles from the Isle of Skye Candle Co. Out in the utility room there was a further bucket of coal, kindling and firelighters.

The amount of care and attention that Patsy had put into making the house feel homely really touched me. It was my first taste of the kindness that a lot of people have up here. I knew that I’d made the right choice to choose this place to live.

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My lovely Art Deco fireplace all ready for my first fire (the wood was to stop the wind from coming down the chimney)

Only having a small carful of bags meant that unpacking was unusually speedy.
I didn’t put everything away immediately though. You never know when the sun might be shining again so, after saying hello to Patsy and her husband Donald, I took the opportunity to go out and explore.

The clifftop path

Looking over the bay from the clifftop path

Straight out to sea

Straight out to sea, one of my favourite views

On my first visit I’d noticed a little rocky beach on the edge of the bay just a little further North of the house. I’d go and check that out.

It wasn’t quite as simple as I had expected, as I crossed the fields I realised that I needed to find my way down a vertical craggy rock face first. In the end I found a sheep path that ran along the cliff the zigzagged down a less precipitous part of the rock.
If in doubt always follow a sheep path; they may seem stupid but they’re good navigators. Just make sure it’s a sheep you’re following and not a mountain goat…

Walking along the cliffs

Walking along the cliffs on the sheep path

Rock climbing beasties

Rock-climbing beasties

It was worth the effort. I picked my way over rockpools containing shells, fat ruby sea anemones and tiny darting fish. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves and the songbirds in the grass. It was like my own private beach.
I sat for a while and thought of how busy and stressed I’d been in the months before I came here. Now I have time to sit on a rock and do nothing but stare out to sea and enjoy the peace.

Colourful rockpools with red anemones

Colourful rockpools

A sea anemone

A sea anemone

Shells amongst the rocks

Shells amongst the rocks

Of course, the peace here isn’t constant. Today is calm but I’ve been told about a fisherman who was washed off the rocks metres from where I sat. He was dragged out to sea and never seen again. It’s a tragic thing to happen but it doesn’t seem to be uncommon around here (I’ve heard other similar stories)
This isn’t a place to be underestimated.

Sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay

Sitting on the rocks looking out over the bay

Eventually I head back and begin to unpack into my new home. I couldn’t (still can’t) help but keep stopping to look out of the windows at the view.

As the sun began to set over the sea I pulled a chair over to the window and popped open the little bottle of champagne that I’d brought especially.
With a silent cheers I drank to my new home and wondered what adventures would lie ahead…

Toasting a new home

Toasting a new home

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….