A whale and dolphin bonanza in the Outer Hebrides

By Michael Amos, WDC Residential Volunteer

At the end of June, I headed over to Lewis and Harris with Shorewatch coordinator, Katie Dyke, to carry out Shorewatches as part of the Outer Hebrides wildlife festival. I was immensely excited to head over as the Outer Hebrides is somewhere I had wanted to visit for a very long time. The trip got off to a great start with sightings of puffins and a brief glimpse of a Minke whale on the ferry crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway. Upon arriving at Stornoway in the evening, we drove down to our accommodation on Harris and I quite literally gazed in awe at the scenery and coastline as we drove across Lewis and Harris. The hills of Lewis and Harris towered over the road and the mist covering the hill tops made for a very atmospheric drive down to our accommodation.


The following day saw a Shorewatch training session in Stornoway, which was then followed by our first watch of the trip at Tiumpan Head on Lewis. Having heard stories from Shorewatchers who have seen up to seven species of cetacean here in one day, my hopes were high. And I was not disappointed; we had a large pod of offshore bottlenose dolphins swim close inshore past the headland and what’s even better is that they were in a mixed pod with Risso’s dolphins! Katie said in the training session we had done just before this watch that bottlenose dolphins are not seen regularly off Tiumpan Head, yet here they were! We initially spotted the dolphins at a distance of around 2 kilometres and they travelled incredibly fast, appearing close inshore within 20 minutes of first seeing them. When the dolphins appeared close to shore, we did a sprint down the cliffs to get better views of them. The Risso’s dolphins disappeared from the mixed pod when they were in the distance, but they reappeared in amongst the bottlenose dolphins when we went further down the cliffs, having presumably done a deep dive. Having separate encounters with different species of dolphin on the same day is one thing, but to see two different species actively swimming together in the same group was absolutely incredible!

Offshore bottlenose dolphins seen from Tiumpan Head. Copyright WDC/Michael Amos

We went to Tiumpan Head again the following day to carry out a public Shorewatch. Tiumpan once again delivered with sightings including lunge-feeding Minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and my first ever sighting of white-beaked dolphins! We watched the lunge-feeding Minke whales for over an hour and they were very close inshore, frequently raising most of their body out of the water when feeding.

There was also one whale in amongst the Minkes that appeared to be bigger and had a visible blow. This made us think it could be a Sei whale, a species rarely seen in Scottish waters. I managed to get a series of photos of its surfacing sequence and the fourth image in the sequence appears to show the dorsal fin sinking below the surface instead of the animal rolling, which is a common trait of Sei whales. However, some people I have talked to think it is a large Minke whale instead, while others think it is a Sei whale. Either way, it was very cool to see! It just goes to show that identifying cetaceans down to species level can be very tricky, even when you have good views of them!

Surfacing sequence of the large whale – was it a Minke or a Sei whale? Copyright WDC/Michael Amos

After this very productive watch at Tiumpan, we took a trip down to the ruins of the old Bunavoneader whaling station on Harris. Having researched Scottish whaling records when doing my dissertation on humpback whales in British waters, it was very interesting to finally visit this place, but also sad knowing thousands of whales used to be killed here in the early 20th century. The surrounding mist when we visited made for an almost eerie atmosphere as we wandered round the ruins.

On my last day in the Outer Hebrides, I managed to fit in one last Shorewatch at Tiumpan before catching the ferry. Minke whales and leaping dolphins appeared as soon as we arrived and one local wildlife enthusiast who was there said it was ‘’just a typical day at Tiumpan!’’. We managed to see harbour porpoises, common dolphins, white-beaked dolphins and countless Minke whales, with all of these species appearing within the same field of view! The white-beaked dolphins were even more active than the previous day, with one individual leaping clear of the water several times in a row. Even a breaching humpback whale came to briefly say hello just before I left! I only saw it breach once, but the splash it made was huge! Needless to say, when the time came for me to leave and catch my ferry, dragging myself away from all the action at Tiumpan was very difficult. The ferry crossing back to the mainland produced sightings of Minke whales and harbour porpoises, a very nice way to round off the trip!

This trip to the Outer Hebrides did not disappoint and, if anything, it exceeded my expectations! I saw a grand total of seven (possibly eight) species of cetacean in the space of just a few days and the variety of species we saw was mind-blowing. It just goes to show you don’t always have to go abroad to see a wide variety of cetaceans – we have world class whale, dolphin and porpoise watching right here in Scotland!

Risso’s dolphins swimming together. Copyright WDC/Michael Amos