Helen Swift and Tom Forster, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Outbound: Dry, good visibility (16-20 km), south-westerly wind force 7-9, sea state 7-8, no glare.
Return: Rain gradually setting in, poor visibility (1-5 km), south westerly wind force 6-9, sea state 6-8, no glare
Summary of sightings:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 8
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris 3
Common Gull Larus canus 8
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 3
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 2
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 4
Gannet Morus bassanus 257
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 59
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 8
Guillemot Uria aalge 14
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 23
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 80
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Razorbill Alca torda 3
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 3
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 1
Auk sp. 1
Diver sp. 5
Gull sp. 7
Unidentified Larus Gull sp. 46
The weather forecast for today's survey didn't look very hopeful, but with the Met Office indicating there would be some initial respite from the rain, we decided to give it a go - and with the sightings we had, we are very glad that we did! As soon as we left the Port of Dover, we encountered a barrage of seabirds - Gannet and a variety of gull species - being blown towards the ship by the strong winds. The sheer numbers and speed at which they passed made it a challenge to record them all, but I think we got the vast majority! After a few minutes, things slowed down a bit, but we were kept constantly busy with birds throughout the rest of the outbound leg.
After the initial flurry of birds, a member of the crew came over to tell us that he had seen pods of dolphins on this route a couple of times this year (once in August and again in September). He showed us some photos he had taken, and we could see that, on both occasions these were a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphin. This is particularly interesting as this species has only been definitively recorded on one previous Marinelife survey of this route. We have passed on this valuable information to the organisation's research team.
White-beaked Dolphin (Library photo: Russ Neave)
We joked to the crew that it would take a miracle to see cetaceans in today's choppy conditions - maybe this could happen if we were really lucky and a dolphin actually jumped out of the water! By strange coincidence, that very thing then happened! Tom excitedly shouted 'White-Beaked Dolphin!' having seen one breach and roll in the air, then splash down in the waves. Heart racing, I dashed over and eventually managed to see one of them (Tom saw three in total). The view was brief (sadly too short to take any photos) but I saw the distinctive white saddle behind the dorsal fin that is one of the characteristics of this species. Wow, another exciting sighting for Marinelife! Again, this species has only been recorded by Marinelife a couple of times in this area and, funnily enough, at the same time of year…very interesting!
A few minutes later, we saw a feeding frenzy of around 30 Gannet. Bizarrely, rather than doing the usual vertical dive, these were diving at an angle of 45° (presumably due to the strong wind) and we were able to see them travelling underwater for a distance. We were convinced that there were cetaceans around, driving up the fish that the Gannet were catching, but we couldn't see anything amongst the waves and swell.
Our luck picked up again shortly afterwards, with the first of several very brief sightings of Harbour Porpoise. Given the relatively high sea state and subtle behaviour of this species, the odds of spotting them would have been quite low, so perhaps this was indicative of an abundance of Porpoise in the area.
Red-throated Diver (Library photo: Mike Bamford)
As we drew into Dunkirk Harbour, we spotted three Common Scoter which appeared to have headed inshore to take refuge from the inclement conditions. After a short turnaround in Dunkirk, we headed back to the bridge to survey the return leg. Tom spotted a Grey Seal inside the breakwater which again appeared to be taking shelter from the rough waves. As we headed out to sea, rain started to set in. However, further Harbour Porpoise were recorded, and we continued to see a variety of seabirds, which this time around included some divers. Tom was able to confirm some of these as Red-Throated Diver, but with the low visibility our views were not good enough for us to identify the other divers to species-level.
Due to the short-day length at this time of year, we had to finish our survey half way through the return leg. However, with the sightings we'd had, we certainly didn't feel short-changed! Our thanks to Captain Armstrong and the crew of Delft Seaways for making us welcome and looking after us throughout the survey.