Tom Forster, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Outbound: Dry but overcast, very good visibility, South-easterly wind force 2-4, sea state 4 dropping steadily to 2, some glare at times. Return: Dry but overcast, very good visibility, South-westerly wind force 2-4, sea state 1, no glare.
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 9
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2
Unidentified Seal sp. 1
Common Gull Larus canus 19
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 481
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 65
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 4
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 17
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 4
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 2
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 4
Unidentified Auk sp. Alcidae 4
Unidentified Gull sp. Laridae 55
Unidentified Larus Gull sp. Larus 5
I always look forward to late autumn and winter surveys in the Strait of Dover as (when the weather is good enough for good observation) this is when this area is at its liveliest with sometimes huge densities of wintering seabirds and porpoise. Cresting the downs on the A20 and getting my first look down over the strait it looked promising with overcast sky and calm sea; it all looked great.
Gannet (Steve McAusland)
Once out of the harbour my hopes were confirmed - in fact, conditions were almost too good, especially surveying alone. Every direction I looked seemed to be thronged with Gannet resting on the water, circling scouting for fish or actively feeding in singles or small groups. The numbers I counted were only a tiny fraction of those present with many more evident outside the 2km bird count range. Normally I would allow the feeding Gannet to guide me to areas to scan for cetaceans but here there was simply too much activity - it was impossible to know where to look. Almost certainly there will have been porpoise present (given the behaviour and what I have seen before here) but with so much activity across such a wide area I had to concentrate on keeping check closer in. One Harbour Porpoise diving very close to the ferry was the reward for my scanning but from the activity there were probably many more around. It was somewhat frustrating seeing so much bird activity and probably missing many distant cetaceans. Various odd splashes looked suspicious, but I could never get onto them fast enough to confirm (and exclude Gannet splashes) at the ranges I was seeing.
Approaching Calais, activity decreased but in the calmer waters around Cap Griz Nez I had a great view of a large male Grey Seal resting at the surface before almost disdainfully looking at the approaching ferry disturbing his rest and diving away.
Harbour Porpoise (Peter Howlett)
The return leg was even better than the outbound trip. The sea had calmed further, shining like polished pewter and against this animals were easy to spot. After another seal near Calais, the Gannet activity resumed and this time by chance most of it was closer to our course allowing me to spot the Harbour Porpoise with many of the feeding groups of Gannet. Some of the views were fantastic with porpoise repeatedly surfacing, racing ahead of the Gannet throngs, presumably chasing fleeing fish. Approaching Dover, activity decreased and when I saw the final Grey Seal of the day and realised I could barely read the rangefinder markings (or data sheets) I had to conclude the light was too dim to continue and finish the survey. A highly enjoyable though very busy survey!
My thanks to Captain and the crew of Côte de Flandres for making me welcome and looking after me throughout the survey.
Tom Forster; Research Surveyor foir MARINElife