MARINElife Survey Report: DFDS ‘Clipper Point’ Immingham-Cuxhaven 4th - 7th April 2014

Carol Farmer-Wright; MARINElife Research Surveyor
Weather: Day 1 and 2: poor visibility with thick fog, wind strength 0-3 cyclonic. Day 3 Visibility improving throughout the day from under 3km to 15km. Winds SW Force 3-6

Cetaceans and mammals:
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 2
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 7
Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae 1
Harbour (Common) Seal Phoca vitulina 3

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis 7
Brent Goose Branta bernicla 56
Eider Somateria mollissima 31
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 26
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 5
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 16
Gannet Morus bassanus 237
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 15
Common Gull Larus canus 47
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 23
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 102
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 52
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 283
Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus 1
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1
Puffin Fratercula arctica 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 267
Razorbill Alca torda 12
Little Auk Alle alle 15
Unidentified Goose sp. 51
Unidentified Loon sp. 3
Unidentified Auk Sp. 54

Terrestrial Birds (all seen at sea)
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 2
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 1
Robin Erithacus rubecula 1
Woodcock Scolopax rusticola 1
Starling  Sturnus vulgaris 122
Blackbird Turdus merula 1
Fieldfare  Turdus pilaris 135
Redwing Turdus iliacus 1
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus 1
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 1
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 2
Unidentified small passerines 87
Unidentified Wader sp. 3
Unidentified duck sp. 4

Friday 4th April

Immingham dock"The mist is lifting slowly" is the first line of one of my favourite songs and this was to prove very appropriate for this survey. The high pressure situated in the North Sea together with pollution and Saharan dust meant that sightings were restricted to under 3 kilometres for the first two days, full visibility only attained at 4pm on the last day of the survey.

That being said, this is one of my favourite routes as I have seen a wide variety of birds and cetaceans in the past. So it was with cautious excitement that I proceeded to Immingham docks to board the Clipper Point on Friday morning. Port formalities were completed quickly and I was taken to the ship, helped with my luggage and settled in to my cabin to prepare for the noon departure.

Immingham Dock (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Clipper Point Bridge Crew

Bridge Crew Clipper Point (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Captain Peeran Dhatigara met me in the drivers lounge, welcomed me on board and invited me to join the bridge team for departure. There was a dense fog in the Humber and I watched the Captain, First Officer and Pilot negotiate the lock that separates the vessels from the River Humber. A spring tide was running and once the ship cleared the lock it picked up speed being partly propelled by the strong current towards the North Sea.

Bird recording began with Herring, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gull in the Humber estuary. As the coast was left behind Guillemot, Gannet and the occasional Red-throated Diver and Razorbill were seen. Migrants were also in evidence. A Swallow, Robin and Sandwich Tern were spotted briefly. Three hours into the survey I spotted my first marine mammal. A Harbour Seal watched the ship as it sailed past. Five minutes later two Common Dolphin approached the ship to bow ride. One of the animals turned to watch the vessel, showing me the distinct hour-glass pattern on its flank. As I watched it swim away a Harbour Porpoise appeared briefly in the bow wake making a hasty escape away from the ship. A further two Harbour Porpoise and another Harbour Seal were seen before dusk descended and I retired to my cabin.

Saturday 5th April

I returned to the bridge at 6 a.m. for the second day of the survey. The fog was still limiting visibility to under 3km, but the calm seas afforded good cetacean sighting prospects. The ship was now 40 miles north of the Dutch coast with eight hours sailing time before its arrival at Cuxhaven. In the first half hour of the survey a Harbour Porpoise, one of three to be seen that day, briefly surfaced and made its escape away from the ship into the gloom. The composition of bird sightings had changed. Guillemot and Gannet had given way to migrating species. I recorded a large number of Starling, Fieldfare, Brent and Barnacle Geese. A group of Eider was also seen moving northward. Common Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull were also seen in good numbers before we berthed at Cuxhaven. The ship remained in Cuxhaven for the seven hour turn-around and nightfall precluded me from surveying until the following day.

Sunday 6th April

I awoke and returned to the bridge for the final day of surveying. The ship was now 17 miles west of Saturday's survey start position and the fog was still limiting visibility to less than 3km. The wind speed had increased overnight from the south west so the possibility of visibility improving over the day was likely. Migrants were still in evidence but sightings were more sporadic as we headed further into the North Sea. Gannet and Kittiwake were appearing in increasing numbers and small rafts of Guillemot were being seen, some males still accompanying last years young. By noon the fog started to lift and the sun briefly appeared through the gloom at 2.30pm. Conditions improved further and full visibility was attained at 4pm. During this time I was starting to see the occasional Fulmar gliding effortlessly over the waves. Two hours before the survey concluded I was delighted to see two small groups of Little Auk rafting on the sea. By 6pm, twelve hours into the survey with less than two hours of daylight remaining I hadn't seen any cetaceans and was beginning to think that none would be spotted before dusk. To my delight I was proved to be wrong.

North Sea Humpback 1Just before 6.30pm, 80 miles east of the Humber estuary, a member of the bridge team brought my attention to a large group of Gannet, Kittiwake and auks sitting on the sea about 400 metres from the starboards side of the ship. In front of these birds a large splash could be discerned. As the ship neared the area a large fluke and tail stock could be seen rising out of the water and slapping down into the sea. 

This was much larger than a dolphin and the shape of the tail fluke and the knuckles seen on the animal's tail made the identification unmistakeable. The animal in front of us was a Humpback Whale! Normally I have to travel to Alaska to see the Pacific Humpback Whale so it was fantastic to view this animal in the North Sea.

Humpback Whale (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Grabbing my camera I was able to record it tail slap, turn to show the pectoral and dorsal fins and finally shallow dive without fluking as it disappeared from sight. An amazing climax to a very enjoyable survey.  As the sun dipped below the horizon I thanked the Bridge crew for their help on this survey, retired to my cabin to compile my sightings and get some sleep before disembarking the ship the next morning.

My thanks go to DFDS Seaways for allowing us to travel this important route across the North Sea. A special heartfelt thanks goes to Captain Peeran Dhatigara, his Officers and crew for looking after me so well whilst I was onboard the Clipper Point.

Carol Farmer-Wright, Research Surveyor for MARINElife