MARINElife Report DFDS ‘Delft Seaways’ Dover-Dunkirk 23 February 2019

Tibor Beetles and Paul Radford, Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Weather: Outbound: Dry and sunny, moderate visibility due to light mist, easterly light/moderate breeze, sea state 1-2, strong starboard glare.
Return: Dry and sunny, good visibility with light haze, easterly light/moderate breeze, sea state 1-2, strong port/port ahead glare

Marine Mammals
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 31
Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae 1

Seabirds 
Auk sp.  25
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 12
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 4
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 8
Diver sp. 4
Fulmar  Fulmarus glacialis 1
Gannet  Morus bassanus 241
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 1
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 3
Guillemot  Uria aalge 15
Gull sp.  Laridae 27
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 13
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 15
Lesser Black-backed Gull  Larus fuscus 7
Razorbill Alca torda 3

I met Paul for his first survey with MARINElife in a beautiful and unseasonably mild and sunny Dover and we quickly boarded the Delft Seaways. Little did we know this would turn out to be the most exciting survey I have ever experienced, and for Paul a case of amazing beginner's luck! Having left the Dover breakwater we set up position on the bridge and enjoyed the amazing conditions albeit with some very strong glare from the bright sunshine and blue sky.

Very quickly we started counting the first of nearly 250 Gannet on this crossing and also Razorbill and Guillemot. After only 10 minutes I spotted our first Harbour Porpoise, closely followed by Paul spotting a large group of at least 8 individuals swimming quite energetically away from the ship, one of which appeared to be a smaller juvenile. 20 minutes later we spotted another group of 5 along with another individual a little further away. The bird sightings continued regularly with more Gannet of varying maturity, Auk species, a lone Fulmar and a few Kittiwake. We also recorded a further 8 Harbour Porpoise at varying distances from the boat on the approach to France.

Humpack_Peter Howlett
Humpback Whale (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

Having turned to follow the French coast up to Dunkirk, I was in the middle of recording a few more Harbour Porpoise when Paul gave an exclamation as did a couple of the crew. I turned to see the extraordinary sight of the large black back of a diving whale no more than 125m from the starboard side of the ferry, travelling from right to left in front of our survey post! We could not believe our eyes! My immediate reaction was this was probably a Humpback whale. I grabbed my camera and hurried to the port side to see if it would surface again behind us, and we all studied the sea intently for signs of blow or surfacing. Unfortunately, the whale did not reappear and we resumed our survey feeling absolutely thrilled.

Paul and I compared our thoughts on ID - the crew member estimated the whale to have been at least 12 metres long, the high arch of the whale's back as it dived reminded me of Humpback's we both have seen elsewhere, despite the lack of a raised tail fluke. We both remembered the dorsal as being small and quite knobbly, with a mottled colouration and the crew member also agreed that it had not been the usual sickle shape of a Minke, Fin or Sei whale.

Without a second sighting I did not want to claim this as a definite ID but we both felt confident enough to declare it as a probable adult Humpback whale. This would be an exceptionally rare sighting, although researching afterwards we found reports of a juvenile Humpback in the  Channel nearer to Dover in 2015, as well as a deceased whale near Calais in 2003. It also reminded me that last month the Dunkerque Seaways crew had claimed sighting of a large whale as well.

POST-SURVEY UPDATE: This amazing video below has been shared with us by Ben Jones, bridge officer on one of the 'Delft Seaways' sister ships - it was filmed at almost the same time as the ships passed on the crossing but for Ben it was being rather more acrobatic and is clearly most definitely a Humpback Whale! The link will open YouTube in a new window.

Video of breaching Humpback Whale by Ben Jones

On the approach to Dunkirk we recorded a further 3 Harbour Porpoise, as well as a small group of 4 Divers, possibly Black-throated, Black-headed Gull, a single Great Black-backed Gull and within the Dunkirk breakwater Cormorant and Herring Gull.

We couldn't wait for the turnaround at Dunkirk, keen to get started on the return journey and on full alert for some large whale spotting! I reminded Paul to keep an eye out for whale blow which would be easily visible given the calm and clear conditions. Once back on survey, the birdlife initially seemed a little scarcer although we did spot a couple of Great Skua and a small group of Common Scoter heading down the coast. This allowed us to focus our attention to cetacean activity, and we recorded a further 6 Harbour Porpoise in singles or pairs as well as a Grey Seal.

A large group of Gannet on the horizon caught my eye, and this turned out to be a huge group of at least 70 actively feeding, circling and rafting on the water. There also seemed to be numerous other birds heading in that direction. I felt this was a likely sign of a significant food source which may have attracted our whale. Unfortunately, despite intensely watching the increasingly large feeding area as long as it was in sight no cetacean activity was detected.

Kittiwake Peter Howlett 12
Kittiwake (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

The remainder of the crossing was less eventful, and visibility slightly hampered by bright port-ahead glare, the highlight being some close-up views of juvenile Kittiwake with their beautiful black and white W shaped wing markings. Paul and I were both still on a high from our incredibly lucky chance encounter and couldn't wait to share the sighting with other members of the organisation. It further reinforced the thrill of surveying, as you can never rule out more unusual sightings even in the Channel! We'd like to thank the Captain and crew of the Delft seaways and DFDS for supporting MARINElife.