Helen Swift and Tom Forster, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Outbound: wind W-SW 7 occ. 8 dec. 5 nr French coast, overcast but dry, very good visibility.
Return: wind W-SW 4-6, overcast but dry, clearing partially for a beautiful red sunset, initially very good visibility but dropping rapidly with approach of dusk.
Summary of sightings
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 4
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 5
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 2
Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica 4
Common Gull Larus canus 2
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 3
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 14
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 7
Gannet Morus bassanus 338
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 32
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 7
Guillemot Uria aalge 25
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 17
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 34
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 1
Puffin Fratercula arctica 1
Razorbill Alca torda 22
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 7
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 4
Auk sp. 46
Diver sp. 9
Larus Gull sp. 18
Starting promptly after departure from Newhaven we were greeted by conditions that were surprisingly worse than those forecast with wind speeds of force 7 gusting into force 8 at times - much stronger than we had hoped. Luckily, despite these winds the sea state was not too bad and so we were able to enjoy the spectacle both of abundant wildlife and the Gannet and gulls soaring and banking on the winds. Activity began as soon as we left Newhaven and continued the entire crossing with no real gaps or quiet patches. Soon after leaving the harbour I spotted a large diver flying about 2km away, it was too far to be certain of the species but from the sheer bulk alone we both suspected it might have been a Great Northern. Sadly, speculation aside in honesty we had to put it down as "diver species" but it proved the first of many divers seen on the survey.
Small parties of auks rested on the water or flew by and Gannet roamed widely, often circling as they searched for fish, occasionally diving but with few large gatherings. Many of the auks were starting to come into breeding plumage looking very smart and in the flat grey light the colour difference between the black and white of Razorbills and the chocolate-brown and white plumage of Guillemots was very apparent (for once actually proving a useful and observable ID feature).
Bottlenose Dolphin (Library photo: Peter Howlett)
About an hour into the survey Gannet numbers started to build. Many of these were apparently searching for food or resting on the water, suggesting they had recently fed. A few distant fishing boats also suggested that there must be fish around. We began to hope there might be cetaceans in the area. Shortly after, in the distance I spotted what seemed unusual-looking wave splashes and as these got closer was able to confirm dolphins. One helpfully breached confirming these as Bottlenose Dolphin and the four approached fairly closely. Initially it looked as if they were actively seeking out the ship and might be going to play in the wake but instead, having swum in and swung close past us they then swam away and off again.
After our dolphin sighting the Gannet total continued to mount and we saw a number of Gannet actually diving, activity remained very scattered though with singles or pairs of birds feeding or circling spread out over many kilometres.
From mid-channel onwards towards the French coast, Great Skua began appearing and divers made a reappearance with the first Black-throated Diver of the survey. With constant bird activity we continued to hope for cetaceans and soon had more as both Helen and I in turn spotted Harbour Porpoise popping up. Sadly each of our three successive sightings were single surfacings seen by just one of us each time. Diver numbers continued to build as we entered shallower waters with a mix of Red-throated and Black-throated Diver in roughly equal measure (as well as many more distant that eluded species ID). It was great to see so many divers and nice practice for Helen and I in separating the species.
Black-throated Diver (Library photo: Peter Howlett)
Arriving in Dieppe we enjoyed a stroll into the town for a late lunch at our usual creperie and then on departure went up to the bridge swiftly to resume the survey. With the lengthening days we were able to get in an hour of survey and I managed to spot another two Harbour Porpoise, though again these were sadly brief sightings. Auks continued to be present scattered in small groups and about 45 minutes from Dieppe Helen spotted a Puffin in amongst the other species. This was lovely to see as we don't tend to see them in this part of the channel. Dusk finally forced us to end the survey. Overall a very diver-se and lively survey (apologies for the bad pun!) and one of the most active we have had on this route.
Our thanks to Captain Fontenit and the crew of Seven Sisters for making us welcome and looking after us throughout the survey.