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Met Office survey - 27 August at K5

This morning showed just what a difference 10° longitude makes to the time of sunrise – yesterday off Shetland at around 1°W sunrise was about 05:50, this morning at 11° it was 06:30. K5 is a long way from Shetland – about 320km from Whitehill and 285km from the west coast of Lewis – so no surprise that there was still three and half hours to run from first light. Sea conditions were very kind for being so far offshore with at force three to four east-southeast breeze and a relatively gentle swell.

There were very few seabirds to record out here though, just a handful of Fulmar and Gannet and the odd Manx Shearwater. There were, however, a few landbirds to be seen, a solitary Ringed Plover circled us then a couple of Meadow Pipits appeared and landed on the helipad, they were joined a little later by a White Wagtail. I had thought these were likely birds heading south from the Faroe Islands or Iceland but a White Wagtail would suggest a Scandinavian origin so perhaps birds overshooting Shetland/Outer Hebrides.

I didn’t have to wait long for the first cetaceans of the day though, a pod of four Pilot Whales kept their distance, as did the next pod of three, which had a calf with them. The third pod were slightly more obliging and came to within 100m of Pharos. This group consisted of six adults and two very young calves (photos 1-4), one of which appears to have some serious skin lesions. They were at 08:40 and there were no further sightings before I finished this leg of the survey when we arrived at K5 just after 10:00.

Deploying K5

Whereas K7 had been a whole new buoy, K5 ‘just’ needed the tower containing the sensors to be replaced, judging from the missing and damaged solar panels and the state of some of the sensors it had taken a battering (photo 5). If anything this was a more difficult operation than the deploying of K7, the buoy had to be recovered, secured on deck, the old tower removed, the new one lowered in place then the whole buoy lifted and put back in the sea – all on the deck of a ship moving about at sea!

The apparent ease with which the crew of the Pharos accomplished the task is testimony to the skill and professionalism of the crew. Photos 6-10 show the buoy being recovered, towers swapped and the buoy being put back in the sea.

Wildlife at K5

The Meadow Pipits and White Wagtail that had joined the ship earlier were still aboard (photos 11-13), not sure how much energy was in the amphipod though! Another Ringed Plover did a flyby (photo 14), circling the vessel a couple of times before heading off, a Redshank had done the same earlier but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo.

We had been followed to K5 by two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, presumably on their way south this far out, within a couple of hours of being stationary they had been joined by about 20 others, all sat on the sea about 200m off the vessel and occasionally having to move when the current carried them too far away (photo 15). I’m not sure whether they thought we were a fishing vessel but they would have been very disappointed when we left with out leaving them any food.

A gaggle of Fulmars also landed near Pharos and I noticed one was another ‘blue’ Fulmar, it was nice to get a side-by-side comparison of the two morphs (photo 15) and see it in flight (photo 16). It’s always amusing to see a gathering of Fulmars because it looks as though they’re having a natter, although I think the real purpose, judging by the behaviour here, is attempting to find a possible mate (photos 17 & 18).

I was just finishing my lunch when first officer Martin hurried into the mess to tell me there was a pod of Pilot Whales just off the beam, cue a hurried finish to what I had in front of me and off on to deck. There, just 50m off the starboard beam were about 25 or so Pilot Whales. It didn’t take long to realise that nearly all of them were juveniles or calves with just one or two older and larger animals. I could see a more distant group which appeared to be about eight large females who disappeared shortly after and didn’t reappear until we were just about to depart almost two hours later. I suspect the animals around the vessel were a nursery group of juveniles and calves, left in the care of a couple of older females while the matriarchs went off hunting. Pilot Whales eat squid and dive deep to get them – the sea here is 2000m deep – too deep for a small calf to dive.

The juveniles hung around for the best part of an hour before they drifted away from Pharos. It was a delight to watch them, I saw one or two swimming on their backs waving their pectoral fins in the air and one or two did a bit of spy-hopping. There’s a selection of shots in the gallery below.

We departed K5 at 14:30 but by this time the weather had deteriorated with drizzle and a force six from the southeast. As we were heading back southeast the reduced visibility along with the rain on the bridge windows meant I decided my time would be better spent getting some blogs out from the previous two days.

Hopefully, the weather will improve tomorrow, especially passing through the Sound of Harris and then crossing the Little Minch.

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