The office computer here at Resipole, is conveniently situated next to a window that looks directly out onto Loch Sunart. In between checking in customers, reading emails and answering the phones it’s hard not to find yourself staring out to the water, scanning in search of seals, seabirds and dare I say it…otters! There isn’t a day goes by without something catching your eye on the Loch; a pair of red breasted mergansers looking for lunch, or if you’re lucky a porpoise rolling in the distance, or sometimes it’s just the way the water moves with the tide casting ripples across the surface.
Loch Sunart is a long narrow loch that stretches 31km separating the Ardnamurchan and Morvern Peninsulas. Being fed by both saltwater from the Atlantic and freshwater runoff from the hills makes it an amazing ecosystem that attracts plenty of wildlife. This mix of fresh and salt water certainly make it a stronghold for the otter. Tides and seawater provide otters with an abundance of fish/shellfish and the freshwater from burns and streams gives them a place to clean salt from their coats. Not to mention the sheltered rocky shorelines lined with knotted and egg wrack seaweed varieties, which just so happens to be an otters favourite hunting spot. Perfect otter spotting territory! The fish brought in on incoming tides are also welcomed by the seals, dolphins and porpoises that frequent these waters.
Under the surface things start to get really interesting. Diving into the clear waters you are likely to see the flame shell, the Loch is home to Scotland’s largest recorded population, a small mollusc with impressive orange tentacles. They are pretty important because the big nest beds they live in, made up of shells and stones, encourage other marine life to make their homes there. Huge numbers of brittle stars can also be found between Salen and Glenborrodale, and the sea pen makes its home here - it gets its name because it looks just like an old feather quill pen. Another oddly named resident are dead man’s fingers, a coral that apparently resembles a decomposing hand. Further out in the depths the secretive and (not so) common skate lives among the rocky channels near the bottom of the loch.
It’s not just the flora and fauna that make such great use of the loch, it’s also pretty popular with humans too. Loch Sunart is an ideal spot for sea kayaking, swimming, diving and exploring the small islands by boat. There’s plenty of fishing to be done and loads of wildlife to be watched either on your own or with local wildlife tours.
With all these creatures that call it their home and plenty of people using it, it needs looking after. Luckily Loch Sunart has been awarded MPA (marine protected area) status. This basically means it is protected so that the loch and its inhabitants are conserved for the future. As well as having MPA status, Loch Sunart is also a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which also include the Sunart Oakwoods that meet the shores of the loch.
These bodies monitor and provide guidance to anyone using the loch in a way that might impact the natural residents, such as fish farming, forest operations, fishing or gathering and harvesting from the shoreline. They may seem like relatively harmless operations, but the increased activity, noise and human presence levels can have detrimental effects on the area.
Without regulations in place then things like fishing nets and creels could harm otters who may find themselves tangled and stuck in them. By regulating the amount of fishing and harvesting that happens on the loch, the depletion of other animal’s food sources is prevented. By being aware of the potential threat of non-native escapees into the loch, then fish farms can take the necessary precautions to prevent this from happening. If the forestry operations know that the run off from fertilisers can change the nutrient levels in the water, then they can put practices in place to minimise waste run off. And if people are aware that they can disturb an animal such as an otter or seal by getting to close, then they can make sure to watch from a distance.
By highlighting the issues and encouraging people to use the waters in a sustainable way then the much-loved otters, seals, cetaceans and all the mesmerising flame shells, brittlestars and sea pens are safe in a protected environment. The protection of the Loch and the Oakwoods keeps them a safe haven for generations to come.
As I write this now, there are happy holiday makers enjoying ice creams on the rocks by the loch side, families are exploring the shore line examining shells uncovered by the receding tides, a few boats bob gently on their moorings and a heron lazily picks its way through the mass of seaweed. It’s probably the best office view I’ve ever had and with its protected status it looks like it will stay that way, and that’s great news for humans and wildlife alike.
Text and Photo by Jeni Bell