Walking with whales

Trust member Ron Macdonald recounts his experience of observing two humpback whales from the Aberdeenshire coast. 

These days, thoughts of whales are always on my mind as I walk the shoreline on the lookout for the two humpback whales.  They have been here since the end of July when they barged, breaching, into the Ythan Estuary to gorge on the seasonal shoals of sprat.

© Ron Macdonald
Humpback whale feeding close to the shore. © Ron Macdonald

I'm getting better at spotting them. It starts off with looking out for the blow and then the arch of the back and dorsal fin as the whale prepares to dive again. I often walk along the shoreline, parallel to the whale, counting 100 or so steps – the steps getting quicker sometimes – before the whale resurfaces.

© Ron Macdonald
Humpback whale in the Ythan Estuary © Ron Macdonald

I can usually keep up, three to four miles per hour. After 100 steps, it’s camera to the ready and snap! And then, for no reason, the whale becomes elusive, disappearing as it dives for a longer period. Maybe it’s had enough of feeding among the narrow sand channels and is heading out to deeper water for a breach or few.  

I stand for what feels like five minutes but it's much much longer, watching the whale leap, crash bang, propelling its entire body high, clear of the water, splinters of white against a blue horizon. You know it's having a great time and that makes you feel uplifted, joyous and wondrous.

© Ron Macdonald
A frenzy of gulls © Ron Macdonald

Next morning, it's back to the Forvie side of the estuary, catching the falling tide. The two humpbacks are again at the estuary mouth forcing the shoals of sprats into a tight bait ball that creates a frenzy of gulls. The whales are lunge feeding, rising from the water to dive, open-mouthed to sweep up the small fish.

After days of missed opportunities to photograph the humpbacks feeding, I finally manage to get some images. The tide is still rising and a humpback comes in close, through the breakers to within yards of the beach. I become concerned but the whale never looks in trouble. After ten or so minutes it leaves, heading north towards Collieston.

© Ron Macdonald
Humpback whale in the Ythan Estuary © Ron Macdonald

In the afternoon, I again spot the whales, way in the distance, nearer to Aberdeen than Newburgh. One is displaying its tail in the air and then slapping it down on the water.

As I write this, on 26 September, the whales haven't been seen for the last three days. Maybe the shoals of sprat have moved elsewhere or the urge to migrate to their breeding grounds off Cape Verde has moved them southwards. Who knows? Despite the sea teeming with wildlife I feel an emptiness and maudlin thoughts abound – I miss 'my' leviathans.  

The characteristic blowhole is clear when the whales are close to shore © Ron Macdonald

My short time with them has been as much spiritual as ecological. You are awed by their mastery of the sea, their clever exploitation of the sprat shoals, the adeptness of them swimming in shallow sand channels and their breaching. Oh their breaching!

And yes you also feel afraid for them in a sea full of danger, mostly at the hand of man. Casting aside my sadness I feel privileged to have spent a little time in their presence. 

It's been a blow. 

Update: After almost a week one the whales has returned. On Friday 30 September it was observed feeding at the mouth of the Ythan estuary and later off Hackley Head closer to Collieston. As I write on Monday 3 October, I'm observing 'Humpie', as he has become known, feeding among the sand channels off the Ythan estuary.

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Trust member Ron Macdonald recounts his experience of observing two humpback whales from the Aberdeenshire coast. 

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