Mull Hands on Nature


Mull

Chris Packham checks out the wildlife on the Scottish island of Mull.


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This little piece of Utopia is Mull in Scotland.

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Just to prove it's that, look behind me.

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These dainty little sand martins are nesting at the top of a beach.

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Where else could you find that in the UK?

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Most of our beaches are far too disturbed, but not here.

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Mull's coastline is a wildlife heaven.

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Sea eagles, otters, in springtime a host of wild flowers.

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The animals I have come to look for today hang around in pods and I guarantee they'll get you excited

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and, given the conditions today, I reckon my chances of finding them

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are pretty good.

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You know those endless top ten lists, things you must do before you die?

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I can guarantee that up there with naked paragliding is the desire to see dolphins or whales.

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The thing is, seeing some of these remarkable creatures

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is a really achievable thing throughout the course of the year

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and in Britain you can do it with your clothes on.

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In fact, you normally do it with rather a lot of clothes on.

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The Isle of Mull is a real whale hotspot and here you can even see them without getting your feet wet.

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Now, I know it's a statement of the obvious, very obvious indeed,

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but unless you are excruciatingly lucky,

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you could sit up here staring at this water for quite a few hours,

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so for some mild distraction, pick up a book about whales and dolphins.

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This one shows views of the animals taken from the surface,

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just the sort of view you're going to get from up here.

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No smiley faces - you don't get to see smiley faces if you're on top of the water, here.

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But what about the best days to come?

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Bright, sunny days aren't much good. There's too much glare off the water.

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And days when it's too choppy aren't good either

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because then every white-topped wave looks like it's the result of a dolphin's fin.

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One last tip. I know it sounds absurd, but keep your ears open

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because you can often hear whales and dolphins when they are blowing.

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On a quiet day, you'll pick up on that.

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And in the seas around the west coast of Scotland, you'll find plenty of dolphins and porpoises, too.

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But if you are on Mull, Tobermory is a good place

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to start your adventure and there are plenty of operators to take you out.

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This is whale-watching, Western Isles of Scotland style, and just look at it - sunshine, dramatic scenery,

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blue seas and the potential to see 24 different types of whale and dolphin.

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I'm on the hunt for one of the smallest and least known whales -

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the minke, or stinky minke as it's known because of its fishy breath.

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I know the ocean's a big place and looking for whales can be like

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looking for a bin bag bobbing around in the middle of nowhere but there are clues to whale activity.

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Just up ahead of us there are some gannets diving into the sea, which is a pretty spectacular sight.

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We mustn't be distracted by the birds

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but you've got to keep your eye on seabirds because often, when there's a group of them on the surface,

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it could be that there is a minke feeding there.

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When they feed, they often spill food and the gulls pick it up.

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The minkes were proving elusive. All was not lost though

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because on this trip, serious whale research is undertaken too. Skipper James Fairbairn roped me in.

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Another good thing about these whale-watching safaris

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is they are not just an excuse for gratuitous whale eye candy.

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You learn things too, particularly about why the whales are here.

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-That's all down to their food, isn't it, James?

-Yes, that's right.

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-What's this? Plankton net?

-Yes.

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It's got a very fine mesh and we use it to catch plankton so we can show people what the whales are after.

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Bottom of the food chain, rich water. Let's see.

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OK. See how clear it is. Still see the net.

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-Doesn't put up much of a fight, does it, plankton? Hardly a sporting fish, is it?

-Not really.

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Because basically what you've got there is a whale, isn't it?

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A whale's mouth, trawling.

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That's absolutely right.

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Doing exactly the same thing it would when it was feeding.

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Let's have a look. What have we got here?

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-This is zooplankton, isn't it?

-That's right.

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-This is whale food, isn't it?

-That's right. Exactly what the whale...

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-A pint of whale food. I wouldn't down it myself.

-Full of protein.

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I'm vegetarian!

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Unfortunately, plankton was to be our only catch of the day.

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Not a sniff of a minke, let alone its fishy breath.

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So, it was minke one, whale watchers nil.

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Still time, though, to check out the jellyfish before returning

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to Tobermory to get ready to try again the next day.

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Another day, another chance to see a minke.

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Whale-watching operators claim a high success rate around Mull

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so this had to be our day.

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As part of the research project, the minkes are photographed.

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It means their movements can be monitored and it's something that you can get involved in as well.

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I bet 99% of your punters want to go home with a photo, don't they?

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What tips can you offer for cetaceal photography?

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The most important thing is to just always keep an eye on what you're looking at.

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When you're holding the camera a lot of people find

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they tend to naturally close an eye, put their other eye inside the lens, the viewfinder,

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whereas the most important thing is to keep that eye open.

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You can always guide the camera in the right place...

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And be poised as well so you're looking with this eye and immediately up...

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-You've got 1½ seconds whilst it's breaking the surface.

-If that.

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We're both armed with great big telephotos. What about little snappy cameras?

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-Do they ever come close enough to use those?

-Oh, yeah.

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I think actually you don't need to have this sort of equipment. This is more for photo identification.

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If you want a photo to take home, these little snappy ones you get are just as good.

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Now by this time things were, frankly, rather tense and the minkes were still refusing to play ball.

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But there was a big clue - the seabirds were back on the surface

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and strange things were happening under the water.

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There it is right here.

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-Look at that!

-Finally, a minke.

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It's here again, it's under the bow.

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There it is right here.

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Then the whale just got closer and closer to the boat.

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It was unbelievable.

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This is one of around 65 individual minkes that have been identified in these waters.

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Just about to come up again.

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Look at that!

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Oh!

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-If you're thinking of going to Canada, Iceland or Norway forget it!

-Here...

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There it is, guys, down here, right underneath us.

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Wow!

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Really checking us out. It's going to the stern.

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Honestly, I've seen a few whales around the world,

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but never has one shown this much attention to the boat.

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It must have criss-crossed under the boat 10, 12 times now.

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Fabulous views, looking down through this clear water. You can see every detail.

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Doesn't look like a bin bag floating on the surface -

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it looks like a proper animal. James, what can you tell us about this one?

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It's a young one. The juveniles are much more curious than the adults. The adults tend to stay away.

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-What do you think?

-It's amazing.

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I've seen minke maybe a handful of times,

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but to keep going backwards and forwards so slowly, so controlled, it blew me away.

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-It's almost like it was a pet.

-Yeah.

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It's like it performed for us.

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It knew we were here, and it performed.

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And you couldn't ask for anything else, could you?

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People go all the way to the Bahamas, Nova Scotia, California...

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but, look - calm sea, blue sky, sunshine, minke whale, pet minke, swimming under the boat.

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What are you talking about? Save your money. Mull is the place to come.

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-Vote for Mull!

-Mull!

-Mull!

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd 2006

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E-mail [email protected]

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