When I told my friends that I will be volunteering in North Scotland in October, in a small town whithout mobile phone reception, doing what I (well-prepared as you should be) described as “counting dolphins or so”, I was expecting to get bewildered looks. I didn’t. They seemed to know what it means to follow the spark of adventure and purpose. I also do now. Looking back on 10 days at the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit.
Today marks our tenth and last day here, and everyone is eager to go out on another boat survey. Although the trip yesterday was cold, long, and not particularly fruitful, the sun is shining, and the car is filled with music and jokes on our drive to the harbour. The day looks promising as we put on our wetsuits and get the boat ready. We’re heading west, again, like the day before. Like all the days before, in fact, because this is not about seeing the beautiful coast line of North Scotland (which is supposedly even more beautiful when going East, but I can’t tell), but because someone reported dolphins near Burghead, and Burghead is West.
We follow a fixed route along the coast, measuring our observation effort in kilometers and precisely logging every encounter with dolphins, whales, and porpoises we have. This will later allow the team to draw insights regarding population size and development as well as habitat use. In the long term this not only increases the knowledge about those animals but also builds a crucial foundation for conservation work in the area. In practise this means a lot of hours staring at blank water. And more water. Cetaceans are elusive creatures, for a very obvious reason; they spend most of their lives underwater.
However they do need to come to the surface to breathe, so if you know where to look and are patient, time is on your side. When we met a group of Bottlenose dolphins that day, they curiously approached the boat and even briefly jumped out of the water to take a look at us. They’re so close that we can hear them breathe.
We count them, mark their behaviour, and take pictures for photo-identification. Later in the office we can identify the individuals based on their fin shape and scars, comparing the pictures with those in the archive. Kevin, who has been out here in the Moray Firth for twenty years, has seen them often enough to be able to recognize them on the spot. I’m sure he’s aware of the impression this makes on someone who’s happy to recognize that they’re bottlenose dolphins.
For a short while they ride in the bow wave of the boat and then move on to mind their own business again. Leaving me more stunned than I would have expected, given that there is actually not much to see on the surface.
When it comes to the resident whales, the statistics is less ecnouraging: 0.087 Minke whales per kilometer. This means you have to travel for more than 11 kilometers before seeing a full Minke. And if you encounter one, it’s very likely you’ll only catch a glimpse of it and nothing more. This happened to us a few days earlier, when a Minke whale suddenly appeared right next to the boat. Silently and very briefly, but clear enough to be seen. Unless you’re watching the wrong side of the boat, like me.
I only notice the sudden excitement. We immediately stop the engines and everyone takes a position, looking out into all possible directions to see where it will re-surface to take the next breath. We quietly wait. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. The boat is very gently rocked by waves. No Minke to be seen anywhere. Eventually we give up. It apparently returned to the vastness of the sea.
Back home Gary dryly comments with what he learned long before us from his troubled studies of Minkes: “If you like Minke whales, prepare to be heart-broken.”
In the evening we share a drink and play the world’s first game of Whalopoly, the one and only cetacean edition of Monopoly, which we have been developing and drawing the evenings before. All streets bear the names of marine mammal species, many of which I didn’t know anything about before coming here, but all of which feel utterly familiar by now.
It’s been ten intense days, during which I learned more than is possible to tell here. It has been humbling and inspiring to be part of a dedicated research and conservation effort, driven by extraordinary people that work with insecure funding for years and decades to make a difference. It has been fun, driving on rock’n’roll boat trips through rough sea states, helping to successfully refloat a stranded inflatable whale, and spending time with great people in the sunny and windy remoteness of North Scotland.
An experience that can hardly be better summarized than by the words we got on our way; “You come as paying volunteers, but you leave as friends”
Beware: Volunteering may be a life changing experience.