MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Cetaceans”

Queen Charlotte Sound

As much as I love being in the mountains, I love being by the sea, and as much as I love travelling, I love cetaceans and spotting them in the wild. Not only have I been fortunate enough to travel in 6 continents, but I’ve also had the privilege of spotting wild dolphins and whales in 5 of them. Last August, I took the opportunity to make the most of an off-season deal on a whale watching trip in my home country of New Zealand, and so, despite an unsavoury looking weather forecast, I headed up north from Christchurch to Picton, the gateway to the Queen Charlotte Sound.

I had things to do at home and as the weather wasn’t looking that flash, I didn’t set off till late.  Following the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, State Highway 1 (SH1) has changed quite a bit where it reaches the coastline south of Kaikoura. The roadworks meant the drive north was longer than it used to be, but it was fascinating to see the extent of the repairs that had taken place, and I found myself driving over brand new land that had been reclaimed from the sea. I arrived in Picton in the darkness, checked into my motel and set off in search of dinner. There’s not a lot of exciting choice for eating out in Picton but I found somewhere with space and ordered a Caiparinha, a drink that conjoured up a lot of memories about my time in the Galapagos Islands.

 

It was dry but overcast the next morning, and I had to be down at the pier early for the E-Ko Tour which would take me out through the sounds in search of humpback whales. I’ve been lucky enough to spot my favourite species of whale off the coast of 5 different countries, and I’ve also never been on a whale-watching trip and failed to spot one, so I was excited to add country number 6 but nervous that this could be the first failed spot. None-the-less, the steel sky and low clouds actually created a hauntingly beautiful scene, and in the end I was happy enough to just get out on the water.

 

We didn’t have to travel far to find some activity. Some Australasian gannets, one of my favourite sea bird species were bobbing on the surface and a little further ahead some more were diving into the water and in between, the arched backs of dusky dolphins broke the still water’s surface. The dolphins came right up to and under the boat, popping up all around us as they rounded up the fish below the surface. There was plenty to see no matter where you stood on the boat, and we bobbed around for a while until the dolphins and birds began to dissipate. We cruised slowly around the vicinity watching the stragglers as they left, eventually being passed by the Interislander ferry as it headed into port.

 

As part of the tour we headed towards the mouth of the sound, stopping at the remains of the Perano whaling station, an eerie remnant to the days when the whale watching nation was a whale hunting nation. In fact, the hunting of the migrating humpback whales in the Cook Strait, like so many places around the World, led to their near local extinction. Now though, in an ironic twist, some of the ex-whalers became whale spotters, trading their harpoons for log books, their skills making them useful for scientific studies into the species’ return to the local waters. The whaling station was a conglomerate of rusting metal: large vats where blubber and oil were heated, rendered or stored. The smell in its day must have been foul. Even with the photographs on the wall of the hut and the video that we watched, it was hard to imagine what this place was like in full swing, and as a cetacean lover, it is hard to fathom how the days of whale hunting are not that far behind us. This particular whaling station closed only 54 years ago.

 

A light drizzle began to fall as we waited to board our boat again. The Bluebridge ferry, the other inter-island ferry, turned into the channel south of Arapawa Island, and before long we were out on the water again, heading for the Cook Strait. The rain thankfully never got heavier than a drizzle, but alas despite zooming up the South Island’s Cook Strait coast as far as Glasgow Bay, we saw no whales and for the first time ever, I failed to get a whale sighting on a whale watching trip. I was rather disheartened when we eventually returned to the channel after a long time bobbing on the Strait’s waters.

 

As we headed back to Picton though, we happened upon some dusky dolphins again and this was enough to cheer me up. Dusky’s are social and playful and were happy to show off around the boat. I would have happily bobbed around out there for hours if they were prepared to hang around with us. Eventually though we had to head back to Picton. It remained grey overhead, but that didn’t stop me stretching my legs along the waterfront at Picton, looking out at the view with the ferries in the port.

 

After lunch in a local cafe, it was time to head home to Christchurch. Reaching Kaikoura, I was tired, so drove out to the Peninsula to take a break. Hauled out on the boardwalk near the car park was a large New Zealand fur seal, snoozing away, mostly oblivious to the numerous people posing near it to take photographs. Despite the sign though, a few times people insisted on getting too close, jumping in fright when the seal barked in their direction. I had been watching it from the seat of my car, but I decided to head down onto the rocks on the seaward side of the peninsula to stretch my legs a little. It was also overcast here too, and a little cold, but I took some time to watch another fur seal that was sitting up on some rocks across a channel from me. I’m a major wildlife enthusiast, and am always excited to see these marine mammals no matter how many times I spot them. After I’d got my fill as the light was lowering, it was time to head back on the road and travel south, negotiating the roadworks and joining the crowds on their return to the city ahead of a new week of work.

Northern Limits

On the shore of the beautifully serene Lake Mývatn, there is something to explore at every turn. I was disappointed to have run out of time to include a hike up the distinctive cone of Hverfjall volcano thanks to my misdemeanour with the tyre on route to Dettifoss but as much as the hours were marching on, the fact that the sun wasn’t setting till after midnight meant that there was still lots of time to explore the area before my bed called me. Not far from Hverfjall was the mysterious world of Dimmuborgur, an area where a lava flow has hardened, cracked and peaked in a manner as to produce tall, spiky turrets and pillars of all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Unlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. There was a cave that could be walked through on one section of the trail and on route back to the car park, a raised portion of the trail provided a good vantage point to look across to the lake and its far shore.

 

After collecting some takeaway pizza from a popular local eatery, I headed to the south shore, to the little settlement of Skútustaðir to enjoy it whilst looking out across the lake. From here, a walk leads round a small lake within the main lake that is surrounded by pseudo-craters, as well as up onto and around a few of the larger craters. The lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. It was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. It was a strange landscape with circular mounds sprouting up from the ground in many directions, and from the crater rim of the taller ones I could see across to the steaming vents of the power station to the east of Reykjahlíð. It was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. On the northern edge of the lake within the lake, some Icelandic ponies chewed on the grass which was plentiful here, before the path skirted some wetlands on its way back to the car park.

 

I drove round the circumference of the lake past the large wetland zones to the west that are perfect for bird watching. With more time here, I would have explored this region too, but now it was after 8pm and I had only one thing on my mind: the Mývatn Nature Baths. Like the Blue Lagoon to the south of Reykjavik, this is a popular tourist attraction in the area, but with the tourist numbers round this part of the country much less than in the overly popular Golden Circle, the experience here was a little different. As is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Unlike at the larger Blue Lagoons, there was no privacy at these nature baths with just an open shower area before leaving the building. The pools themselves were also a mere fraction of the size, and having forgotten my GoPro camera last time, I took it out with me, only to quickly regret it, standing out from everyone else, with not a single other person having one. Once I rid myself of it, I was then able to relax and enjoy the warm water. There was a group of adolescents who were playing the fool and being told off by the guards regularly which marred the experience slightly, but otherwise it was an enjoyable experience, although I personally preferred the set-up at the Blue Lagoon.

 

I had an early rise to set off north and awoke to a light drizzle that got heavier the further north I went. I followed route 1 to the north west before splitting off to take route 85 north to Húsavík, the most northerly place I’d visit in Iceland, but indeed the most northern I’d ever been on the entire planet. Previously I’d only been as far as the most northern Scottish Islands, the Shetlands, so I was excited to be exploring this northern land, having previously done plenty of exploring in the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. The constant drizzle made for a very overcast view of the town, and the clouds were low across the surrounding landscape. One of the main tourist draws here is whale watching, an activity that I will happily pay to do anywhere in the world. Aside from travelling, cetacean spotting is a massive love of mine. I have been immensely lucky to see many species in many seas around the globe, and this was my best chance yet of spotting a species of whale I’d never seen before such as a fin whale or blue whale.

My carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. There are a few choices for whale watching trips here, and with a love of puffins too, I opted for the trip that combined a visit to a nearby island which was a prime puffin breeding site. Skjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. We sailed north to the island of Lundey and I revelled in the knowledge that with every passing moment I was going more north than I’d ever been in my life. Even before we reached Lundey, puffins began to be spotted in the air and on the surface of the water. First it was ones and twos but as we got closer to the island there were hundreds of them flying around us, and whilst it was hard to see many of them close up, it was certainly the highest concentration of puffins that I have ever seen in my life.

 

We sat for a while watching them before heading west in search of whales. There is always great anticipation on these trips not just for what might be seen, but also whether this will be that trip where we see nothing. I’ve been lucky to see whales or dolphins on every whale watching trip I’ve ever done, but each time I worry that it will be the first time I see nothing. But eventually that call came out that a whale had been spotted, and in the end we ended up in view of around 3 humpback whales. I love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. There was a part of me that was disappointed it wasn’t a species I’d never seen before, but these whales still put on a good show for us, coming very close to the boat on several occasions, including swimming right underneath us at one point. One of them had a very unusual fluke colouration which I’ve never seen before, and I still felt highly satisfied at the end of the trip. As we headed back to Húsavík, the clouds on the far side of the bay began to lift revealing the glorious snow-peaked mountain tops of the far shore. It was incredible to think these behemoths had been hidden the whole time, and it was spectacular to see them poke through the wisps of cloud.

 

Húsavík itself felt like a fishing village. The harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. The rain threatened to drop for the rest of my time there. After a wander around past the iconic church, I stopped for lunch overlooking the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour. As a cetacean enthusiast, I was keen to explore the whale museum in town which has an impressive collection of whale skeletons. Iceland is much more famous for its whaling activities than it is for its whale watching, and there was information within about the various species that have been sighted in Icelandic waters, as well as displays on the hunting of whales. Whilst a lot of information in tourism centres discusses whaling as a thing of the past, it is still very much a thing of the present too, and I had been warned in advance to expect to see whale meat on the menu in some eateries. Despite this, I had yet to see any physical evidence of present-day whaling since I’d arrived in the country.

 

Despite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. There was a reasonable sized pond where some duck families were hanging out, and some statues and pretty houses lining the paths by the river bank. But there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. On reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. It was raining constantly now, and I toyed with coming back the next day, but there was a good few people in rain jackets there too, and I joined them to follow the path from the car park up river to the viewing point for the falls. Getting close to the falls meant a bit of rock hopping towards the end of the path, and with the rocks wet under foot, everyone was taking extra care. This was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. The reward though was getting very close to the main body of the falls where the extent of the force of water could be heard and felt. Like Dettifoss the day before, you could feel the immense power of water thundering over the lip of rock to the river below.

 

The cloud and rain kept me company as I followed Route 1 on its convoluted route west. Eventually the path swung over to a long fjord and followed the eastern bank south before descending down to the water level and crossing a causeway across to the city of Akureyri. This is the biggest settlement outside of Reykjavik, and it was strange being in a city again after days of small towns and villages. A viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Down by the waterfront, a promenade provides a nice waterside walk, starting from the ferry terminal and heading south past a beautiful ship statue and beyond. The place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. It was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. I shouldn’t have been surprised what with the cruise ships in port but it was a slight shock to the system after having felt away from it all for the last few days.

 

Having spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. After perusing round the shops and ogling at some large ogres in the middle of the street, I headed up the steps to Akureyrarkirkja, the church which was built by the same architect that built Reykjavik‘s famous Hallgrímskirkja. The style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. Inside there is a beautiful organ which was expertly played by an organist whilst I was there, and as often churches are, it was adorned with some beautiful and striking stained glass windows. Outside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.

 

A few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. There appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. They certainly weren’t the biggest of botanical gardens, nor would I class them as particularly pretty but they were still nice enough to wander around and by the time I was leaving, the sun had started to burst through the clouds. From the nearby road junction I could look down on the ship statue below on the promenade walk and the Akureyrarkirkja looked even better with the sun shining on it.

 

Whilst Akureyri certainly had more to offer than a few other places I had been, I wasn’t particularly fussed about staying much longer. My stop for the night was at a hostel in the middle of nowhere, and I had to carry all food supplies with me. Every other night I had eaten out at a local restaurant but this would be the first night I’d have to prepare a self-catering meal. I stocked up on supplies in one of the many supermarkets in the city, but then, having spotted something to the west to do on a whim, I decided to leave the city behind and bolt west across the landscape. I’d spotted a boat trip to do in Hvammstangi to a nearby seal colony, and decided I’d chance my luck by turning up without a booking. I was exceptionally tight on time to make the last trip of the day, and the landscape went by in a blur as I whizzed through it, past a few settlements on route. When I got to Hvammstangi, I arrived with just 5 mins to spare and then couldn’t find the turn-off to the harbour. When I got there, I was sure I would have missed the sailing but in the end it was all good.

The wind was whipping along the fjord making for a choppy sailing and a lot of spray. We got kitted out in head to foot waterproof jackets, and despite the weather, there was quite a few of us on board. Unfortunately the weather conditions also meant that there weren’t a lot of seals hauled out of the water, but we still managed to see a few. We were even lucky enough to see a sea eagle as well, and it was so far away and so blended in to the hillside that I was as much impressed with the skipper spotting it as I was with actually seeing it. Back in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. This was the image I had in my head of arctic village life, having seen photos of Inuit villages to the north with their fish and seal pelts hanging out to dry. The ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Like whaling, there is a lot of regional history to do with hunting the seals and the effect this has had on populations. It was a compact museum, but there was enough to occupy me until closing time, and I was glad I’d made the effort to get there.

 

To the south was my hostel for the night. I arrived just as the UEFA EURO 2016 match of England vs Iceland was starting and everyone at the hostel was glued to the television to watch the match. We were a mix of nationalities, none of us Icelandic and none of us English, but every single one of us were routing for Iceland to win. Iceland as a whole is not a football nation. In fact the team’s manager is a part-time dentist, and when speaking to the locals, they joked that all the Icelanders who liked football had gone to France to watch the games live. But because Iceland started off surprisingly well, the rest of the country began to get behind their team. It was a great atmosphere at the hostel that night as Iceland won the match, and I went to bed just a sleep away from completing my circumnavigation of the island, with Reykjavik in my sights that next day.

North Coast 500 – Wester Ross

I remember when I was young, sitting by the waterfront at Ullapool with my family enjoying some fish and chips, when a wasp flew inside my brother’s can of Irn Bru. This is one of a few memories from this place from my childhood, so when I reached Ullapool at the end of a long day driving from the north coast, I immediately felt happy. The sun was shining and the town was bustling. After a much needed dinner and cider, I took a wander along the shoreline and round the coast past the caravan park to look for otters. Instead I found midges: lots of them, and they drove me so crazy I had to abandon my plans to watch the sunset and head indoors.

 

The next morning was a little overcast, and after watching the comings and goings of the CalMac ferry making preparations for its sailing to Stornoway on the island of Lewis, I boarded a little boat at the pier bound for a cruise around the Summer Isles. A small archipelago sitting near the end of Loch Broom, the sea loch that laps on Ullapool’s shores, there are a few tour options to explore them via different company’s trips. We first went in search of sea eagles, drawing a blank, before crossing the loch to visit a sea cave and then moving on to motor around the islands themselves. We were briefly joined by a lone harbour porpoise, but there was plenty of bird life to grab attention for the rest of the sailing.

 

Tanera Mor is the largest of the island group, and our tour anchored here to give us some time ashore. Close to the pier, a post office-come-coffee shop provided sustenance for those who didn’t want to wander, but I made a beeline for the rough track that headed up the hill to a viewing rock which gave a great view over the rest of the island and the smaller islands around it. The sailing back to Ullapool gave more opportunity to appreciate the rock structures of the region with more red sandstone slabs evident, and plenty of Lewis schist on display, similar to what I’d driven through the day before in the North West Geopark. In a little cove we found some seals hauled out to dry, and as we headed back towards Ullapool, the sky tried hard to shift its cloudy cover.

 

After a delicious lunch at the West Coast Deli on a back street of Ullapool, I got back in my car and rejoined the North Coast 500 to continue my journey south. The A835 hugs the banks of Loch Broom, and then at Corrieshalloch Gorge, the NC500 turns onto the A832. Near this junction, a car park leads to a walk down to the Falls of Measach, a 46metre high ribbon cascade deep within the trees within the gorge. An easy-to-follow track leads to a few different view points of the falls and the head of Loch Broom.

 

Heading west, the road winds past Little Loch Broom, another sea loch, before joining the coastline near Gruinard Island, then cutting across a finger of land to Loch Ewe. It was overcast again, so I passed through Poolewe and arrived at Gairloch, my home for the next couple of nights. This had been a place that I’d struggled to find available budget accommodation in, eventually finding a bunkhouse at the Gairloch Caravan & Camping park in Strath. What I hadn’t realised was that I had booked the bunkhouse for sole use, which meant I had my own kitchen, bathroom and tv. After all the previous nights in hostels, I was actually more than happy with this arrangement, and as some rain started to fall, I settled for a quiet night in.

 

Due to a misunderstanding with a booking I’d made, my boat trip for the following morning was rescheduled till the day after. It was starting to feel like my good fortune with the weather had come to an end. On another overcast day, I took the coast road past Badachro to Red Point at the end of the road. Here, the sand is a distinctive red colour, and I had the beach to myself to watch the bird life in peace. I was in no hurry, but eventually other people started to arrive, so I climbed the large sand dune behind the beach for a vantage point before heading off. I stopped at another red sandy beach at Port Henderson, and then at Badachro, a place I remembered from another childhood holiday. Aside from the midges, it was peaceful, the natural harbour providing a safe haven for boats to moor, and the waves were ever so gentle on the shore.

 

After lunch in Charlestown, I headed north a short distance past the little village of Poolewe to Inverewe Gardens, a Botanical Gardens belonging to the National Trust for Scotland. I hadn’t planned on going here, having been here before, but with my plans changed due to missing the boat trip, I found myself enjoying wandering around the woodland and various plant sections all the while overlooking Loch Ewe. Despite the grey skies, it was a beautiful place to be with the flowers in full bloom for summer, and lots of bird life both in the water and amongst the trees. It was a popular place to be that day but it didn’t feel crowded and still retained its peacefulness.

 

Back in Gairloch, there is a beautiful stretch of beach at the head of Loch Gairloch. Past the church and up the hill, a small car park leads to a lookout and a path leading down to the sandy shore. Whilst not as red as the beach at Red Point, it still has a slight red tinge to it, and there was a mix of locals and tourists enjoying it when I got there in the evening. I walked its length, and did a bit of rock hopping at the far end before cutting past the golf course back to the road and back up the hill to my car. It is such a calming place to be, with the coast well sheltered from rough seas by the deep natural harbour.

 

My original plan had been to head off south first thing in the morning and have an enjoyable drive south past Torridon to Applecross, traversing the famous Bealach na Ba mountain pass and on to Plockton. However, my rescheduled boat trip wasn’t till lunchtime, and having to check out of the bunkhouse, I found myself forging new plans and sacrificing a section of the NC500. With the morning at my beckoning, I left early to head down Loch Maree to Kinlochewe and took the single-track road to Torridon. This is a stunning drive, surrounded by mountains on either side. Torridon is just a small village beautifully set on the banks of Loch Torridon, and being a Sunday the place was shut up and deserted. I took a circular walk along the shoreline, enjoying the calls of the various sea birds. Near a bird shelter, the path cut up to a red deer farm, where the deer sat chewing the cud, not stirring as I passed. Where the path reached the end of the village at its junction with the NC500, an information centre gives information on local walks, flora and fauna. After a look around, I crossed the road to see a wild red deer doe break cover and immediately run away from me, disappearing into the trees as quickly as it had appeared.

 

Backtracking the single track road towards Kinlochewe, I stopped at a couple of places along Loch Maree. Had I had more time, I would have relaxed here for a while. As it was, I took a short walk along the shoreline to admire the scenery before making my way back to Gairloch. Grabbing a quick bite to eat, I was then ready and waiting for my trip. I’m a massive cetacean enthusiast, as eager to see whales and dolphins in the wild as I am to travel around the globe, so it was a no brainer that I was going to go whale watching in one of Scotland’s best cetacean viewing locations. I’d been following the viewing reports of the Hebridean Whale Cruises‘ Facebook page, and it had been a very good May and June, so I was hopeful for a fruitful day.

 

When I arrived, our skipper told us that humpback sightings had been good but it meant a long trip out to try and see them. I’ve seen humpback whales many times before in South Africa, Australia, and the Galapagos Islands, but it is very uncommon to see them in Scottish waters so everybody was more than ok about the long trip to get there. Kitted up in thick waterproof floaters, we set off on the zodiac boat, and I have to admit I got immensely bored and frustrated with what felt like a never-ending ride north. I don’t even know where we ended up, and whilst I’m not sure of exact timings, I think it was a good bit over an hour before finally we slowed down near some small islands where gannet activity signalled the presence of fish. We came to a stop, waiting and looking around, and finally we got our reward: common dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, diving gannets, and finally, a lone humpback whale. The fish seemed quite deep so surface activity was intermittent and well scattered, but whilst other days had had better views, it was still enough to feel satisfied. Common dolphins are my favourite species of dolphin, and I hadn’t seen them for 11 years, so in the end, I was more stoked about seeing them than anything else.

 

It was into the evening by the time we returned to Gairloch and now I had a long drive ahead of me to reach my pre-booked accommodation. I didn’t linger, leaving Gairloch and Loch Maree behind and leaving the NC500 at Kinlochewe. This time, instead of turning towards Torridon, I stayed on the A832 before turning south on the A890 at Achnasheen and followed it along the southern shore of Loch Carron before turning off to Plockton. It was a long detour that I could have skipped but Plockton is another place from my childhood that gives me nothing but happy memories, so I was reluctant to miss a return visit. By now hungry, I got fish and chips followed by the best whippy ice cream I can ever remember eating, and fought the midges away whilst wandering around the shore. When the tide is out, it is possible to walk out to a small island via a muddy natural causeway, and I remember fighting off the large, nasty clegs (horseflies) here when I was younger. Thankfully there were none to be seen, only some stubborn midges.

 

I wished I was staying here the night as it is such a beautiful and relaxing place with opportunities to go kayaking and on boat trips. However, I’d booked my location where it was for a reason, as I had to get to Fort William early the next day. So reluctantly, I left Plockton behind, and managed to waste a bit of precious time by missing the correct turn-off I had needed to take. Reaching Loch Alsh in the lowering sun, I joined the A87, pausing briefly at Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. The road snaked past first Loch Cluanie, then branched down the side of Loch Loyne before twisting to follow the northern shore of Loch Garry. This was my last stop, where a particular viewpoint allows a vista west over Loch Garry which from this very location, is shaped as the outline of Scotland itself. I ended up having to wait here a while as a wide-load with escort made its way up the hill, and I was rather disappointed to discover that the trees occluded a large part of the view so it was difficult to photograph the image that I’d seen loads online. Perhaps there is a walkway through the trees to see it better, but by now near 9pm, I was tired and wanted to walk no further.

 

When the back log of traffic cleared, I drove down the hill to Invergarry and checked into one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at, the Saddle Mountain hostel. Nestled amongst the trees up a track from the main road, it was recently renovated, and the hosts were exceedingly welcoming. Whilst I didn’t get the best of sleeps due to noisy roommates, I was greeted in the morning by the male owner acting as barrista, serving up fresh brewed coffee. I got chatting with him about my plans for the day ahead, and he voiced exactly what I had feared. With the previous two days being overcast, I had noticed that most of the mountain tops had been hidden by low cloud. Following the same road south, I was on route to Fort William for the one and only opportunity that I had on this trip to summit Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest peak. The forecast for low cloud on the mountains remained and my host advised me not to go up. Gutted but hopeful, I set off for Fort William wondering what I’d find when I got there.

Cetaceans

As much as I love travelling, if not more so, I love whales and dolphins. One of the great things that travelling has allowed me to do is to pursue my dream of seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild. I have seen several species of each in various countries, and for once I’d like to focus more on the photographs and videos I’ve obtained of these glorious creatures. Below is a list of all the cetacean species that I’ve seen in my life. Unfortunately I don’t have photographs for all of them, or indeed have good photographs for all of those that I do have, but I’d just like to share my love of whales and dolphins.

COMMON BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN (Tursiops truncatus)

This is the species of dolphin that I have seen the most. They live in many parts of the world’s oceans, and I have seen them off the coast of Scotland, South Africa and New Zealand. They are playful and inquisitive and can be found in varying group sizes. I have autopsied a few that washed ashore in South Africa.

SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

NEW ZEALAND – 2012:

ECUADOR – 2015:

NEW ZEALAND – 2017:

 

INDO-PACIFIC HUMPBACK DOLPHIN (Sousa plumbea)

These shy dolphins are normally not very acrobatic but I was lucky enough to catch on video a rare moment when one jumped out the water. They normally hug the coastline, and I saw a few pods of these along the coast whilst in South Africa in 2005.

SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

AUSTRALIA – 2017:

LONG-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHIN (Delphinus capensis)

SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

This is my favourite species of dolphin: I love the hour-glass pattern on their body, which makes them look beautiful. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of these in the deep ocean water off the coast of South Africa in 2005. Unfortunately, the sea was so rough and they travelled past the boat at such speed that I did not manage to get any photos of them.

SCOTLAND – 2016:

Accompanying a feeding humpback whale and some white-beaked dolphins, it was a pleasure to see this species in the wild again.

 

New Zealand – 2020:

 

HECTOR’S DOLPHIN (Cephalorhynchus hectori)

These are one of the smallest species of dolphins, and they are highly endangered. They also live exclusively off the coast of New Zealand, and I have been lucky enough to see them several times across the years that I’ve lived here.

 

DUSKY DOLPHIN (Lagenorhynchus obscuris)

NEW ZEALAND – 2013:

Unfortunately I was suffering acute sea sickness on the trip that I saw these guys in 2013 (for the full story, read here) so getting a decent photograph went down my priority list.

NEW ZEALAND – 2018:

Thankfully, I was able to witness these agile dolphins in New Zealand waters once again.

 

HARBOUR PORPOISE (Phocaena sinus)

Whilst on the ferry between North Uist and Skye in 2010, two islands off the west coast of Scotland, the ferry was followed by some porpoises that enjoyed the waves. I was too busy enjoying watching them frolic and play to take any photographs. Since then, I have seen the odd individual on a couple of boat trips off the west coast of Scotland in 2016.

 

WHITE-BEAKED DOLPHINS (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)

Whilst searching for humpback whales off the west coast of Scotland in 2016, these guys joined in the feeding.

 

KILLER WHALE (Orcinus Orca)

CANADA – 2002:

I was lucky enough to see 3 super pods of Orca, an estimated 200 animals, off the coast of Vancouver Island in 2002. It was an amazing experience, and they are truly beautiful and mesmerising creatures. I am firmly against the keeping of these creatures in captivity, and it breaks my heart to know the treatment that has been endured by some individuals. The movie Blackfish is a real eye opener to their plight. I can still remember bobbing around on the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Orcas as far as the eye could see. The photographs are the good old fashioned pre-digital kind which require to be scanned onto the computer so they will follow in due course.

ECUADOR – 2015:

I wasn’t expecting it, but I was utterly excited to get a brief sighting of these amazing mammals. Look closely, and I promise there are two dorsal fins there!

 

COMMON MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

I have only ever seen 1 minke whale in the far distance whilst on a boat off the west coast of Scotland in 2006. It was too far away to get a decent picture.

 

HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)

The majestic humpack whale is my favourite marine animal, and my favourite species of whale. Again, I have been lucky enough to see them multiple times and they are the species that I’ve seen offshore from the most countries, in both hemispheres. I was even privileged to take part in the autopsy of a humpback whale that washed ashore in South Africa.

SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

 

 

AUSTRALIA – 2012:

 

 

ECUADOR – 2015:

This mother and calf were an exciting surprise on a snorkelling trip in the Galapagos Islands.

 

SCOTLAND – 2016:

It is not that common an occurrence to see humpback whales off the coast of Scotland, but for several weeks, the sightings were very regular indeed.

 

ICELAND – 2016:

Witnessed on a trip from Husavik, in the north of Iceland, this is the furthest north on the planet that I have been.

 

AUSTRALIA – 2017:

I saw so many humpback whales off the Queensland coast whilst heading north from the Gold Coast to Cairns. Of all my humpback sightings, the trip off the coast of Hervey Bay in Queensland was the most amazing experience with multiple whales spotted and several coming so incredibly close to the boat.

 

SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE (Eubalaena australis)

These strange looking creatures come into sheltered bays to give birth to their calves. This has allowed me to view them several times, and I was witness to several of them in South Africa and whilst in Argentina, I saw a mother with a white calf. I have found them to be very inquisitive whales, and they often seem keen to come near the boat and investigate. On one trip in South Africa, a juvenile bull whale practiced his courtship with the hull of our boat, rolling over and touching his fin to the hull.

SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

 

ARGENTINA – 2010:

NEW ZEALAND – 2021:

More typically seen off the south-west coast of New Zealand, I was utterly blessed to see a mother and calf cruising in a bay off the coast of Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island.

 

BRYDE’S WHALE (Balaenoptera brydei)

SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

With a similar body shape to Minke whales, these are very shy whales, proving very difficult to find. I managed to see one almost by chance when assisting on a research trip in South Africa 2005. It spent little time at the surface, and moved around so much that I was unable to take any photographs of it.

NEW ZEALAND – 2015:

 

SPERM WHALE (Physeter macrocephalus)

This is the largest species of whale that I have seen, finally seeing a couple in 2013 both from the air and from the sea off the coast of New Zealand. They remain on the surface only to re-oxygenate their blood prior to long dives down into the depths of the sea in search of food. I loved getting to see all of the whale from the air, but unfortunately, the trip out to sea was the same trip I saw the dusky dolphins, so the experience was rather marred by the sea sickness that I was suffering from.

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