The Sealife

Minke Whale (Balenaeoptera acutorostrata)

Minkie Whale off Arisaig

Minkie Whale off Arisaig

The smallest of the rorquals, Minke males can grow to 9.8 mtrs (32’), females to 11m (36’) and weigh up to 15 tonnes. Dark grey / blue black on the back, the Minke’s body lightens to white on the belly and undersides of the flippers, which have a distinctive diagonal white band on their upper surface. The most common in these waters, Minkes are curious and often come very close to passing boats. They can swim at more than 20 knots and their dives can last up to about 20 minutes. With sightings from early in the season, the peak time for Minkes is from the end of July until September.


Basking Shark

Basking Shark

Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus)

Basking Sharks are another regular visitor with a record number of sightings in 2005. They can grow up to 10m in length and up to 7 tonnes in weight making it one of the biggest fish in the world. Basking Sharks feed on plankton. They have no teeth and strain seawater through their gills at up to 330,000 gallons per hour! Best sightings are generally in late summer although we had a lot of sightings very early last year. Previously heavily fished for its liver oil, meat, fins and cartilage, Basking Sharks are now protected.

Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena)

Porpoises, often seen all season, although not at close quarters, are the most common, and smallest (average size 1.5m), cetacean in Scottish waters. Very shy and wary of boats, they like to keep their distance. Diminutive and dark, they do not leap out of the water but travel in a rolling motion only ever showing their back and dorsal fin. Travelling alone or in small groups, with a short life-span (rarely more than 12 years) porpoises feed on fish like mackerel and herring.

Pod of Dolphins

Pod of Dolphins

Dolphins Bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) Common (Delphinus delphis / capensis) Risso (Grampus griseus)

Bottlenose Dolphins, usually seen in groups, love to leap out of the water and bowride. Very active and exciting to watch, their average size is about 3m. They mainly feed on fish, like sand eels and crabs. Recognisable by their uniform grey / blue colour, prominent beak and lack of obvious markings, they often swim close to shore and amongst the rocks unlike the Common Dolphin which tends to stay out at sea. Common Dolphins usually travel in large schools and, on average, grow to around 2 m. With a similar diet to the Bottlenose dolphins, they can be recognised by a yellow patch on their flanks; this is not obvious on all. Less frequently seen in these waters are Risso dolphins. Of similar size to the Bottlenose, but without the beak, they have a very tall dorsal fin and a blunt head with a bulging forehead.

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

Orca - Killer Whale

Orca – Killer Whale

Although not a regular visitor, several sightings are made each year. Killer whales, or Orca, reach an average size of 8m. Easily recognised by their tall dorsal fin, they have white patches above the eye and on the flanks. The largest member of the dolphin family, they usually live in family groups hunting sharks, seals, porpoises and fish. Orcas, the top ocean predators, are among the fastest animals in the sea. Adult Orcas weigh an average of 4 tonnes. Females can live to 80 years and the males up to 60 years.



Seals Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) Common Seal (Phoca vitulina)

A large seal colony lives at the mouth of the channel and most days, especially with low tides, they can be spotted lazing on the rocks. Very curious, they like to see what is going on and often approach stationary boats. The Common Seal is roughly 2 metres long; the male weighs approximately double the female. They breed between June and July and it is estimated that 90% of the UK’s 33,000 common seals live in Scotland. While the Grey Seal is also roughly 2 metres long, both male and female are a lot larger than the Common Seal. Grey Seals in Scotland are estimated to be 40% of the world total of 120,000.

Otter in Bay

Otter in Bay

Otters (Lutra lutra)

Otters can be spotted Arisaig bay as well as on all of the islands. With two layers of fur – a thick waterproof outer coat and a warm inner coat – they grow up to 1.3 metres and their webbed feet help propel them through the water. An acute sense of sight, smell and hearing helps them detect and catch their prey of mainly fish and crabs.

Sunfish (Mola mola)

A very large round fish, the Sunfish is noticeable by its very tall dorsal fin. Its anal fin is of equal length and it swims by using both fins in a sculling movement. Their thick, leathery skin varies in colour from grey to blackish. The average size of an adult is 1.8 metres with average weight up to 1 tonne. They sometimes swim or rest on the surface whilst laying on their side, giving the appearance that they may be injured.

Jellyfish Moon (Aurelia aurita) Lion’s Mane (Cyanea capillata)

The most common jellyfish in these waters, Moon jellyfish are often washed up on beaches, are recognised by four blue / pink circles contained in the transparent bell. These harmless jellyfish reach an average of 25cm diameter. The Lion’s Mane jellyfish, a reddy-brown colour, has long trailing tentacles which are venomous on contact. Most common between June and September, they reach 30-50 cm diameter.

The Birdlife

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus)

Puffin on water

Puffin on water

Manx Shearwaters are black on the upper parts and white below, they fly with a succession of rapid wing flaps followed by long glides close to the surface of the sea. The largest colony of Manx Shearwater in the UK can be found at Trollival on the Isle of Rum. They breed in burrows or rock crevices and only visit their nests under darkness, breeding is usually April to July. They gather in large flocks on the sea and feed on small fish like young herring and sprats or plankton.

White Tailed Eagle

White Tailed Eagle

Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

The Sea Eagle is bigger by a third than the Golden Eagle, they have very broad square ended wings and a wedge shaped tail which is white in adult birds. They feed on a diet of seabirds and fish, catching fish by plunging their powerful talons into the water. The Golden Eagle has a smaller head and a longer tail than the Sea Eagle, they are dark in colour with the adults showing a paler area on their head. They like to soar and glide on air currents and are most often sighted soaring high over cliffs or hillsides.

Puffins on water

Puffins on water

Puffin (Fratercula artica)

Puffins can easily be recognised by their colourful bill and orange feet contrasting with their black and white body and wings. Puffins dive and catch fish underwater and are particularly fond of sand eels. They are very popular visitors to the area and are often spotted on the water whilst sailing to the islands on the Sheerwater.

Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

The Sandwich Tern is very slim with a long neck, they are white with a black cap on the top of their head and a long yellow tipped black bill. They feed on fish such as sandeels, sprats and whiting and can be seen from late March to September. Sandwich Terns are rare and we only usually have a couple of sightings each year.

Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus)

The Pomarine Skua is larger than the Arctic Skua and nearly as big as a Herring Gull. There are two colourings, dark and light. The dark are all dark brown with flashes of white on the wings while the light variety are brown with pale breast and dark brown cap on their heads. Passage migrants, they do not breed in the UK and can be seen between late April and May, and between August and November.

Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)

The Great Skua is the largest and heaviest of the skuas and is dark and almost gull like with light flashes on its wings, it is an aggressive and agile bird that chases and harasses other birds in order to steal their food. They commonly kill and eat smaller birds such as puffins. They breed in Northern Scotland and will dive bomb anybody that gets to close to their nests. Last year there was a pair nesting on the island of Rum.

Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus)

Storm Petrels are small black, white rumped birds, slightly bigger than a sparrow and, unlike the Leach’s Petrel, they have a square tail. They often feed in flocks at sea and follow in the wake of ships, especially trawlers. They flutter over the sea often with their feet dangling close to the surface. They breed on isolated coasts of Western Britain and France and winter at sea.

Leach’s Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)

Similar in size to a starling, the Leach’s Petrel is mostly black apart from its white rump which has a black line down it. It has a longer wing span than the Storm Petrel and a forked tail. Unlike the Storm Petrel, it does not generally follow ships. It breeds on remote offshore islands in north and west Scotland and migrates to the tropics in the winter, although a few remain in the North Atlantic.