Our Wildlife Expert and Guide, Will Smith, was onboard Emma Jane for our recent cruise specifically designed to encounter and observe whales and other cetaceans. After last season's spectacular success, we were nervous that such an experience could ever be repeated - but we needn't have worried! We are very grateful to Will for providing this report of the cruise, with insights into the behaviour that was witnessed by everyone on board, and allowing us to use his amazing photographs.
Whale Watching in the Northern Minch, 10-night cruise 15th-25th August 2023: Will Smith
The cruise got off to a fantastic start, as we steamed from our first night's anchorage on the Isle of Muck up the West coast of Skye, with the plan to get up to the Northern Minch and make the most of the settled weather window for the following couple of days.
Just an hour or so into our first day of cruising, we could see aggregations of small gulls and shearwaters (including one less common Balearic shearwater) in the distance - a promising sign of feeding minke whales, which share the same prey of small fish with these birds. Not only did we encounter several minke whales, but we were afforded incredible views of the animals ‘lunge feeding’, whereby they surge out of the water with their mouths agape to catch prey just below the surface. To add to this feeding frenzy, we watched the streamlined fins of bluefin tuna cutting through the water- one of one of the fastest predators in our seas. We were able to sit with the engines off to watch as these animals depleted the bait ball.
Minke whale lunge feeding at the surface with a kittiwake: image copyright Will Smith
Ideal sea conditions the following day allowed us to have a good search for the larger whale species found in the North Minch, and within a couple of hours we were seeing the typical spray or ‘blows’ from humpback whales surfacing in the distance. As we respectfully approached, a pod of risso’s dolphins appeared, swimming right alongside the humpback and surfacing in its wake. We watched on in awe as the whale proceeded to raise its entire tail out of the water and bring it crashing down creating a huge splash. It did this many consecutive times leaving guests and crew speechless. This behaviour is known as ‘tail lobbing’ and is used by both male and female humpbacks to attract mates, a means of communication or sometimes to deter predators or perhaps over inquisitive dolphins - which may be one explanation for what we witnessed.
Humpback whale accompanied by a risso’s dolphin on the right of the image; image copyright Will Smith
Tail - lobbing humpback whale: image copyright Will Smith
A final surprise to the day’s events was a close encounter with a dolphin- sized minke whale calf, approximately three meters long and possibly just a few months old. It was very curious of the Emma Jane and surfaced right alongside several times, giving us incredibly privileged views of such a young individual.
Despite less favourable weather over the following days, we were still treated to views of more minkes, humpbacks and a probable sei whale- a species not commonly recorded in these waters, but told from similar species by its surfacing behaviour and subtle differences of its dorsal fin. We also encountered a group of well over 500 common dolphins with many young calves amongst them. Feeding alongside were frenzies of diving gannets, gulls, shearwaters, storm petrels and skuas (including long- tailed skuas).
A total of six cetacean species were sighted over the 10 night cruise: Humpback, sei and minke whale, common and risso’s dolphin and the ever present harbour porpoise, with the sightings being recorded on the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s whale track app. All of these sightings, and observing some incredible behaviours, made for a hugely memorable whale watching cruise on board the Emma Jane.
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