A Sei Whale was sighted in the Firth of Forth by Erica Linklater-McLennan on April 11th. Dr Chiara G. Bertulli, Sightings Officer at Sea Watch, had a lovely chat with Erica to know more about this incredible and rare sighting. This is her story!
My name is Erica Linklater-McLennan, a keen outdoor enthusiast and amateur photographer who grew up in the Orkney Isles. I now live at the foot of the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I’ve always had a great passion and curiosity for the sea having been surrounded by marine life living in a rural island community. The sea ran through all aspects of life from folklore to fishing and each tide brought new adventures, possibilities and challenges in daily life.
Landlocked in lockdown during the pandemic made me yearn to be close the water again for a sense of calm and reflection to take in all the wonderful sights and sounds of the sea. There’s always so much to enjoy along the Scottish coastline and no two tides are the same. This is why I found myself on a sunny calm Sunday evening strolling along a quiet secluded stretch of beach at my favourite spot in Whitehouse Bay, South Queensferry.
The iconic Forth Road Bridge was the backdrop, so having walked the dog I waited patiently for the opportunity to take in the sun slowly setting behind this magnificent feat of engineering and just enjoy the peaceful surroundings. It was a beautiful flat calm evening, surrounded by silence bar the amusing calls of a small group of Eider ducks serenading each other and the gulls shrieking overhead with high tide bringing in their next meal. A curious grey seal popped it’s head up and watched the dog as I whistled trying to raise it’s curiosity to come in a little closer.
“I was collecting some shells on the sand when I heard the unmistakable noise of water being forced from a blowhole and I instantly stood to attention as I knew that was no porpoise or dolphin!”.
It was so loud and explosive that it broke the tranquil silence as if it wanted me to be aware of it’s arrival. I was so excited as I’d spent weeks reading online about a humpback whale that had been spotted in Firth of Forth recently and I’d been keeping an eye out for it on each visit to the beach hoping to be lucky enough to watch it break through the surface and put on a display.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined it would be the elusive stealth like Sei whale that was quietly making its way straight towards me”.
I stood there in absolute awe when I saw it’s dorsal fin slowly emerge and cut through the water like a knife through butter to reveal the true size and length of its magnificent shiny black body. It reminded me of watching the documentaries about the German U-Boats the way it just quietly snuck up behind the group of ducks that immediately took fright and scrambled up into the air as fast as their wings could carry them! It swam slowly in large deliberate circles around the bay, each turn coming fearlessly that bit closer to the edge of the rocky shore.
Imagine facing the most iconic bridge in Scotland, the sun setting behind it sinking below the hills with mirror like sea conditions and the sun glinting off the surface and here was this enormous sea creature elegantly gliding toward me like something out of a movie. My whole heart lit up with excitement and pure joy to be experiencing this moment with no other walkers around. I felt like I’d won the nature lottery!
After a torturous year where I’d fought off Covid and survived what felt like the loneliest, scariest year of my life, it was as if this was my reward. To watch this beautiful whale swimming so freely around this little bay in the shallows, it came in so close I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it. This was a defining moment I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. I’ve never felt so connected to the ocean and the marine life that thrive in this wonderful and mysterious environment.
Watching the way it swam with such grace for such a large mammal, occasionally blowing when it quietly came to the surface with it’s large curved dorsal fin cutting through the water and sun bounding off its shiny black body was quite a sight to behold. It’s dorsal fin stuck up like a mast when it gradually appeared out of the water. It would swim slowly and deliberately on a specific course then suddenly travel at speed only to perform an abrupt handbrake turn to change direction in haste. It made me wonder if it was feeding or chasing something down. I questioned the whales safety as I couldn’t believe it was coming up so close to me within about ten feet of the rocky shoreline which can’t have been very deep.
I was lucky enough to watch it for over an hour before it went around the point and headed into deeper water towards the fuel filling platform in the middle of the Firth of Forth estuary. A man was walking along the beach behind us with his two girls so I summoned them over so the children could get to see the whale, something to tell their friend at school!
The Sei whale has since been spotted along the Fife coast and out in the mouth of the Forth in much deeper waters so I’m relieved to know it’s safe and well. I officially recorded my sighting through the Sea Watch Foundation who were fantastic in helping me identify the species of whale thanks to their Sightings Officer reviewing the photos and videos I took photos where I tried to capture the shape of its dorsal fin, head, tail and distinguishing features like it’s blow. I’ve since read that the Sei whale is a rare and endangered species on the red list and now has protected status.
There’s possibly less than 80,000 as numbers drastically declined due to historic whaling, entanglement, vessel strikes and other environmental factors. I’m still questioning why it has travelled to the South coast of Scotland when it’s normal habitat would be Polar regions or sub-tropical waters. My sighting of the Sei whale in this area on the South East coast of Scotland beside a major city, busy stretch of water frequented by commercial & domestic vessels is only the second since 2013. Sadly that first Sei whale sighted apparently fell victim to a vessel strike and was later found dead washed up on a beach. In 60 years, official records show that the Sei whale has only been spotted a handful of times around British and Irish waters.
This was truly a once in lifetime encounter on home shores for which I felt truly blessed to witness up so incredibly close, a truly special moment that will stay with me for a lifetime. I’d encourage everyone to report cetacean sightings via the Sea Watch Foundation to assist them in monitoring the health and aide marine conservation in and around our rich and diverse costal waters.