Pete Howlett and James McCarthy, Research
Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Day 1: SW 8, occasional showers; Day 2: variable 2-3 and clear southbound, NE 5 and rain north bound; Day 3: SW 2-3 and sunny
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 1
Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus 1
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 28
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 1,020
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 6
Unidentified Dolphin species 25
Small whale sp. 1
Fulmar Fulmaris glacialis 31
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea 1
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 46
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 20
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 11
Gannet Morus bassanus 572
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 4
Great Skua Stecorarius skua 1
Parasitic (Arctic) Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 9
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 32
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 29
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 11
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 20
'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 61
Guillemot Uria aalge 4
Large Gull sp. 1
Feral Pigeon Columba livia 3
Common Swift Apus apus 3
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 1
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola 1
Watching weather forecasts prior to surveys in our non-existent summer here in the UK is not for the faint-hearted. However, the forecast for our trip was definitely for extremes, promising a slightly lumpy trip south on Saturday with the likelihood of good conditions in Biscay and also on the north bound leg on Monday - which turned out to be very accurate!
We arrived at the Brittany Ferries terminal just before 7:00 to be greeted by the cheerful staff and were checked in and on board in our cabins in no time. There was plenty of time for breakfast before departure and plenty of time to look out across the windswept harbour and contemplate what the seas might be like out in the Channel.
We were welcomed on the bridge by Captain Antoine Bienvenue as soon as we had cleared Poole bar and he explained that due to the strong winds our route would take us close in along the south coast before cutting across the Channel near Start Point and then keeping close to the French coast before going south between Ile d'Ouessant and the Brittany coast.
The sea state of 7-8 obviously made looking for cetaceans difficult, although we did manage an Ocean Sunfish a few miles west of Portland! It also looked as though the storm the previous week had pushed most of the birds out of the Channel too as there were relatively few birds until we hit the quieter seas inshore of Ile d'Ouessant where 3 Balearic Shearwaters were the highlight of the day. We left the bridge at 21:45 hoping that the following day would bring more clement conditions.
We were not disappointed! A calm sea and a sighting of dolphins from the cabins before we even got to the bridge was indicative of the excitement to come. Within 10 minutes of starting the survey we recorded our first Common Dolphins and in the next 4 hours we logged 20 groups of dolphins totalling over 600 animals, the largest group consisting of at least 250. A supporting cast of a Sperm Whale and 28 Bottlenose Dolphin meant we entered Santander on a high.
The 3 hours in Santander gave an opportunity to rest in the sun (almost forgotten what it looks like!) and get ready for the return journey. Unfortunately a north-easterly wind had set in and the sea conditions weren't as kind as in the morning. Even so we still recorded 8 groups of Common Dolphins totalling over 400 animals, although given the nature of the course the ship takes it's entirely possible that some groups were the same as those seen in the morning.
With the long June day we actually made the northern shelf in daylight, unfortunately any hopes of seeing much were dampened, quite literally, by the heavy rain which set in for the last 2 hours of the survey. All was not lost though, in fading light, just as we were about to call it a day, we had a great view of a Fin Whale rolling just in front of the ship.
We were treated to a fantastic sunrise over the Brittany coast the following morning and this set the scene for a very pleasant trip up the Channel. As we rounded the coast at the Le Four lighthouse we encountered more Balearic Shearwaters - 14 in all, it will be interesting to see if sightings continue now that the ship routinely sails through this channel.
Wall to wall blue skies and calm seas were much appreciated, although unfortunately the sightings couldn't quite do the conditions justice.
Careful scrutiny paid off with 6 Harbour Porpoise but there did seem to be a dearth of seabirds. The conditions showed off Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island at their best and couldn't have been more different to the conditions when we sailed on Saturday.
We would like to thank Captain Bienvenue and the rest of the crew on the Cotentin for the warm welcome, it is always a pleasure carrying out this survey.
Peter Howlett and James McCarthy, Research Surveyors for MARINElife