Greetings from a surprisingly sunny Shetland Office.
The seas around Shetland have been rather wild of late. There were some large February gales, building up a swell, whipping up sea spray and some really high tides - it felt like the islands had sunk. After the gales passed, the sea still remained quite lumpy which was great for the surfers. It's also been good for gardeners as loads of seaweed has been ripped from the seabed and discarded on the shore. Unfortunately, there's also a lot more rubbish washed ashore. The sheer amount of plastic in the sea is shameful.
On the way back from work on Thursday, I went to West Voe. It was around 6pm, just light enough to see contrasts rather than colours. As I reached the exit of the beach, I noticed something very small and very green at my feet. I got down onto my knees to inspect. There were a few tiny green glowing lights in the sand. I soon realised that what I was seeing is what we in Shetland call "Mareel" - bioluminscence. The green was like that of traffic lights, coating grains of sand. I returned a handful of sand to the sea, but the froth was too thick for me to see what happened.
As well as feeling like the luckiest person on earth to have happened across this tiny natural wonder, I also felt surprise. I've only seen mareel in late summer in the eastern waters of Shetland, swishing my hand through the sea watching an underwater firework display. I'll have to read up on plankton to learn more about these amazing little plants and animals.
Often when I think about protecting the sea, I think about the more obvious living things - seabirds, fish, coral, cetaceans and so on. This serendipitous find on my local beach served as a wee reminder about how mustn't forget life less noticable. The sea is brilliant.
Now, roll in spring so I can get in for a paddle.
Best wishes from 60North
Around 8am Saturday morning, I'd got the washing out on the line and was lazily having a congratulatory cuppa and decided to check what was going on in Facebook world. I noticed a friend had posted in his status that there were pilot whales in Lerwick harbour. After a quick message exchange with Ryan, I realised it was all systems go! I dressed, grabbed binns, scope and a smoothy and headed to town.
Driving into the harbour, I immediately noticed unfamliar black forms in the water. I positioned myself just outside the local Scottish Natural Heritage office and went on to enjoy most memorable views of the group of whales. There were a mix of calves and adults spy-hopping, loafing and just sort of hanging out. Groups of people had gathered here and there, watching the gentle goings on out in the sea, and I offered passers by the chance to look through the optics I had. One mother reckoned a telescope would now be on her son's Santa list this year!
What a special morning it was for many people. My friend Austin (a sea mammal enthusiast) has shared his experience here if you would like to see pictures. A young lass who looked through the scope was on her way to the hairdressers and was obviously delighted with her day, and various shopkeepers commented "Where else in Britain can you get to watch whales out the shop door?!" There was some discussion about whether one of the whales was not well, and might the animals become stranded. However, I later found out that the whales had moved on out to open water around tea time. Of course, in times past, the arrival of a group of pilot whales would have triggered different behaviour in the local community.
Pilot whales are called Caain Whales in Shetland. To "Caa" means to "herd," as in the song "Caa da yowes tae the knowes," which I think was penned by Robert Burns (correct me if I'm wrong!). People used to force the whales to beach, so to help make their living. In 1845, my ancestors were involved in the largest catch ever recorded, at Quendale Bay where 1540 Caain Whales were killed. Times were very hard for the common person back then, and people had little choice but to harvest from the sea (I wouldn't exist if it weren't for fish!). I've heard it said that Caain Whales influenced Shetlanders' political leanings towards Liberal (LibDem hold the seat today). This is due to the "Crofters' Act" of 1886 (lairds could no longer evict the crofters, as in the dreadful days of Scotland's history with The Clearances) and then the 1888 Hoswick Whale Case. How interesting that the movements of a group of whales laid some foundations for politics in Shetland.
I feel most fortunate to have had the quiet personal experience of discovering the Mareel (as in my last blog post) and then have a shared "urban-marine" experience with friends and strangers. The sea never fails to inspire.
All the best from 60North
For the second Saturday morning in a row, I was treated to a sea mammal spectacular. A week ago, I got my houseguest out of bed to go see pilot whales in Lerwick harbour. Then this Saturday it was like a replay. I received a phone call from my Mom saying that a group of killer whales were passing south past my parents' house! I alerted a different houseguest Hannah (who studies storm petrels on Mousa), and tried texting a few locals whilst dressing. We hopped in my van and headed to Grutness, thinking that would give us the best views back up the coast.
Filled with anticipation, we parked up by the pier (where the ferry goes to Fair Isle) and set off running to the Laaward. Having only got to bed just before 6am (having been working at our local Up Helly A dance), I wasn't feeling that healthy. However, our haste was not necessary as almost immediately, we saw the big black bull fin, followed closely by views of another two smaller individuals. My first sighting in well over a year - Hurray! The weather and sea state could not have been better, and sunlight glistened off their fins and bodies as the whales surfaced.
I think there was a pod of three and a pod of four. We popped up to the Sumburgh Head reserve and saw the fins heading towards Da Roost (the stretch of wild sea between the Shetland mainland and Fair Isle). What a wonderful start to the day. I'd seen the Northern Lights the night before, so once again felt like the luckiest person on earth. This man must also have felt pretty lucky, as my brother's photograph shows.
Early this morning at Grutness beach, I found a dead red-throated diver. It's always sad to find dead birds, but interesting to find out more. I checked the bird for leg rings, as there has been long-term ringing programme of divers in Shetland for year. To my surprise, I found one and immediately called Dave Okill, our local BTO representative. He just called me back a few minutes ago and informed me that the bird was ringed as a chick last summer in Olnesfirth, a good number of miles north of Grutness. It was the smaller of a brood of two. There had been a diver (or Raingoose as we call them in Shetland) around between Grutness and West Voe, so I assume it is the same bird.
The sea, as ever, has brought to me a host of emotions. In 48hours I've had joy, curiosity and a touch of sadness.
I can't wait til next Saturday to find out what surprises the sea will bring. Humpbacks?
All the best from 60North