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Whale-watching in Scotland

I hate the cold. So what am I doing hunched on the deck of a 40-foot trawler off Scotland's Inner Hebrides, dressed head-to-toe in plastic rain gear, squinting and sniffling in temperatures that hover somewhere in the 50s but, what with the "wind drizzle personal crankiness" factor, feel more like the 30s?

In search of environmentally correct whale-watching, I have made my way to the Isle of Mull to be a pioneer on a new frontier. I am spending five days working with Sea Life Surveys, a research group founded by Richard Fairbairns, a British farmer who moved to this austere island and, much to his surprise, ended up devoting his life to studying Mull's marine mammals, particularly the 30-foot-long minke whales.

I share Fairbairn's obsession. In 1985, when whale-watching was relatively young, I rode in a Zodiac through the birthing lagoons of gray whales in Baja California. Since then, I've hit as many of the U.S. whale-watching meccas as possible, from Montauk to Maui. But several years ago, in a boat off Gloucester, Massachusetts, I began feeling uneasy about the practice. Minutes after spotting a humpback, our boat was surrounded by a half-dozen others jostling for position.

It was a conundrum: although I still wanted to see whales, I didn't want to feel as though I was barging into their living room. Sea Life Surveys, with its trip endorsed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, offers the chance to both see whales and take part in the first study of the minke (pronounced min-keh) ever conducted in these waters.

Wildness is what draws whale-watchers to Mull. A place like Maui has had decades to discover where its humpbacks are and when they will be there, but whale-spotting off Mull is too new, and minkes too unknown, to provide such expectations.

"You can keep your humpbacks," says Fairbairns. "Humpbacks are very docile. A minke is not like that. It will only come to you when it chooses to."

Given the lack of information about Scotland's marine mammals, Fairbairns's goal is both simple and overwhelming: to develop basic identification, migration, and feeding data about these 30-foot-long cetaceans. The first step is to determine their number. For individual whale identification, researchers create portraits by photographing the animals to discover distinguishing marks; by tracking their surfacing ("blow") patterns; and by charting their movements. After four years, Fairbairns's group has identified 28 whales, and has discovered that 15 of them make the Inner Hebrides their seasonal home. But their whereabouts in winter remain a mystery, since lack of funding makes year-round research impossible.

Sea Life Surveys has been taking tourists along since 1990. Its base on Mull is Mucmara Lodge, a simple one-story building about a 20-minute walk from the tiny one-pub town of Dervaig. Mucmara is where the whale-watchers stay. When not observing, we spend our time in the Whale Room, which serves as dining room, lounge, and display room. It also contains a remarkable collection of material about whale news worldwide.

We eat British boarding school fare, food as fuel rather than sensory delight: big English breakfasts; sandwiches and fruit for lunch; dinners of shepherd's pie or ratatouille pasta, followed by pudding.

While Scotland draws whale aficionados from Scandinavia as well as a sprinkling of Americans and Canadians, this program is still so little known that most participants come from the United Kingdom. My fellow "whaleys" are Dick and Christine Gunstowe from the small British town of Brinklow, and Jill Wallace from even smaller East Harting.

A typical day of whale-watching starts early, often at 6 a.m. In charge is Nicki Johnson, the 27-year-old team leader of Sea Life Surveys. A former London newspaper editor, Johnson came to visit, was seduced by the whales, and wangled a way to stay.

Most of the staff are volunteers who are paid a nominal stipend. They live in trailers near the lodge, work at least 12 hours a day, and bear much of the responsibility for the paying guests' well-being. Although it's hard work, there is no shortage of candidates; Fairbairns has his pick of Great Britain's best marine biology students, all hungry to take part in groundbreaking research on what might be the only resident whale population there.

Once aboard the trawler Alpha Beta, Johnson splits the dozen passengers (four of us and eight day-trippers) into two teams and names me captain of my team. Each group will alternate one-hour watches. To reach our station for the first watch, my group must climb eight feet or so up a narrow ladder outside the cabin. On the roof of the cabin is an 8-by-10-foot area ringed with benches, on which we sit at 12 carefully spaced positions. Each watcher is responsible for the wedge of sea that stretches before him. We are told to scan it constantly, stopping only once every 15 minutes, when everybody moves one spot clockwise. That way, Johnson says, our eyes remain fresh. As team captain, I am to announce each quarter-hour change of station. I am also given the job of "first whale": when a whale is spotted, I am to click on a stopwatch the instant the spotter shouts, "Blow!" The watchers repeat the call whenever the whale surfaces to breathe, and I announce the time on the stopwatch while another team member records it on a clipboard.

It won't be easy. Unlike the showier humpbacks, minkes don't kick up their tail fins when they plunge into the sea, so they're much harder to spot. Nor do they have a pronounced blow, the triangle of exhaled steam by which a humpback signals its presence.

As soon as the boat starts moving, we are hit with a blast of chill air. Our observation post is battered by the wind. Since I am facing the front of the boat, my eyes tear. I blink and watch, blink and watch. It starts to drizzle. I hug my arms and pull up my knees, trying to escape the wind. I steal a glance at my watch: two minutes have elapsed.

I begin to wonder whether I am cut out for this. I scan the foreground, middle ground, background, horizon, and back to the foreground again. Oh, the sea, the endless sea. My life passes before my eyes. I go blank. I check the time. Two more minutes gone. Egads.

Eventually, our watch ends, and we climb back into the cabin. As I sip hot tea, I watch Fairbairns at the helm. He's concentrating fiercely: piloting the boat, monitoring the depth sounder, calling out commands to the crew, and, every 15 minutes, recording weather and sea conditions on a computer.

It's time for our next watch all too soon. I take my post. After a few minutes I am startled to hear someone call out, "Blow!" My cue! I hit the stopwatch. Then, every time someone hollers, "Blow!" I call out the minutes and seconds elapsed since the whale was first spotted.

I have barely a moment to watch the whale. Squinting through the drizzle, however, I glimpse a sleek black shape before it submerges and disappears for good. It turns out to be the only whale during the day's nine hours at sea.

Whale activity varies from day to day. Earlier that week five minkes were spotted on calm waters under flawless skies. Sometimes a minke might spend an hour swimming alongside the Alpha Beta. Another time you might see a pod of dolphins, even a killer whale. Or you might enjoy a picnic lunch on a spot like Lunga, one of the Treshnish Isles, while sitting four feet from a puffin guarding its nest.

Although whale-watching was what brought me to Mull, the island offers many other attractions. Sea Life Surveys participants spend one day with local guide Andrew Evans on a van tour. Evans has an unerring eye for spotting wildlife; we saw a rare golden eagle and an otter.

One night after dinner we piled into a Land Rover and made our way to Mull's rugged coast. At 10:30 p.m., still twilight, we stood on the lava cliffs above Calgary Bay. All was quiet save for the bleating of the lambs, which graze freely over the island and thus rule the roads.

It is this sense of peaceful isolation that has long drawn people to Mull. With its sometimes moonlike terrain, its dramatic skies, and its black-sand beaches, it is truly wild.

And so are its whales. For the die-hard whale-watcher, the minkes' unpredictability only adds to the excitement. On the boat, Fairbairns sponsors a daily competition to see who can spot the first whale. The prize is a Mars bar, but it's an unnecessary incentive.

Fairbairns offers no guarantees and sees no need to apologize for that. "You can't have wildlife on a plate," he says, "and appreciate what you see."

SUSAN ROY is a writer and editorial consultant living in New York.

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