Stories from the Isle of Mull — Story Three

The mist rolled in over the top of pine trees and descended down the cliff face, hanging just above the surface of the water. Not ideal weather conditions for cetacean spotting most would think.

Because I do not live close to the coast, I become excited at the prospect of seeing cetaceans at whichever coastline I visit. The British Isles is home to some of the most exotic creatures in our ocean, such as basking sharks, blue sharks, bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, and even our own local orca population, The West Coast Community, which unfortunately is doomed to extinction.

As this was the last day before I was to pack up and head back down South, I was feeling quite optimistic about seeing some of the local creatures that inhabit the ocean surrounding the Inner and Outer Hebrides. But as the boat left the pontoon, the mist was still heavy in the air. I could just see the outline of the cliffs of Mull on my left, and the faint, distant hills of mainland Scotland on the right side of the boat. But the water was mirror-calm, so anything that would come up to break the surface could be seen if it was at a close distance to the boat.

The boat slowly made its way towards the Northern end of Mull and Ardnamurchan, and thankfully the mist was beginning to clear. At this point, some movement was spotted right ahead of the boat just in front of some monumental cliffs. It wasn’t clear what made the splashes in the water at first, but soon enough the multitude of splashes and silhouettes of something leaping from the water made it clear it was a pod of dolphins. As I look through the camera’s viewfinder, I noticed a number of the dolphins were jumping towards the boat. As I noticed this, the boat slowed right down and the engine was turned off. The water became mirror-calm once again and the sun was starting the burn through the heavy clouds and mist.

Suddenly, the water’s surface was broken by multiple common dolphins coming up for air on the left-hand side of the boat where I was standing. The overcast sky made it easy to spot the movements of the dolphins just below the waterline. They were socializing with one another, barrel-rolling and swimming right up against the boat on their sides to see what was floating above their world, and blowing a stream of bubbles from their blowhole just before they came up for air. I was in awe of these creatures, and my childlike amazement was plain to see, with my mouth open and widened eyes.

At this point in time, I had the best opportunity to photograph the dolphins at a very close range, and hopefully capture them emerging from the water's surface. The overcast sky made it easy to spot the movements of the dolphins just below the waterline. But despite having good lighting conditions, they were as fast as clockwork toys; zipping to and from the boat at excessive speed. A lot of the time during this encounter, I shot continuously in the hope that at least one good image would come from the sequence of photos that I took. I didn’t have time to look at my images while I was photographing, as I was constantly looking for the next individual that was coming close to the boat. I followed each one as soon as I saw them, and waited until they would come up for air to take the pictures. It felt similar to how I would be photographing birds in flight; keeping the subject in the frame and having the shutter speed set high, so the movement of the animals could be frozen in time.

Not only were there adult common dolphins in the pod but there were also a small number of newborn calves, still featuring their fetal folds when they were folded over in their mother’s womb. They were just as fast as the older dolphins. As they swam alongside their mothers, they were also checking out the boat and its occupants by turning onto their sides. The encounter with the common dolphins seemed to last forever, but it was soon all over as quickly as it began. The pod moved away from the boat as they ventured down the Sound of Mull and they eventually became small specks against the still misty background.

One of my favourite pictures from that encounter was of the mother and calf breaking the water’s surface. I almost cried with joy when I went back through the photos and saw the image. I adore the curious eye of the calf peeping above the surface of the water. Looking at that image immediately transports me back to that day. The chill of the salty air. The sound of the dolphins letting out a breath. My inner child screaming with joy. It’s wonderful how a single image can bring up so many wonderful thoughts and feelings, not just in wildlife photography but for any photographs that people have taken throughout their lifetime.

I was amazed by what I saw that day; to see those playful animals in the wild has always been a dream of mine since my childhood. I was so grateful to be able to add this experience to my other memorable encounters with wild animals, and I am hopeful that there will be many more to come as I continue my journey in wildlife photography.

Common dolphins — Adults and calf
Below the surface
Mother and calf