MARINElife blog: DFDS Seaways "Cote des Flandres" Dover-Calais (7 December 2019)

Helen Swift and Tom Forster, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather Outbound: Dry and overcast, very good visibility, South-westerly wind force 4-5, sea state 3-4 , no glare.  Return: Dry and overcast beginning to clear by end of survey, very good visibility, South-westerly wind force 5-7, sea state 3-5, , occasional glare

Marine Mammals
White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris 5

Common Gull Larus canus 21
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 24
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 2
Gannet Morus bassanus 185
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 163
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 8
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 210
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 27
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 1
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellate 2
Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca 1
Unidentified Auk sp. Alcidae 5
Unidentified Diver sp. Gaviidae 2
Unidentified Gull sp. Laridae 31
Unidentified Larus Gull sp. Larus 100

After the usual prompt and efficient departure from Dover we emerged from the Harbour past the usual winter sight of large numbers of Cormorant resting on the harbour walls - 213 today. Immediately out from the harbour we encountered the usual milling flocks of gulls but whereas often the gull numbers diminish rapidly away from the coast, this time we kept seeing large numbers of gulls throughout both legs of the survey.

Cormorant Peter Howlett 03

Cormorant (Peter Howlett)

Greater Black-backed Gull were particularly numerous. Gannet were widespread with individuals frequently diving down to feed but no large feeding groups developing. We got the impression that there must be fish around, but widely scattered; given this we were very hopeful we might see some cetaceans but as we approached mid-channel we had still seen none. Then, suddenly, in the distance, Helen spotted some huge white splashes, their height far exceeding the frequent white-capped waves. Getting our binoculars onto these we saw large dark dolphins racing in towards the ferry, leaping clear of the waves and landing back in huge plumes of spray. As they got closer both from appearance and behaviour it was clear they were what we had hoped - White-beaked Dolphin. The Captain and crew on the bridge could see we had seen something, and with the dolphins racing in closer they were quickly able to spot what we had seen and get great views of them too as they passed us to port to enter the waves of the wake.

WB Dolphin Helen Swift 1

White-beaked Dolphin (Helen Swift)

We have been lucky enough to see White-beaked Dolphin before at this time of year in the Straits and it would be fascinating to know where these spend their summers - presumably they must be from one of the North Sea populations.

After the excitement of the dolphins the rest of the outbound leg passed swiftly with lots of bird activity including a few Great Skua and a Red-throated Diver in the shallows near Calais. Though we kept scanning we saw no other cetaceans but given we had seen White-beaked Dolphin we felt more than satisfied!

The return leg of the survey gave us the best bird of the day (since it is a first for Helen and I on a survey) when, just out from Calais, a Velvet Scoter drake flew across our course. As with the dolphins earlier, this had been a species we had hoped we might see, especially noting they had been seen off the Kent coast at several locations in the previous week. The rest of the return proved similar to the outbound leg though gulls were if anything even more numerous with large flocks of Herring Gull and Greater Black-backed Gull resting and feeding, sometimes joined by Gannet. Unfortunately the rising sea-state and dropping light made it increasingly challenging conditions for spotting mammals and we saw no further cetaceans.

Our thanks to both Captains, Officers and crew of Côte de Flandres for making us welcome and looking after us throughout the survey.