As a Conservation Biologist I am passionate about St Kilda and the protection of the fantastic wildlife that the archipelago possesses. It’s undoubtedly one of the best places for experiencing sea birds nesting in some of the most dramatic landscapes that UK has to offer. We also regularly spot whales and dolphins around the islands (collectively known as cetaceans) and basking sharks are also part of the regular visitors, often seen feeding around the islands and even in village bay.
One of my jobs is to remind visitors to the island to be respectful of the wildlife. Below are a few simple guidelines (some are from SNH's newly issued wildlife watching code) that we hope visiting boats as well as visitors arriving on day boats adhere to.
· Remember to bring your binoculars. By using binoculars you can get close to wildlife without disturbing them.
· Do not disturb birds at their nest sites. Keep a good distance between you and the nests. If you can’t see a nest, but you notice an agitated bird (like a dive bombing bonxie), then move away as you’re probably near the nest.
· Please take all your waste home with you, even the organic waste. Leave only footprints and take only photographs and memories.
Bonxies are usually good at letting you know when you've accidentally gone to near to their nest. With other birds it can be more subtle, such as head moving to keep an eye on you or panicked calls.
· If you wish to approach a cetaceans or basking sharks, then it is advised that you reduce your speed to 6 knots; approach the animal from an oblique angel; and keep a good distance (approximately 100 meters for whales and sharks, 50 meters for dolphins) between your vessel and the animal.
· Keep an eye on what the animal is doing. Give it extra space if it is feeding or is accompanied by a young animal.
· If you see any sign of disturbance (tail or head slapping in dolphins; sudden diving; basking sharks might cease to feed).
· If there are more than one boat watching the animal then it is particularly important to give the animal enough space and not to overstay your visit (a good rule of thumb is 15 minutes).
· Swimming with seals, cetaceans or basking sharks is not recommended. This does not only risk your own personal safety but also causes unnecessary disturbance to the animals.
· If you are kayaking then take extra care as the animals are less likely to hear you approaching. Keep a good distance and, if there id more than one person kayaking, then do not overcrowd the animal.
· Take care so as to minimise disturbance to the grey seals that haul out on the islands. If you are out walking and see seals hauled out on the cliffs, take care so as not to disturb them, especially if they have pups. Same principle applies if you’re at sea. If mothers get agitated they might stop feeding, which, if it happens regularly, could affect the pup’s chance of survival.
Common dolphins are usually more than happy to approach vessels for a bow ride which makes for great photo opportunities.
These guidelines and rules are there to ensure that everyone can enjoy wildlife in a way that’s sustainable and not invasive. If in doubt then move away and if you are at all concerned by other people’s actions then please let one of the Ranger’s know.
To find out more about responsible wildlife watching at sea please visit the SNH's website.
Hope to see you on St Kilda!
Watching wildlife from a responsible distance on board one of the day boats