How whales, dolphins and even sharks have moved in to the Firth of Forth
The wildlife flourishing in our coastal waters and the 10,000 citizen scientists keeping watch over them
Ally Connell has seen plenty of seals when out in his kayak near Dunbar. He has spotted dolphins and minke whale too during his sea fishing expeditions.
But the dark grey fin breaking the water between his kayak and his friend Michael McCathie’s belonged to something bigger altogether - a basking shark.
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As it circled beneath him, Ally, an experienced sea kayaker, was unphased by its apparent interest in him. He simply sat back and enjoyed his close encounter with one of the most awesome creatures in the sea.
Lockdown and its aftermath has brought nature and many of the people living on the banks of the Firth of Forth closer together.
Sightings of marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, seals and even the elusive basking shark, are on the up. So too are face to face encounters.
Many of these species seem to be flourishing, for a variety of reasons, at the same time as more and more of us are venturing into and onto the water.
Paddleboarders and wild swimmers tell of inquisitive seals and even dolphins popping up out of the water near them, in thrilling moments, relatively close to shore.
Pass someone gazing out to sea on a coastal path or one of the city’s seafront walkways and there is a fair chance they are trying to work out if they have spotted one of these exciting visitors.
The Forth estuary has been teeming with interesting bird life for many years, including internationally significant colonies, at the Bass Rock and Isle of May, but it is becoming home to a much richer and more dramatic mixture of wildlife.
Once thought of as residents only of the west coast and the Moray Firth in Scotland, dolphins and whales are increasingly common visitors to the Forth.
This summer they have been joined by basking sharks, who normally restrict themselves to warmer UK waters around Cornwall and the south-west of England and Scotland’s west coast near Skye and Mull.
Among the other more unusual recent sightings have been swordfish and octopus.
Something in the water
Sightings of marine mammals have been reported along the length of the Firth of Forth from the bridges at Queensferry to the docks at Leith, the prom at Portobello to North Berwick and Dunbar. On the Fife coast, Kinghorn is famous among enthusiasts as a prime spotting point.
There has been a flurry of excitement in East Lothian following a spate of encounters involving sailors and water sports enthusiasts this summer. As well as a number of reports of a basking shark, the area has proved a popular feeding ground for whales.
“There have been several sightings of minke whales in the Forth this summer,” says a spokesman for the East Lothian Council’s Countryside Rangers team. “They can be very inquisitive.”
“They are the smallest of the baleen whales we get around the UK, reaching between seven and nine metres. They feed by taking a huge mouthful of water containing fish, then push the water out through the baleen (thick bristlely plates that some species of whales have in their mouths instead of teeth) leaving just the fish in their mouths. This is known as ‘gulp feeding'.”
It was perhaps inevitable, given the growing number of close encounters, that not everything would go smoothly. Enthusiasm and lack of knowledge can overcome commonsense, especially when people are not used to getting so close to wild nature. Police Scotland and the countryside rangers have publicly warned paddleboarders and kayakers to keep their distance after a small number of worrying incidents.
“The sighting of a basking shark off the East Lothian coast has understandably created much interest with the public,” says the Countryside Rangers service spokesman. “However, we have been made aware that some paddleboarders and kayakers are getting far too close to it, even reaching out to touch it.
“Section 9(4a) of Wildlife and Countryside act 1981 states: Any person who intentionally or recklessly disturbs a dolphin, whale, porpoise or basking shark shall be guilty of an offence.”
East Lothian Countryside Rangers issued the following advice to watersports enthusiasts in order to stay within the law and avoid disturbing wildlife:
• Keep your distance. Avoid getting too close.
• Do not make sudden changes to speed and direction.
• Do not approach from directly in front or behind.
• Do not drive between or scatter groups.
• Do not chase or repeatedly approach individuals.
• Do not box them in.
• Do not swim with them or try to touch or feed them.
• Avoid repeated disturbance; consider staying away if the wildlife has already spent a prolonged period others nearby.
Sitting at the kitchen table of her home in the East Neuk of Fife, Emily Hague has seen a humpback whale and basking shark without even having to put down her morning cuppa and step out of the front door.
“The basking shark I saw by chance,” she says, “but the humpback was quite special because it was through somebody I’d met through the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook page. They were on the phone to me, telling me where to look like, near this mountain and that phone mast. I would never have seen it without them. It was pretty magical.”
A marine conservationist at Heriot-Watt University, she is researching the cumulative impact of human activity on marine mammals, and is a passionate and powerful advocate for the wildlife of the Firth of Forth.
“I’ve only lived on the Forth properly since 2017, but I’ve been watching from the same place for the past six years now. Sightings do vary from year to year, but there does seem to be a wider variety of species being sighted.
“In the earlier years, it was maybe bottlenose dolphins in summer and every so often a humpback whale in winter, and that was what you’d expect to see if somebody saw a fin.
“Now it feels like there’s all sorts of species. I don’t know if we can really say that definitively because nobody has been recording this systematically before.
“Speaking to people who have been around the Forth for years, such as the fishermen, they all seem to have the same story that things are changing and they are seeing more species when they are going out to sea. That’s really exciting.”
The bounty of banning whale hunts
There are a number of reasons why so many different species are likely to be returning to the Forth.
“The bottlenose dolphins that we see were traditionally, around 30 years ago or so, only seen around the Moray Firth, but their population size is increasing,” Emily explains. “They are basically expanding their range down the east coast of Scotland and even further to Yorkshire and the east coast of England. That is basically a good news story, they just need more space because there are more of them.”
There is another, historic factor at play too.
Leith-based Christian Salvesen was once the largest whaling company in the world. Part of a global industry that hunted these magnificent creatures to the brink of extinction, it was only in 1963 that Edinburgh ended its connection with the practice, when Salvesen sold its last two boats.
“It takes quite a long time before you see an effect of stopping whaling. That could be one of the reasons that globally numbers are increasing and they are just beginning to explore places that they used to go hundreds of years ago.
“Commercial whaling was going on for a couple of hundreds of years, but the whales used to be around here before that, so maybe they’re just coming back home.”
Rising sea temperatures
The increasing temperature of the sea is also changing the ecosystem, the plant life, the sea creatures and the fish which the bigger mammals feed on. This is a likely reason why basking shark were seen visiting for the first time this summer.
“It feels in a state of flux, but from one perspective for us it’s a good thing because we get to see lots of cool stuff,” says Emily.
“This year is the first time I’ve ever seen a basking shark and it was in the Forth. Maybe a few fishermen could tell you about seeing one a few years ago, but other than that nobody seems to have seen them here before.
“Then, this year, there were at least four or five sightings in different places, all at the same time, all down the Forth, which was amazing. It will be interesting to see whether they come again next year.”
The power of citizen scientists
Today we know more than ever before about the marine mammals visiting and living in the Forth. That is down to the work not just of scientists like Emily Hague, but as many as 10,000 nature enthusiasts living up and down the shores of the estuary. All members of the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook group, they are the eyes and ears that have amassed a huge bank of data that Emily is systematically cataloguing and analysing.
Started in 2016 by a small group of people who were interested in the Forth and its wildlife, it has snowballed to its current 10,000-plus membership. At the outset, no members were trained marine scientists, just committed wildlife enthusiasts, many of them highly experienced in watching the sea.
“I started helping them in 2020,” Emily explains, “because I realised the level of data they were collecting was amazing. I got some funding through my job at Heriot-Watt to basically go through the Facebook page and turn all of that into a spreadsheet and map where all the sightings were.”
There are currently two years of data, but the expectation is that this will build in the coming years to become a powerful tool for monitoring the health of the Forth and its wildlife.
“I think maybe the success of the page has been that you don’t need all the fancy gear or training to understand what you see because the page helps. If you’re not sure what it is, somebody else has probably seen it and posted on the page.
All you have to do is just get to the coast and look out to sea on a nice day and you can maybe contribute as well. That’s a nice part of all of this.”
You don’t have to move to Kinghorn
Looking at the map of sightings, you might think that the best way to spot dolphins on the Forth is to move to Kinghorn, but you can spot interesting wildlife all along the coast, and throughout the year. Humpback whales, for example, are often spotted during the winter months.
“Your best time to spot stuff is always going to be calm days, as the flatter the sea is, the easier it is to spot things surfacing. Kinghorn is good because it is quite elevated and the animals do congregate around there, but you can just head to any higher point.
“Look for lots of birds diving in because that suggests there’s lots of fish under the water. If you watch groups of diving birds for any length of time, you often end up seeing dolphins in amongst them and minke whale.”
There is enough going on close to shore that you can regularly see dolphins, whales, seals and more with the naked eye without the need for binoculars.
Hope despite pollution concerns
Despite concerns about the UK Government cutting environmental regulations post-Brexit and the impact of sewage dumping on our waters, Emily remains optimistic.
“A lot of the swimming apps tell you not to swim in the Forth quite often and that is getting more and more frequent. That makes me a bit nervous that we are going a bit backwards in terms of water quality,” she says.
She is also concerned about occasional reports of injuries to humpback whales caused by creel fishing gear used to catch lobsters and crabs.
“The animals are speaking for themselves and they’re coming back,” she says. “We’re not totally sure why, but it’s lovely to see them.”
Vote for the Forth’s citizen scientists
The work of the Forth Marine Mammals Facebook group has been recognised as part of the RSPB’s Nature of Scotland Awards.
The 10,000-strong community has been shortlisted for the Community Initiative Award which is decided by public vote.
The award shortlisting states that: “The page has demonstrated the fantastic array of marine species utilising this waterway.”
Voting is open until 11 October for anyone who wants to show their support for their work.
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