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…

***

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 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 🙂

An evening in two parts: The Dulse & Brose restaurant launch and an evening trip to the shore

Considering Skye’s wealth of local produce and my appetite for trying new flavours I really should have written more blog posts about the food up here.
Perhaps the block has been because there’s so much to write… Where does one even start?

Well, actually that’s just been made easy. I’ll start with another start… the opening of the new restaurant, Dulse & Brose, at the Bosville Hotel in Portree.

Dulse & Brose at the Bosville, Portree

Dulse & Brose at the Bosville, Portree

I was kindly invited along to the event by Tim Hunter-Davies whose PR firm was running the evening.
Whilst I’ve been to lots of launch parties in London, this was the first night of this kind that I’ve been to in Skye and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I must admit that I’m always slightly wary of places that have been refurbed and given a ‘concept’.
They often turn out to be somewhere where you sit on cold modular leather furnishings whilst being offered unappetising little jellies and foams inspired by the chefs late discovery of the molecular gastronomy trend.

Skye’s fine dining comes in more than one type: there’s the try-hard-but-miss ones (as described above); the lazy ones that don’t try because they cater for one-off tourist bookings; and the spot-on destination restaurants.
As I got ready, shrugging off my painting scruffs and brushing my hair, I wondered what kind of place this was to be…

A busy opening night

A busy opening night

The venue was already full when I hurried in to escape the downpour.
I looked around at the crowd.
Once you’ve lived on Skye for a wee while you begin to spot the same characters at each event (although faces taken out of their usual context can be quite confusing, especially when the person in question can usually be found working outside on a boat or croft!)
But it was nice to see some familiar faces such as Mitchell Partridge of Skye Ghillie with his lovely wife Samantha, Mina and Chris from Skye Sea Salt, Marcello Tully from Kinloch Lodge and the boys from Skye Adventure, John and Matt.

It was also really lovely to catch up with Paul and Mags from The Oyster Shed and Karen and Colin from Lochshore House in Edinbane (who I’ve been bumping into on Skye consistently since my very first day here!).
One of the nice things about Skye is that it’s not short of friendly or interesting people -these four are both.

Strangely enough, at this event I met a lot of people who I’d interacted with via Twitter and my Facebook pages but who I’ve never met face-to-face before (including a number of the Hunter-Davies team).
A strange success for online networking and finally a positive excuse for spending so much time on the internet!

Paul and Mags from the Oyster Shed with Karen and Colin from Lochshore House

Paul and Mags from the Oyster Shed with Karen and Colin from Lochshore House

The food was a taster selection of canapes representing dishes from the main menu. I watched them glide past on huge white serving dishes like flying saucers whilst I chit-chatted hello to various familiar faces.
It must have been about half an hour before the conversation paused for long enough for me to try anything.

I plucked a little cup from a passing platter. Mushroom soup.
Soup isn’t something I’ve ever been interested in but I wanted to try a bit of everything tonight, this included.

I’m pleased I did, it was delicious. I’m not quite sure how the kitchen managed to get such a lot of flavour into a little serving of speckled taupe liquid. It was velvety and rich in umami with a cheesy, almost truffle-y garnish.
I’ve never ordered soup from a menu before but I’ll definitely have this when I come back here. I’d also be interested to see how well it works in a larger portion.

A terrine made from Kyle rabbit with apple and jam on crisp toasts was equally tasty. The meat was seasoned well (I think rabbit err on the bland) and the puree was sweet but acidic enough to counter the gaminess.
Well done D&B; two out of two.
Those first two tasters were my favourites but the rest were also good. The menu takes inspiration from Skye’s world-class produce and treats it with simplicity and respect. It’s something that I’ve noticed a lot of new places try but fail at; they complicate things with technique and the original ingredients become lost.
The source of each ingredient is stressed on every printed placemat or menu leaflet. For once it’s not just lip service to the importance of provenance.

The taster menu

The taster menu

As for the style/atmosphere of the place itself?

It was exactly how interior design should be done on Skye; contemporary but warm. Clean lines and minimalist design can be lovely but this is an island where you want a cosy place to retreat to on a dreicht day and stark modernism doesn’t usually provide that. The rough wood and earthen tweeds were stylish but in a comfy, casual way.

Skye arts and crafts line the rustic boxy shelves. Like the menu it’s a nice commitment to local artisans. Even the upholstery was made by Skyeweavers, a local couple who weave tweeds in their workshop on a foot-pedalled loom.

A map of Skye and it's local producers

A map of Skye and it’s local producers

It was a generous evening; the canapes didn’t stop and champagne flowed freely. The live music was a nice touch and the atmosphere was relaxed. Top marks all round.
But, all that said, these things aren’t what will make this a successful restaurant. What makes a successful restaurant is the strength of the cooking…

Once the evening had drawn to a close I sat in my car and unfolded the menu from my pocket. Within seconds I’d decided what I wanted to come back and try. I also decided what I’d have on my second visit.
If that’s not a good sign I don’t know what is…

***

I often get a restless energy in the evening, a kind of witching-hour desire to wander. It kicked in again when driving home after the restaurant launch…

As I neared the top of the island I remembered a text from my landlady about long finned pilot whales still in Staffin Bay. Although past 10:30pm it was still light. If they were still there I should be able to see them.

I pulled off the road and went down to Staffin Slipway. A glance from a few viewpoints. Nothing. They’d left.

Staffin Bay

Staffin Bay. Still light at around 10:45pm

Back on the main road I picked up speed and then… what was that? Something splashing close to shore. Not gone!
Almost missing the turning I swerved onto the track for Brogaig car park, crunched to a halt and jumped out.

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that long sequinned skirts and canvas sneakers aren’t the best items of clothing in which to tackle a boggy path after a month of constant Hebridean drizzle.
Painstakingly hopscotching over the puddles and tripping over my hem wasn’t working. I tucked my skirt into my knickers and sploshed through the mud. Who cares about soggy feet when there’s wildlife to be seen…

Muddy toes

Muddy toes

Down on the beach the whales were still slightly too far away to be seen properly. I took my shoes and socks off to wade out but the beach was still too shallow to get much of a view, even when I found a rock to perch on for height.
All I could make out was a closely-knitted group of bobbing heads. It wasn’t behaviour I recognised but I didn’t think anything of it (after all I’m a cetacean enthusiast but not an expert)

It started to rain (again) so I pulled my hood on and fastened my coat right to the top. Despite not being able to see the whales well I enjoyed how surreally special it felt to be standing bare-legged alone on a rock in the ocean in the drizzle in the wee hours. It was nice to just stand there listening to the fat water droplets hit the sea water around my feet.
What is it about the sound of rain that makes us all so calm…

Cold toes

Cold toes

In front of me I noticed some creatures surfing the breakers; left and right, back and forth. Very large and curious seals I guessed.
I dismissed the urge to wade out further to get a closer look: when you’re alone common sense must prevail over adventure; the chance of getting too cold or caught out by a current isn’t worth the risk. Not being able to swim in cold water when and where I want is one of the few things that frustrates me about being up here alone.
As the light finally began to dim I started shivering and it was time to trudge back up to the car.

Moody moon

Late night light

I walked through my door leaving my socks and sneakers in a gritty, sodden pile on the doormat.
It was an enjoyable evening but little did I know that it was to be continued in a less pleasant way…