MARINElife blog: DFDS Seaways "Cote des Flandres" Dover-Calais (13 April 2019)

Carol Farmer-Wright and Paul Radford; Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

Outward: Dry, occasionally sunny; wind NE force 2 sea state 2 good visibility
Return: Dry conditions with northerly wind increasing to force 3, visibility - good

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals:
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena 2
Unidentified Dolphin Sp. 3

Auk Sp. Alcidae 9
Common Gull Larus canus 2
Gannet Morus bassanus 53
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 3
Guillemot Uria aalge 9
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 23
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 49
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1
Skua sp. Stercorariidae 1

With our departure from Dover being put back by ten minutes, Carol and I had plenty of time to become acquainted over a cup of coffee, before boarding the ship and being escorted to the bridge by the very welcoming and helpful crew of the Cote des Flandres.  It was whilst boarding that Carol imparted the first of many invaluable tips for a novice cross channel surveyor. Learning the phrase 'allez et retour' to ensure we were parked up for an easy exit on our return to Dover.

The weather in Dover had been wet and windy, but improved noticeably leading up to departure, with the rain abating and the bright sky being punctuated by a good amount of cloud cover.  Adding a northerly wind that only generated a sea state 2, meant that the early signs were good for being able to spot whatever the Channel had to offer.

Guillemot Peter Howlett 03

The time spent waiting to leave the harbour had been well spent with more coffee, and Carol explaining how to distinguish between the various age groups of herring gulls.  However, I would have to wait to put this newly acquired knowledge to the test, as the first seabird encountered once the survey began was an adult Guillemot sitting on the water.  It was a further 10 minutes until bird sightings became more regular, starting with Gannets (including one performing its characteristic dive for food) and then a regular stream of Kittiwake.  A single Sandwich Tern was also spotted, with a handful of Great Black-backed and Herring Gull making an appearance as we neared Calais.

We didn't have to wait long into the survey to see a mammal, with the unmistakeable bobbing head of a grey seal becoming visible on our starboard side, as the Cote des Flandres settled into its predominant course across the Strait of Dover.  Despite this promising start, it wasn't until 15 minutes prior to the outward survey ending that Carol spotted a Harbour Porpoise, taking evasive action just 100m in front of the ferry.

After enjoying a relaxing hour on the bridge, the return leg provided an opportunity for me to hone my gull ID skills with Herring Gull dominating the early sightings.  This was followed by the most action packed 15 minutes of the survey, which started with three sub-surface dolphins disappearing beneath the ferry. The behaviour of these animals - especially as they were swimming towards rather than away from the vessel - suggested they could have been Bottlenose Dolphin, but the sighting was too brief for us to suggest a specific species. This was closely followed by Carol identifying a group of 24 Gannets resting on the water, with her hypothesis that they had recently enjoyed a good feed being given further weight by a number of Guillemots on the water, and the appearance of a Harbour Porpoise in front of us just a few minutes later.

On our approach to the port at Dover, we were able to add more Kittiwake and Herring Gull to our sightings, along with two Common Gull. This only left us to reflect on what had been a thoroughly enjoyable trip, which provided so much to see and record in just over two hours of surveying.

Once again our thanks go to both Captains, officers and crew of the Cotes de Flandres, who made this a very enjoyable crossing.

Guillemot (Peter Howlett)