This is the incredible story of how a daring night time expedition by sea kayak on Scotland’s remote west coast was rewarded by the recovery of a second Satellite tag.
The story begins with the Irish Basking Shark Project deploying a number of satellite transmitters on basking sharks in early August 2014. These ‘SPOT’ transmitters are put on the sharks in order to track their surface movements both on the Irish coast and when they leave our coastal waters. Over the past number of years the group have tried out a number of different tag designs but have felt the results were not enough considering the cost.
In 2013 we decided to take matters into our own hands and make our own tag body out of high density foam from an old fishing float, and it just shows that things haven’t moved on that much from the first GPS tracking tag ever deployed on a fish, by Monty Priede in1982, because the design we ended up with was not far off the ‘small boat’ he put on a basking shark in the clyde. However one huge leap forward in this modern day was the fact that our tag was stringently tested for hydrodynamics and robustness in a big bath by numerous young children. Surprisingly it was a remarkable success with many more positions recorded than previous deployments and the shark was tracked ‘live’ to the Azores before the tag detached.
For 2014 the team knew that our crude design needed to be refined for longer deployments. We brought in a team of experts with whom we had previously worked with on the Basking Shark Camera and Accelerometer body deployment designs. Customised Animal Tracking Solutions or as we know them ‘Die Austrians in Oz’ will make your tagging dream into hard plastic if you can be bold enough to ask. Using our basic ideas they custom made a number of tag bodies for us to deploy. The tags were deployed successfully in August 2014 but unfortunately two tags prematurely detached after a period of 10 weeks. One tag was washed ashore like so many of our ‘pop off’ TDR tags on the Isle of Coll and quickly recovered by a local resident. The second tag was washed ashore during the January storms in a remote area of Scotland’s west coast, west of Arsaig and south of Mallaig. Now finding a person who is willing and able to search a remote area such as this during winter, with its indented rocky coastline and savage tides is not as easy as asking an islander to have a look in their back garden.
Amazingly we got two separate teams of dedicated people willing to dare the west coast winter in their sea kayaks and aid us recover the tag. Mike Kingswood of the Arisaig Kayak Centre and Justin Grant of the Inverness Kayak Club. Mike undertook the first search in January but could not find anything. Remember folks this tag is green, about 10cm by 5cm and most likely buried beneath a pile of seaweed. We calculated that there was roughly two Million! possible locations it could have been lying on the 1km by 10m stretch of coastline we could narrow the tags position to.
Last week with improving weather conditions and calm seas, Suzanne Henderson of SNH recommended we try Justin Grant from the Inverness Kayak Club. We made contact and all seemed normal until we started to get emails asking about what frequency the tag was broadcasting on? and how many fixes we have had at the current location? if we thought it was on the storm or spring tide line? Hmmm I started to wonder who this guy was – Inverness Kayaking club or MI5? It turns out Justin just happens to have his own Yaggi directional receiver for homing in on tag signals, has found Eagle tags in the past and all in all seemed unbelievably if not suspiciously organised at tag hunting (Having been dealing with so many ‘nae sayers’ for so long it took us a while to realise there are genuine people out there who are willing to give their own free time and money to do something good for conservation projects, this experience has certainly rekindled our faith in humanity, at least the sea kayaking type anyway!).
So Last week Justin organised a team, not just one person to accompany him but a team! to sacrifice their weekend, head to Mallaig and stay overnight before setting off in the early hours to search the stretch of coast. The kayakers spent the whole day searching the low tide, neap tide, spring tide and storm beach for signs of the tag, but as night fell even the tough have to sleep and the team headed back to their accommodation for some well-deserved rest, end of story one would think. Acutely, wait a second, a text comes through, Justin in his determination has decided to sleep out all night until he could pick up a transmission on his Yaggi kit. Now none of our team have ever met Justin but being in contact over the few days by email and on the search day via text we were all starting to get images of Justin wearing his pants outside his trousers like all superheroes! and we could all imagine him as the type of guy who would do some ‘Tai Chi’ on a rock someplace and find his inner tag, be the tag, think the tag, find the tag! Once suitably relaxed he would turn on his VHF receiver to just confirm his hunch, or start to pace the shoreline using some sea shanty mantra and his head torch as company.
In the real world his perseverance did pay off and unbelievably he got a signal at 3am and also managed to home in on the tags location. It was well up on the storm beach amongst some grass, of all places, a location nobody would have thought of looking. Justin made it back to Mallaig the next morning for breakfast with a smile on his face and I imagine a weary body.
If the basking shark group did medals Justin would have the Bronze Plankton Star for his efforts. All of the dedication and time committed by Mike Kingswood and the Inverness Kayak Club, people who we don’t know and have never met has re- boosted our determination to pursue the project to its logical conclusion and gain protection for the species in Irish and EU waters. Thank you guys it has been an honour for us to have had you on our team for a short few days and we know now if we ever need a tag recovered in the future all we need do is send up the ‘Justin Signal’ in a clear night sky.