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Met Office survey - 19 August Oban and departure

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Back in May MARINElife had the opportunity to put a surveyor on a Met Office voyage to service some of its weather buoys in Biscay and the western approaches (you can read about that here). Following on from that the Met Office invited MARINElife to place a surveyor on a voyage in August from Oban to service the K7 and K5 buoys way to the northwest of the Outer Hebrides and west of Shetland (photo 1 from Google Earth). Our surveyor Peter Howlett takes up the story.

This is a unique opportunity to visit such a remote and difficult to reach area so I immediately volunteered for it and was fortunately offered the chance to go. Unless otherwise stated all photos are my own.

Location of K5 & K7 (Google Earth)

The first part of the journey was almost an adventure in itself – the 790km drive from Cardiff to Oban, fortunately that went far more smoothly than I had imagined it might. If you haven’t been I can recommend a visit to Oban, it’s a lovely town in a beautiful setting (photo 2), although the weather was a far cry from the drought being experienced down south with frequent heavy showers during the day.

Photo 2: Oban

Home for the next eight days is the Northern Lighthouse Board’s 84m, 3600 tonne vessel Pharos (photos 3 & 4), built in 2007 she is designed for servicing the lighthouses and navigation buoys around Scotland and the Isle of Man – as well as being available for commercial charter. Accommodation on board is very comfortable and there’s an expansive view from the bridge.

The Met Office maintains a network of 17 buoys around the UK which provide a suite of meteorological and oceanographic data to assist with forecasting. The unforgiving environment they’re in means they require frequent, preferably annual, attention, something that is much easier said than done for remote buoys like K5 and K7. The plan for this service voyage was to put out a new buoy for K7 (the old one having been retrieved some time ago) and replace the sensor suite on K5. The full buoy is a sizable bit of kit as you can see from the photo of it being craned on board Pharos, the sensor housing is also substantial (photos 5 & 6). The weather was particularly unpleasant during the loading, although apparently nothing unusual for Oban!

The forecast for the coming week is far from ideal and, although we had loaded the K5 head it’s already looking very unlikely that the weather will be suitable to get out to it. Fingers are crossed that the weather will play ball for K7 on Monday but anything much more than a 2m swell means it’s not safe to handle the buoy on deck – a five tonne pendulum swinging around could cause a lot of damage.

Photo 7: Departing Oban

With everything loaded it was finally time to cast off and head out of Oban Bay (photo 7) and up through the Sound of Mull towards the Sea of the Hebrides. Departing at just after 16:00 2nd officer Will reckoned we would be clear of the Sound by about 20:00. There were a few Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwake, and the odd tern to be seen as we crossed the Firth of Lorne but birds were fewer once we entered the Sound of Mull.

In this part of the world, it’s always worth having the occasional scan of the hilltop skyline, this paid off handsomely as I managed to pick up first one then, later, four White-tailed Eagles together riding the updrafts above the cliffs along the north side of the Sound. They were distant as you can see from photo 8 but still an impressive sight.

Photo 8: White-tailed Eagle (honest)

Once we were clear of the Sound sightings picked up a little, mainly Manx Shearwater – perhaps not surprising given Rum was just a few kilometres to the north – with the odd Gannet and Kittiwake. A bit of evening sun lit up the first proper lighthouse of the trip, Ardnamurchan, a very impressive 35m tall and built in 1849 (photo 9).

Photo 9: Ardnamurchan lighthouse

As the light was fading I was just about to pack up for the day when Chief Officer Martin pointed out a handful of dolphins heading into the bow, they were Commons but nice to get a cetacean sighting on the first day out. They were followed a few minutes later by another small group which were splashing around a few hundred metres off to starboard, very difficult to get anything on them in the lumpy grey seas.

I remained on the bridge until dark – just in case something came in close to the ship in the twilight – but it was not to be. The forecast for tomorrow is not good at all and in fact the plan is to put into Stornoway for shelter and leave on Sunday afternoon to continue up towards the K7 position.

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