A version of this appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine

“The sea has inspired people for eons. It has been the source of myth and legend – sea monsters and kelpies – and has inspired song and music. Because whales and dolphins are from this seemingly mythical place, when you do see one it takes your breath away.”

Karl Stevens is trying to explain why whale-watching has become such a phenomenon in Scotland. Practically unknown 25 years ago, it’s now estimated to be worth around £7.8 million to the economy of the west of Scotland, drawing in around 240,000 visitors a year.

Dozens of boats operate around prime spotting sites in waters which are home to around a quarter of the world’s whale and dolphin species including bottlenose, Risso’s and common dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and orca.  But this summer, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust has launched a new trail to give visitors a different way of looking out for these sea creatures – from the land.

Standing at Ardnamurchan Point, one of around 25 stopping places for the new land-based trail on the West Coast, Karl, the Hebridean Whale Trail manager, explains: “A lot of people think this is something you can’t do on land, you have to be on a boat. Yes, there are definite merits for being on a boat but from an accessibility perspective and getting more people involved, land-based is a lot easier. It also means you get to some spectacular locations.

“With heights you get more distance so if you are on top of a sea cliff, you are going to get a better view over a longer distance than if you were on a boat.”

All that makes the trail world class. Karl adds: “In terms of the combination of wildlife – whales, dolphins but also seals, seabirds, plants and so on – and then the landscapes and seascapes you could argue it could be one of the best places in the world.”

One of the key things about the whale trail is that it is as much about seeing whales and dolphins as the culture that surrounds them, and the Hebrides is rich with that culture. “Every place you go to there are thousands of years of stories and tales going back to Celtic and Norse legend.”

Karl also says more modern stories such as those of fishermen and lighthouse-keepers will be retold on the trail, as well as the “slightly darker” history of whaling from the 19th and early 20th century when boats would head as far as South Georgia to harpoon the mighty creatures.

The trail is aimed at “anybody who is in the area” with Karl pointing to research saying 40% of people come to Scotland for wildlife. A significant number come for culture and the landscapes, and the whale trail “ticks all those boxes”. He says: “Anybody who is even remotely interested in those three things will get something out of the whale trail. We are trying to add to what is already there and bring the whale and dolphin stories into that.”

Karl describes whales and dolphins, and the watching of them, as an “unknown attraction” which has really only been done (aboard boats) for about 25 years. Karl says: “People think of charismatic species in Scotland; red deer, salmon, seals and so on. Then there are the mythological species – you have the Loch Ness Monster. People still come knowing that the Loch Ness Monster is likely to be non-existent and go out in the vain chance that they might catch a glimpse of the beast.” Whales and dolphins, he points out, are actually there.

Visitors can hope to see “a breaching humpback jumping out of the water” because they have already looked at clips on TV or the internet. “You may see that and be incredibly lucky. But for the most part it is those special moments when you are looking out and catch a glimpse of a fin or something moving in the water. That might hold your attention a little longer and you realise that fin is attached to a porpoise, or a dolphin, or even a minke whale. It is to try to get more people to spend more time looking out to the sea to make the most of what is out there.”

Karl says awareness of the sea and what is in it has been rising in recent years, particularly after the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series. As a result, he hopes that a spin-off of the whale trail will be that people report incidents of pollution, whether that be a patch of oil, something floating on the surface, or even something entangled in an old net.

“The ethos of the whale trail is to tap into the connectivity between the sea and the land that has been there for thousands of years, and because of the Blue Planet effect we are starting to reconnect. People are more aware of the stuff that is floating and what to do about it and that is very important.”

The trust, and other organisations, already survey the seas to try to gauge numbers of whales and dolphins but the picture is currently unclear, according to Karl. And he hopes with more reports of sightings, already possible through the trust’s Whale Track app, there can be a greater understanding of any issues and problems.

He says: “It is a mixed picture, for example last year we got more common dolphins but other species seem to be doing less well. The past couple of summers have not been great for basking sharks but we don’t know if that’s because they are not there or that we have just not seen them.

“That is a key element of the whale trail – if we can get more people out there we will get a significantly better understanding of what is out there.”

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