Sea-Changers blog: Common and grey seals

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .


Common seal pupA young common seal (Phoca vitulina) on the north-east coast of Scotland


It’s only a seal…’. Most sea-watchers have been guilty of saying this, including myself, when a seal surfaces instead of the dolphin or otter you might have been hoping for. In general we take seals for granted in the UK, and there is a widespread lack of awareness of the issues surrounding them and the significance of British waters for the two species of seals found residing here.

Common and grey seals
Only two species of seal breed in UK waters -the common seal (Phoca vitulina) and grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Whilst globally far more widespread, the common seal is in fact less numerous than the grey seal in the UK. Around 5% of the world population of common seals bread in UK waters and they can be seen in locations around the majority of the coastline, perhaps most commonly on sandbanks and around the edges of muddy estuaries. Grey seals are found in larger numbers with the majority being around the Scottish coast. Perhaps surprisingly, grey seals are one of the rarer seals species in the world and the UK is one of their most significant strongholds, with around 40% of the global population being found here

Telling the difference
Correctly identifying seals is a common cause of confusion but there are some distinct differences between these two species. Common seals are smaller and far less bulky, with a maximum weight approximately half of that of the largest grey seals. They have squatter faces with shorter muzzles than grey seals, with a more curving forehead and eyes set further forward and closer together. Common seals have diagonal nostrils which form a V-shape, whereas grey seals’ nostrils are vertical and spaced further apart. Common seals tend to have more even colouration and spotting whereas grey seals can be obviously paler on their underparts. Unfortunately trying to identify seals by their colour is quite unproductive as both species display widely varying coats between individuals. Males are usually easier to identify, with the huge male grey seals unmistakable, whereas the females of both species can be a little harder to differentiate.


Grey sealsGrey seals (Halichoerus grypus)

Grey seal bullThe unmistakable huge bulk of a bull grey seal

Common seal and pupCommon seals


Seal watching and photography
In the water seals are fast moving, agile and often very curious about humans on land or in boats. On land however they are completely different – far slower and often very easily disturbed by people who come too close. With the exception of a small number of land-based sites, photographing seals on land requires very careful and patient field-craft to avoid unacceptable disturbance. In most cases the best means of photographing seals is from the water, and there are numerous boat trips that can be taken from around the Scottish coast which provide intimate views of both species whilst causing them very little or any disturbance. Seals habitually use the same ‘haul-out’ sites so they can be reliably sighted in many locations. Unfortunately this can work against the animals themselves, as in some places they are disturbed almost daily by walkers trying to get too close, or by dogs not on leads.


DSC_5178Seals hauled out on a rocky platform on the west coast of Skye

TeethA young common seal


Threats

Like so many species around the world, common and grey seals in the UK are being affected by climate change. The distribution and population of some of their prey species are changing, in some cases dramatically. Local populations of common seals can be decimated by outbreaks of Phocine Distemper Virus – on some occasions proving fatal to thousands of individual animals. Although grey seals are not affected by any of the symptoms, there is evidence that they carry the virus, a complex picture as the two species are regularly found together in mixed groups. Human threats to seals are considerable. Marine pollution can adversely affect the physiological processes of top predators such as seals, with pollutants accumulating in their blubber and reducing the effectiveness of their reproductive and immune systems. Unfortunately the fishing industry also present threats to seals. Seals are still shot in the UK by fish farms attempting to protect their stocks. Whilst it is a legal requirement to hold a license, their is almost no regulation or enforcement of the law when it comes to shooting seals. The true number of animals shot every year is almost certainly far higher than the official number, and they can be shot year round – including during the breeding season.

Seals pups in distress
It is common to see seal pups on beaches without an adult nearby. More often than not the pup’s mother will simply be hunting in the water nearby and will return shortly. Unfortunately however pups are sometimes orphaned or injured, especially after stormy weather. If you come across a pup which you suspect is in trouble, it is crucial that you keep a good distance to avoid causing it further distress. Watch it for some time to get an idea of its behaviour and to make sure that it is not simply waiting for its mother to return. If dog-walkers are close by with dogs not on leads, politely make them aware and ask them to get the dog under close control. Try and determine your exact location as closely as possible and take note of any injuries or unusual behaviour the pup is displaying, as well as its species. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue can be called on 01825 765546 for assistance, or the SSPCA (Scotland) or RSPCA (England and Wales).

Sea-Changers blog – January otters and dolphins

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .   


Otter attacking razorbillAn otter attacking a razorbill in the Inner Moray Firth this week. An extraordinary piece of behaviour to witness.


An otter sighting to remember
At times this winter it has felt like there has been no respite from the grey, the lack of light, the gloom. Low pressure has defined the weather since November – crisp, frosty days a rarity and a mild conditions bringing a seemingly endless supply of cloud. Spotting any marine mammals out in the choppy waters of the Inner Moray Firth has been difficult but this week my luck changed, and my efforts were rewarded with something quite unexpected.

Since the middle of January we’ve experienced a few spells of much colder weather, and this usually signals a good time to go out looking for otters. Lower temperatures cause otters to spend more time feeding to compensate for their higher energy expenditure, so they spend more time out in the water and less in their holts. In general my local otters are not easy to see – they frequent a beach covered in large boulders and the area of water they hunt in is frequently very choppy, so they are difficult to spot both on land and in the sea.

Earlier this week I headed along the beach during a few hours of very low winds and relatively calm seas. I reached the point on the beach where I always stop for my first scan out across the water, and (unusually) it took me less than 10 seconds to see an otter out fishing. I carefully started moving through the boulders to see if I could get a bit closer. Very soon however it climbed up onto a rock to eat whatever it had caught, so I stopped my approach, knowing that otters rarely allow you to approach them on land.


Distant otterA typical view of one of my local otters on a ‘feeding rock’ that it uses regularly. 


It did not linger for long and was soon out again hunting. Heading quite a long way out, it was quite hard to keep track of as the water was starting to become a little more choppy. I was concealed some distance back on the beach waiting, knowing that if the otter caught anything large it would have to come ashore to eat it, and I would attempt to position myself approximately where I thought it may land.

Five or six times in a row, the otter jumped out of the water to start a dive. I was expecting it to surface with a small fish such as a lumpsucker or flounder, but when it did come up it was immediately clear it had caught something big. A series of large splashes and the otter’s tail thrashing about got my heart racing as I struggled to see what was happening. Then I saw the outline of a large bird with its beak open pressed against the otter’s chest, and through my lens I was amazed to see that it looked like a razorbill or guillemot.

The otter repeatedly pushed the bird under, probably attempting to drown it, whilst making towards the shore as quickly as it could with such a large catch. My heart was in my mouth as I realised it was swimming straight towards my point on the beach, and for a moment I thought I was about to get my best-ever wildlife photographs. Then, and it was hard to see exactly what happened, the otter somehow lost the razorbill. I’m sure it must have killed it as it never re-surfaced, but despite the otter spending some time underwater, when it re-emerged it was without the bird and it started hunting yet again.

I’ve seen many different predators catching their prey on countless occasions but this was one of the most memorable. Otters are highly resourceful mammals with a large range of prey, yet before this I’d never seen one catch anything but fish, crabs or eels.


Fishing otterOut hunting in the Inner Moray Firth. With much colder temperatures over the past 2 weeks, the otters have been spending more time out feeding.


A few precious dolphin sightings
At this time of year the resident bottlenose dolphins are seen far less frequently in the Inner Firth than in the summer. Without a regular supply of Atlantic salmon to keep them visiting the Chanonry Narrows and the Kessock Channel, most of their time is spent hunting further out in the Firth. At this time of year in particular some of the dolphins can cover huge distances in the search for food, sometimes heading South and East as far as the Yorkshire coastline. Not only do the dolphins visit the Inner Firth less frequently at this time of year, there tends to be a greater swell on the water than in the summer, making it more difficult to spot dorsal fins between the waves.

I’ve spotted small numbers of dolphins in the extreme distance from Rosemarkie Bay a few times in the past couple of months. At this time of year each sighting feels special, even though the dolphins may only just be visible with binoculars. This week however I was treated to a welcome closer encounter.

It was a particularly blustery day on the Eathie coastline, with wet snow falling and the Firth a dark shade of grey. I knew that seeing any otters was unlikely but I was out trying anyway, and I’d stopped for a while to carefully scan the beach and sea for signs of movement. To my delight and surprise the water was parted by the dark bulk of a bottlenose dolphin only a few metres offshore. It is always more exciting when you aren’t expecting it. I was very happy to immediately identify the dolphin as ‘Kesslet’, a female sighted almost daily in the Inner Firth during the summer months. She spent quite a while foraging along this stretch of coast, never more than 200 metres away from me, catching several small fish and occasionally slapping her tail on the water’s surface. It was great to see her again after last seeing her in the Kessock Channel in December.


A visit from 'Kesslet'An unexpected visit from ‘Kesslet’ along the Eathie coast. Regularly seen in the Kessock Channel and at Chanonry Point during the summer, ‘Kesslet’ is presently one of the most well-known and well-loved of the Moray Firth dolphins.


Sea-Changers blog – Otters in Scotland

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .   


Through the seaweedScotland is an internationally significant area for the European otter (Lutra lutra). The large majority of the UK’s otter population exists in Scotland, concentrated around coastal areas of the Highlands and islands.


“The otter is 90 percent water, 10 percent God”. I can’t recall who originally said this, but it often comes to mind when I’m photographing or watching otters. Is there another mammal in the UK which can merge in and out of its environment so seamlessly? The memory of seeing my first otter is still very fresh, the sight of Loch Etive’s glassy still waters being parted by a strong, whiskered jaws. It swam past me before climbing onto the shore, and then just appeared to melt into the seaweed. Otters are animals that have us spellbound at their ability to elude, to disappear, and to silently move through the landscape un-noticed.

An Unbalanced Relationship
Unfortunately, like almost all of the predators found in the UK, our relationship with otters is one that turned sour for most of the 20th Century. From the 1950’s onwards otters declined dramatically throughout England and Wales, not to mention large areas of the rest of Western Europe. The decline was so severe that by the 1970’s otters were almost absent from some parts of England. Threats had come to otters on all sides – habitat destruction, hunting, disturbance and an increase in road traffic. However it was probably the introduction of of organocholorine pesticides in the 1950’s which had the greatest impact. Pesticide run-off from fields into rivers accumulated in the tissues of top predators such as otters, adversely affecting their physiological systems but crucially reducing their ability to breed. Scotland remained a haven for otters throughout this decline, the remote coastlines and rivers affected far less by human influence. Otter numbers in England and Wales are now far more healthy as a result of targetted re-introductions, legal protection, cleaner rivers and the banning of of organocholorine pesticides. However Scotland still holds the large majority of the UK’s otter population, possibly as much as 90%, with the coastal areas of the Highlands and Islands remaining the main strongholds.


Feeding otterAn otter feeding on a lumpsucker fish on the East coast of Skye.


 

‘Dratsie’

Otters are found throughout Scotland in both coastal and freshwater habitats, including in some urban areas. The coasts can support higher population densities, and it is Shetland that holds the highest numbers of otters in the UK. Here ‘dratsies’ are widespread and locally common, with some islands such as Yell being a magnet for wildlife photographers. The Isles of Mull and Skye are also well-known for their otters, as are some freshwater rivers such as the Spey and the Dee. In general the otters found on the West coast are less shy and more easily seen than other otters in the UK, and are regularly active throughout daylight and often seen from the roadside. I have otters within only a few hundred yards of my house on the Black Isle in Ross-shire, but they are shy and largely nocturnal, weeks often passing between sightings. I have put in many hundreds of hours of effort towards photographing my local otters, yet I’ve still never had encounters to match those that I’ve had on Skye or in Lochaber.


Otter portraitIn Scotland the majority of otters are coastal, preferring rocky, sea-weed covered shores close to a source of fresh water.


Continuing Threats and Conservation

Despite the healthy recovery of the UK’s otters, they still face numerous threats and it wouldn’t take much to tip the balance against their favour once again. Habitat loss remains a big issue, with healthy rivers and sources of freshwater essential for an otter’s survival. Road casualties unfortunately are a high cause of mortality even in remote areas of the Highlands, as is drowning in fishing nets or lobster pots. Otter population dynamics are fragile, with the death of a single female otter having the potential to affect an entire local population. Otters have been the focus of some huge conservation efforts in the UK, and have been protected since the late 1970’s. The otter is a European Protected Species and is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). It is illegal to deliberately kill, capture, injure or disturb an otter, as is disturbing or damaging their holts or breeding areas.


Glassy watersA shape as fluid as water’.


Watching otters in Scotland

As a wildlife photographer, no other species obsesses me so as the otter. Every high quality otter image that I have feels precious and hard-won, and even now I can find myself trembling with excitement when I’m photographing an otter as close quarters. Sometimes I have to remind myself that for many wildlife watchers, a glimpse is the most they’ll ever get of these famously elusive creatures. Luck can play a major role – the first time I visited the Isle of Mull I was rewarded with close-up views of an otter within minutes of getting off the ferry. It was swimming around only a few metres offshore outside the village shop in Craignure, and a few of us all stood quietly and watched smiling for a few minutes. Yet it took me two years of living on the West coast of Scotland before I ever saw my first otter. To maximise your chances, the winter is the best time of year to look for otters as they are forced to spend more time hunting to survive the colder temperatures. A rising tide is usually best and ideal places to look are sheltered areas of coastline with sea-weed covered rocky shores, preferably close to the outlet of a river or stream. Watching otters is a wonderful experience but their welfare must always come first, and to disturb them is not only illegal, it can also be damaging. To get the kind of close images that I’ve featured in this blog post requires adept and highly specific field-craft, research and a great deal of patience. Sometimes it is good to put the camera down and just watch these remarkable mammals.

Moray Firth otter

 

Sea-Changers blog – Introducing the Moray Firth dolphins

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .   


Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)


The Moray Firth in NE Scotland is rich in marine wildlife, but it is for its resident bottenose dolphins that is known world-wide. I am fortunate to live on the shores of the Inner Moray Firth and spend a great deal of time photographing and watching these dolphins, and over the coming months I will be blogging for Sea-Changers about my experiences. This blog post is a brief introduction to these remarkable animals.

Big dolphins in cold seas
The population of bottlenose dolphins found in the Moray Firth numbers approximately 200, and they are amongst the largest specimens of their species found anywhere in the world. Their average length is approximately 4m, compared to the 2.5m global average length of the species. This great size is due to their Northerly location and the cold waters they live in – the population is possibly the most Northerly in the world, and as such they have more blubber and bulk than dolphins found in warmer waters further South. Some individuals regularly travel great distances from the Moray Firth and are usually sighted moving Eastwards and Southwards along the UK coastline. The Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay populations are the two largest and most significant resident populations of bottlenose dolphins found in UK waters – other populations found along the West coast are far smaller in number.


The huge bulk of 'Mischief'A very large male dolphin approaching Chanonry Point. This individual is around 4 metres long – much larger than the global average size of bottlenose dolphins.


Local celebrities
It is only quite recently that the Moray Firth dolphins have become well-known, and even 10 years ago the best dolphin-watching spots were far quieter than they are now. However they are referred to in records going back well over 100 years, and they are an integral part of the coastal culture of the Firth. Many of the coastal towns and villages feature visitor interpretation regarding the dolphins, and numerous dolphin-watching boat trips can be taken from various places along the coast. They are now a major factor in the local economy, bringing in an estimated £4 million a year to Scotland. Many of the individual dolphins are well-known to locals and are a regular sight for dog-walkers, fishermen, and those lucky enough to live in homes on the water’s edge.  Each dolphin has an ID number but many of them are known by name, and thanks to the dolphin-adoption scheme run by Whale and Dolphin Conservation, many thousands of people closely follow the lives of several individuals.

Efficient hunters
Bottlenose dolphins are finely-tuned predators at the top of the food chain. They have developed numerous effective hunting methods and are seen working both together and individually to catch food. Their preference is for protein-rich, high-energy food sources – particularly Atlantic salmon and sea-trout, but their diet consists of a wide range of species. Mackeral, flatfish, squid, eels, herring, sprats and many other species are known to be eaten by bottlenoses. During the winter months in particular the dolphins will sometimes have to travel great distances in the pursuit of food, often covering many tens of miles in a day.


Violent endBottlenose dolphins are finely-tuned top predators. Their hunting behaviour can be a highly impressive spectacle to watch.


Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point near Fortrose is probaby the most reliable place to watch the dolphins during the summer, and it is regularly referred to as one of the best places in the world to see bottlenose dolphins from land. During the summer months dolphins are seen from Chanonry on almost every tide, often at a distance of only a few metres. The area of water just off the beach is particularly good for hunting salmon, and some individual dolphins will return day after day during the summer to find food here. Although the numbers seen at Chanonry are usually in the range of between 1 and about 20, up to 50 individuals are sometimes seen here. The Kessock Channel is also a very reliable spot from which to see dolphins, as are Cromarty, Spey Bay, Burghead and a number of other locations along the Moray Coast.


Dolphin-watching at Chanonry PointDolphin-watching at Chanonry Point, where it is possible to see dolphins most days during the summer months.


Threats

Despite the Moray Firth being a designated Marine Special Area of Conservation, and bottlenose dolphins being a European protected species, the dolphins in the Firth unfortunately face numerous threats. The population is considered vulnerable due to its small size and its isolation from other significant populations – the only other resident populations of significant size is found in Cardigan Bay and along the West coast of the UK. Oil and gas exploration in the Firth can cause significant habitat degredation and noise pollution, both of which can be highly damaging to dolphins. Chemical pollutants that make their way into the Firth can accumulate in the dolphin’s blubber, and over time adversely affect their immune system and reproductive ability. Industrialisation along the coastline is causing an increase in boat activity in the firth and disturbance of the dolphins, in addition to the disturbance already caused by boat users behaving irresponsibly. Over-fishing and declining food sources are perhaps the greatest threats – with Scottish salmon for example seeing massive declines in recent years.


 

Wet weather at ChanonryThe Moray Firth is a busy area for shipping, oil extraction, tourism and other human uses. Balancing human needs and marine conservation is a hugely complex issue.


My next blog post will be a photo-essay portraying a particularly memorable morning of dolphin-watching last August at Chanonry Point. In the meantime, more images of the dolphins can be seen here .

James

Sea-Changers blog – Introducing myself

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .   

 


James Roddie
My name is James Roddie and I am a wildlife and landscape photographer based on the Black Isle in Scotland. I sell images and write articles for magazines, with a particular focus on the wildlife and wild places of the Highlands.

I live on the shores of the Inner Moray Firth – one of the best places in the world to watch bottlenose dolphins from land. During the summer months I spend a great deal of time photographing the dolphins from the world-famous Chanonry Point, which I’m lucky enough to have only a 5 minute drive away. Observing the daily activities of these dolphins week after week is extraordinary and it has heavily influenced my outlook on the world around me.


Breaching bottlenose dolphinsThe bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth.


I have had some remarkable experiences whilst photographing marine wildlife. To see the new calf of a dolphin which you have been watching almost every day for months is deeply touching, and seeing my first ever whale is still as fresh in my mind as the day it happened. However I have also seen many things that worry and disturb me. My teenage years were spent on the Suffolk coast – a place known for its nature reserves and high-quality coastal habitats. Over the years I spent dozens of evenings exploring the mouth of one particular estuary – a great place to watch birds and learn how to use a camera. One day when I was 14 years old I finally noticed something gapingly obvious that somehow had escaped my attention. Over a mile-long stretch of beach there was barely a square metre of ground that didn’t contain some kind of plastic or litter washed up by the sea. It stirred something inside me, and since then I have become deeply concerned about our relationship with the natural world.

Our relationship with cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises) is still a very unbalanced one, and these animals are still exploited, mistreated and killed in many areas of the world. But this issue is just one of countless problems concerning our seas and oceans. Some people argue too much emphasis is put on the ‘glamorous’ species such as dolphins and whales, when so much that is wrong with marine environments concerns the less obvious and less visible things. But change is inspired by understanding, and understanding only comes if people are interested. One of the main reasons I photograph the Moray Firth dolphins is to try and encourage people to learn more about the wider issues concerning our seas.

There are so many simple things that all of us can do that will help the condition of our seas – making responsible choices about what we eat, not buying ‘one-use’ plastic bags at the supermarket, reducing our family’s use of chemical cleaning products, decreasing the amount of food we waste. Through my photography I aim to inspire people about our seas and coastlines and hopefully encourage them to take more of an interest in how they can help.
I’m excited to be starting blogging for Sea-Changers. I will be posting images, issues and stories surrounding the Moray Firth with a particular focus on the resident bottlenose dolphins, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with you all.

James.