Helen Swift and Tom Forster, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Outbound: Sunny with some haze and light cloud later, very good visibility, wind NE force 2-4, sea state 2, some glare throughout.
Return: Sunny with some haze and light cloud later, visibility good dropping mid-channel to moderate before improving again, wind NE backing N later, force 4 dropping down steadily to 0 later, sea state 3 dropping to 1 later, some glare throughout.
Summary of sightings:
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 2
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 1
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 6
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 2
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 10
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 17
Gannet Morus bassanus 331
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 4
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 3
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 114
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 3
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 16
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1
Unidentified Larus Gull sp. 27
Unidentified Skua sp. 1
Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon Columba livia 2
Our survey began with a quick and efficient boarding despite the large numbers of travellers on this crossing and the building work at the Newhaven terminal - we look forward to seeing this complete in our future surveys. Once out at sea we were taken to the bridge and were greeted by an intriguing succession of groups of Gannet resting on the surface, looking as if we had missed some recent feeding. It was a hopeful sign for the crossing though we wished we were seeing active feeding rather than just what looked to be contented diners relaxing after a good breakfast!
Great Skua (Library photo: Peter Howlett)
As we got further out to sea activity quietened, but this quiet period was broken by a Harbour Seal popping up to start our mammal sightings. After a further lull, a flock of Common Scoter added some excitement flying west down the Channel. It would be intriguing to know what these birds have been doing - were they failed breeders heading back south; had these never gone to the breeding grounds; or were these dead-beat parents abandoning ducklings far in the north?
I soon spotted a second seal, this time a Grey Seal, resting at the surface, but sadly it dived before I could point it out to Helen. Gannet sightings began to build again and once more we started to suspect there were fish around. Crossing our fingers, we hoped for cetaceans. A Great Skua passing by added some diversity to the bird list - this area off Dieppe always seems good for them - then I noticed some intriguing Herring Gull activity ahead with a group flying along diving down to feed. The bird activity seemed suspicious and soon a black back and triangle fin breaking the surface confirmed my hopes as two Harbour Porpoise surfaced as they fed. We had quite prolonged views as they repeatedly surfaced, their positions given away by the closely following gulls, before we passed them leaving them to their fishing.
In Dieppe we met up with Carol Famer-Wright (MARINElife Routes Manager and prolific surveyor!) and her husband Andy who had come across for the day-trip as passengers, and we went for a stroll into town to enjoy food at our usual café. Black Redstarts were feeding young on the cliffs and Dieppe was bustling with visitors which, combined with the hot sun, made it feel like we had done a voyage much further south than just crossing the channel.
Our return journey began again with scattered Gannet soaring and circling to scout for fish. Soon tidelines began to glisten at the surface, and knowing these features mark areas where current have swept together plankton, and in turn attract fish, we began to feel hopeful there might be cetaceans. Our hopes were fulfilled when we noted some of the Gannet diving and amidst the splashes of their impacts we noted white water from something breaking the surface. With rapid feeding we could not get views good enough to identify the species but could definitely see that we had dolphins. Soon afterwards, further feeding activity by several Gannet again revealed a second pair of dolphins, this time giving slightly better views that showed them to be Common Dolphin, and perhaps part of the same dispersed group as the earlier two.
Harbour Porpoise (Library photo: Peter Howlett)
Tidelines continued but bird activity diminished before starting to increase again as the English coast began to emerge hazily in the distance. The wind had by this time dropped and in beautiful sea conditions we were very hopeful anything surfacing would be visible. Black fins soon broke the surface as Helen spotted a little group of Harbour Porpoise consisting of two adults, one with a calf beside it, and a little later I spotted another to round off a fantastic trip.
Our only sadness was that amidst the birds and mammals we had also seen a record number (for us) of 27 helium balloons floating in the sea. Given the vast area of the Channel and the very small portion of sea we could survey, I dread to think how many more were out there, and wish the people who released them could see the end result and think again.
Our thanks to Captain Conquet and the crew of Seven Sisters for making us welcome and looking after us throughout the survey.