Monday, 19 October 2015

Experiences you just can't buy, and one which you can...

We woke to a cool and overcast morning, the grass and our tents soaked by overnight dew.  Packing away a wet tent is never much fun but we were spared this task as we planned to circumnavigate Gigha during the day and return to Cara to camp for a second night.

In contrast to the previous afternoon when we'd paddled in short sleeve shirts, the chill in the morning air required rather warmer clothing, added to which our route would take us up the exposed west coast of Gigha which has limited landing opportunities for much of the way.

We didn't have to move the boats far to launch; high water coincided neatly with the times we expected to both land and launch at Cara, and there's the added factor of the area being at the edge of the influence of an amphidromic point which lies between Islay and the Mull of Kintyre, so although tides here run quite strongly across the shallow water, the tidal range at Springs is only about 1 metre.  The physics of amphidromes is complex, but the physics of only having to move our boats a couple of metres up and down the beach was a concept we could both understand and appreciate!

We crossed back to Gigha, hopeful that the cloud would break a little and provide us with some of the tremendous lighting of aquamarine water over white sand which so characterises Hebridean sea kayaking.  It wasn't to be unfortunately, but at least we could see Gigha, which hadn't been the case the previous day!

Even in the cloudy conditions there were some lovely colours in the water.  We set out on our clockwise circumnavigation of Gigha at Grob Bagh at the south westerly tip of the island. There are many ways to circumnavigate an island; we're of the opinion that paddling headland to headland to get around quickly misses out on most of the best paddling on offer - we intended to go close in and investigate every bay and feature possible.

There was plenty of wildlife interest on the west coast of Gigha - waders including Curlew, Redshank, Turnstone and the noisy and conspicuous Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) were numerous and quite approachable. The white collar on the left hand of these two birds is found on adults outside the breeding season, a completely black head and neck is a bird in breeding plumage.  At this time of year the birds are changing plumage so there's a mix.

Oystercatchers are fascinating and characterful birds - their displays and social interaction enliven the coastline and also farther inland as they are increasingly breeding on farmland well away from the coast.  The bright orange bill is a distinctive feature, is the heaviest bill of any wader, and occurs in different shapes according to the bird's diet.  The three main types are a blunt "hammering" bill which is found in birds eating mussels and other shellfish by smashing them open, a sharper "stabbing" bill found in birds eating shellfish by stabbing the bill between the valves of the shell, and the sharpest "tweezer" type bill which is found in birds eating worms and other invertebrates.  Although a blurred image, it looks that the two birds pictured above have the "stabbing" type bill.

These differences are known as resource polymorphism and occurs in other species, but the Oystercatcher takes it to a different level by being able to change its bill type to take advantage of a locational/seasonal resource or as a response to an enforced change of diet; for example when a bird which might normally eat shellfish moves inland; there's also some evidence that individual birds may change from one behaviour to another over a period of years.  They are able to do this because their bill grows at an incredibly fast rate of 0.4mm per day - to put that into context, it's three times faster than the growth rate of your fingernails.  This growth rate means that an individual bird can completely change its bill shape in about 10 days!  Superimposed onto the resource polymorphism is a type of sexual dimorphism; females have longer and heavier bills than males which gives them a feeding advantage and enables males and females to take  different prey items within a small area.

Oystercatchers breeding inland (and therefore likely to be eating worms and invertebrates during the breeding season) abandon their chicks at fledging, leaving them to make their own way to the coast and learn feeding strategies from other Oystercatchers; those birds specialising as "hammerers" may be in association with their youngsters for several months as the chicks learn the specialised techniques required for this sort of feeding.  They have plenty of time to learn as the oldest recorded Oystercatcher lived 40 years!  Truly remarkable birds and all the better for being so easily observed around the coast.

As we watched the birds, we were ourselves observed curiously...... Common Seals which were occupying all the small bays of the west coast of Gigha.  Tellingly, we saw not a single seal on the east coast of the island where there are fish farms.

We were surprised to see a number of Otters in close proximity to the seals - Douglas managed a photograph which shows both species in the same image.  We'd previously thought that Otters avoid areas with numbers of seals, but certainly on Gigha this isn't the case.  We saw a total of nine Otters along the west coast of the island; a really high density.  It's always a special experience to be close to a wild Otter behaving perfectly naturally, and one that just can't be bought "off the shelf"!

The west coast of Gigha is sparsely populated and is a rugged mix of rocky shore, cliffs and occasional inlets.  Wherever these inlets are usable there's activity and a long tradition of use.  The tiny bay of Port na Cathrach (Port of the chair-place) has bait holes for fishing carved into the rocks; perhaps a hint to the origin of the Gaelic name?

Fishing activity continues to the present; the creel boat "Jewel" was lying at the stone built pier.  A newcomer to this coast, her identification number BF 42 indicates a registry at Banff on the Moray Firth, she seems to have operated from Gardenstown until at least 2010.  These small creelers are well adapted to fishing for crabs, lobsters and Langoustines on rocky coasts; at 5.9 metres long she's barely longer than our kayaks and can operate in close inshore.

We took a detour out from Gigha to circumnavigate the small island of Craro (two circumnavigations in a day!).  The island, currently owned by Mr Don Dennis who runs a successful floral essence business and owns Achamore House on Gigha is, or was, for sale.  Ownership of Craro Island comes complete with the title "Baron of Gigha" (Mr Dennis described this a "a bit of a hoot") but there are some challenges for potential purchasers....

The island is barely 8 acres, comprises mostly rock and has almost no flat ground.  There's no obvious source of fresh water, it has noisy inhabitants in the form of gulls and has no easy landing place.

Apart from these minor points, it's perfect and after all does come with the opportunity to use a title - an experience you can buy off the shelf!


  1. Always a lot to learn from your trips and blog, and fun too! Keep on paddling and blogging...

    1. Thanks Leif - fun's the main thing!


  2. As Leif suggested, "every day is a school day" at Mountain and Sea. Another great read, Ian, and another great adventure with Douglas. Warm wishes. Duncan.

  3. Hi Duncan, the more I learn about the fellow travellers on spaceship earth, the more I'm amazed!

    Warm wishes

  4. Maybe the new owner of the island could get a grant to make "improvements." Another spot on the OS map that was a mystery when I looked down at it. Shame about the cold conditions. Bye bye summer :o(

    1. Hi Bob; any new "Baron" would need to start with a place to land - it's a rugged wee place. Chances are he or she would prefer to be an absentee landowner though :o)

      Kind regards