Reflections on Autumnal volunteering

By Jamie McDermaid

I have spent the last 7 weeks with my fellow residential volunteer Ailish at the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay, and it has really raced by. It’s been a really fun experience but also an incredibly enlightening one. I’ve learnt so much more about whales, dolphins, and their conservation, and have even had the privilege to pass this knowledge onto others.

Working ‘front of house’ in the visitor centre has been my main responsibility during my time here. It’s also been one of the most delightful aspects of the role. Getting to speak to different people from all over the globe and tell them about the wonderful world of whales and dolphins has been amazing. I’ll never get bored of seeing someone’s face when I show them the size of a sperm whale tooth during our Bones Box talks! I also never thought I’d be able to tell a group of people all about the history of an Icehouse – but here we are. Leading an Icehouse tour has shifted from feeling like a very daunting task to something which I now relish!

Sea view from Spey Bay with beautiful cloud and light in the sky
Beautiful views of the Moray Firth where Jamie has spotted many bottlenose dolphins Copyright Jamie McDermaid

But I don’t just get to talk about dolphins – I’ve also been able to see them in the bay! In fact, one of my daily responsibilities as part of the front of house team is to take part in the WDC’s Shorewatch Programme. This gives me the perfect excuse to head outside and scan the sea for cetaceans. Ailish and I also had the opportunity to head to nearby Cullen, with Shorewatch Coordinator Katie, to meet some amazing local volunteers. We didn’t see any dolphins on that occasion, but we have been very lucky to see them countless times now at the Centre!

Spey Bay itself is a stunning place to live, and the volunteer house is only a minute’s walk from the beach. Not only is this great for seeing spectacular wildlife, landscapes, and sunsets, but it’s also ideal for heading out at night to try and see the northern lights! We had to wait a while, but in our fifth week we finally managed to see them. They only looked like a faint green glow to the naked eye, but a longer exposure on my phone revealed the unmistakeable vibrant greens and subtle reds of the aurora borealis.

Northern Lights at Spey Bay
Watching the Northern Lights in Spey Bay Copyright Jamie McDermaid

Watching the reserve gradually shift from the deep greens of summer to the warmer amber, crimson tones of autumn has also been a real pleasure. The emergence of these colours has heralded the arrival of winter visitors too: hordes of pink-footed geese line the skies, red-throated divers surf the waves, and the honking of whooper swans haunts the early morning quiet. But it was only 2 months ago that the osprey ruled the river here. Just as the shingle beach of Spey Bay is constantly ebbing and flowing, shifting with strange fluidity, so the wildlife is constantly coming and going too. Sadly, this is also the case with residential volunteers; and soon I too will be saying goodbye to the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre and the beautiful Spey Bay.

Autumnal trees beside the River Spey
Autumnal trees beside the River Spey Copyright Jamie McDermaid