In 2005, fresh out of University, I went to the Isle of Mull to work with Sea Life Surveys. One of the UK’s first whale watching companies, Sea Life Surveys had been set up by Richard Fairbairns in 1982. At the same time, with advice from whale biologists, he set up the Mull Cetacean Project. The aim was to study the behaviour of cetaceans, and in particular minke whales, to the north and west of Mull. In 1994 the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust was created and took over much of the education and conservation activities of the Mull Cetacean Project. Research activities however continued on Sea Life Surveys trips, with all trips and sightings logged.
I arrived in April that year full of excitement about the potential wildlife I might see over the next few months. It certainly did not disappoint. From amazing encounters with minke whales and bottlenose dolphins, to regular sightings of the diminutive but wonderful harbour porpoise. Giant basking sharks, sunfish and hundreds of seabirds. Not forgetting my first experience with British orca and my only encounter with the West Coast Community.
But my first summer with Sea Life Surveys was so much more than this incredible wildlife. It was about the incredible people I met. Sea Life Surveys was then being run by two of Richard’s sons Brennan and James, and they all made me feel part of the family. We did amazing things like popping to the island of Coll for a drink in the pub, zooming back under a starlit sky glimpsing shooting stars. BBQs at various places around the island and beyond. Spontaneous trips out on the RIB or Alpha Beta, Sea Life Surveys much loved vessel. We went to parties with live music, I attended my first ceilidh and learnt (very basically) to play a drum. We had a really memorable end of season trip to the island of Muck, ending up staying a few extra days as a storm blew through.
Throughout that summer I met Richard a couple of times at various events, I remember him turning up wearing wonderfully colourful clothing! But it was not until my second summer in 2008 that I really spent a lot of time with that man affectionately known as The Admiral or Popz.
That second summer was again filled with amazing wildlife encounters, and I spent a lot more time guiding on Sula Beag their new vessel, with Popz as skipper.
I’ll never forget puttering to and from Sula Beag’s mooring in the little green tender with Popz and his little border terrier Sula. She often came out on the boat with us, pattering around the wheel house and onto the front of the boat, often to watch wildlife! I’ll never forget the day she fell off Sula Beag as we were motoring out of the Sound of Mull. A passenger called out to say they could see a seal behind us. But when myself and guide Duncan looked back we quickly realised that was no seal, but Sula desperately paddling. Popz immediately turned around and steamed towards the little head. While Duncan lay down on the back deck, hanging half out of the gate, I hung onto him. As Popz expertly came along the little pup, Duncan scooped her up.
No matter what he was doing Popz did it with passion. Whether it was talking to passengers about the natural history of the area, speaking to camera crews who invariably came to film this incredible place, or teaching me and the other guides about everything from those stinky minkes to the geology of Ardnamurchan. He never professed to know everything but had a passion for this area and its natural history, and an ability to inspire and nurture those around him.
I learnt so much that summer, about natural history, wildlife, crewing, and felt I really developed my skill as a wildlife guide, much of which I learned from Popz.
At the end of the season all the guides were invited round to Popz and Judy’s house for dinner. Sitting having a quiet drink afterwards Popz said something to me that I have never forgotten. He told me that I was one of the best guides he had worked with, and that I reminded him of one of the first guides he worked with’. He then gave me a little silver whale pendant. He said it had originally come from Indonesia and had belonged to that guide. He may well have said the same thing to many people over the years, and undoubtedly he and Sea Life Surveys have worked with some top class guides and experts. But I will never forget those words from Popz and to this day I wear that whale pendant.
I distinctly remember returning to Norfolk after my second season on Mull, not really knowing what my next step should be. I remember clasping hold of that pendant and thinking ‘I can do anything’. That is what Popz gave me. Belief.
I always knew I wanted to work with whales and dolphins and I knew I was determined to find a way. But working with Popz, and the whole team at Sea Life Surveys, and those words he told me that evening really gave me a strength of belief that I could do it.
It was years before I returned to Mull. Life moved on. I worked for the charity ORCA across the Bay of Biscay, I completed a Masters and then became Marine Wildlife Report Writer for a marine survey company. But I would still hear from Popz. Just to catch up. Despite all that was going on in his life he still took the time to say Hi. How are you.
When I last visited Mull in 2015, he and Judy were the first to invite me to visit and say Hi.
Popz touched so many lives, you just have to read the comments on the tributes his family and close friends have posted. He made ripples that touched so many people from all walks of life. I am honoured to say I am just one of them.
Rest In Peace Popz