MARINElife Survey Report: Poole-Santander 'Cotentin' 20th - 22nd October 2012

Rob Petley-Jones and Jane Petley-Jones, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather:
Day 1:            Poole to Ushant - NW veering S force 3-4, cloudy but clearing near Ushant;
Day 2:            South Biscay - ENE veering SW then N force 3-1, increasingly calm and clear;
Day 3:            Ushant to Poole - NNE force 5-6, heavy cloud with dense fog from mid Channel

Cetaceans and mammals:
Fin Whale  Balaenoptera physalus 11
Killer Whale  Orcinus orca 5
Long-finned Pilot Whale  Globicephala melas 1
Risso's Dolphin  Grampus griseus 4
Northern Bottlenose Whale  Hyperoodon ampullatus 2
Bottlenose Dolphin  Tursiops truncatus 25
Common Dolphin  Delphinus delphis 59
Striped Dolphin  Stenella coeruleoalba 60
Harbour Porpoise  Phocoena phocoena 11
Unidentified Dolphin sp.  15
Unidentified Large Rorqual sp.  4
Unidentified medium whale sp.  1

Seabirds:
Common Scoter  Melanitta nigra 6
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 3
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea 67
Great Shearwater  Puffinus gravis 39
Unidentified large shearwater sp.            101
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 1
Balearic Shearwater  Puffinus mauretanicus 142
Storm Petrel  Hydrobates pelagicus 2
Gannet Morus bassanus 299
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 8
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 37
Great Skua  Stercorarius skua 60
Parasitic (Arctic) Skua  Stercorarius parasiticus 1
Long-tailed Skua  Stercorarius longicaudus 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 25
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 2
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 11
Mediterranean Gull  Larus melanocephalus 1
Common Gull Larus canus 3
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 16
Yellow-legged Gull  Larus michahellis 19
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 17
Large Gull sp.  62
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 4
Razorbill Alca torda 7
Auk sp.  7

Terrestrial Birds
Sparrowhawk Accipter nisus 1
Lark sp.  9
Pipit sp.  20
White (Pied) Wagtail Motacilla alba 3
Robin Erithacus rubecula 1
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris 8

Common dolphinIt was a great relief for us to be made extremely welcome aboard the Cotentin after an arduous journey from Cumbria along some of England's worst motorways!. The Poole office staff and ship's crew were all very helpful, and after settling into our cabin we were escorted to the bridge to prepare while the ship slipped out of Poole Harbour. The lagoon on Brownsea Island was packed with birds, the most notable being a good number of Little Egret fishing in the shallow waters.

We started recording as we left Poole Harbour, out into the Channel past the Old Harry Rocks under grey but not heavy skies. The sea state was very promising for cetacean spotting, but a fairly quiet start produced a number of Kittiwake and Great Skua, a brief view of Harbour Porpoise and a couple of very brief sightings of unidentified dolphin south of Lyme Bay and Start Point.

As we continued across the Channel in a fairly calm sea we recorded another 10 Harbour Porpoise as well as increasing numbers of Gannet and a steady number of Great Skua including a group of 11 birds resting together on the sea, however, we were surprised by the extremely low numbers of auks and Fulmar. As part of the flotsam survey, we were amused by the sight of a Great Black-backed Gull taking a rest on a large wooden pallet! Several groups of migrating Starling were seen heading for France.

As we approached the passage between mainland France and Ushant the sea state calmed dramatically, and we recorded a flurry of Little Gull as we approached the calm waters between the islands, while more bizarre was a Sparrowhawk flying from the islands to the mainland! In the calm waters of the sound the ship was spotted by two groups of Common Dolphin which charged in towards the ship to bow ride briefly before we outpaced them. It was a delight to watch them playing in the wake of the ship, with some spectacular displays of team surfing on the stern waves! All this and a stunning sunset over the far Atlantic made for an excellent end to our first day on board.

Day 2 saw us on the bridge at 07.45 after a hearty breakfast, with the daylight leaking into the sky above a fairly calm sea - what a treat to watch for whales in a calm Biscay towards the end of October! We were immediately rewarded with a number of Common Dolphin and a very distant group of large animals which proved impossible to identify. The serious cetacean-spotting mood was lightened somewhat by the arrival of a Robin outside the bridge windows, which stayed with the ship all the way to Santander.

Fin 3Further south we were finally rewarded by good views of Fin Whale, with one leaving a fine fluke print that passed close down the starboard side of the ship. Excitement mounted with Jane spotting a group of Killer Whale some way ahead of the ship, but we were disappointed these did not stay visible as the ship approached their position.

The approach to Santander was very busy with shearwaters, with good numbers of both Cory's Shearwater and Great Shearwater. Several flotillas of smaller shearwaters made us scratch our heads a bit, but these eventually proved to be Balearic Shearwater, with many of the darker bellied form present. As the Cotentin made her way into Santander harbour, we recorded a number of Yellow-legged Gull and a solitary adult Mediterranean Gull before halting the southbound survey.

 

After a refreshing walk around the streets of Santander and a very good lunch on board the Cotentin, we resumed our recording as the ship began the return journey into a virtually mill-pond calm Bay of Biscay - perfect conditions for whale spotting!

We encountered the large groups of shearwaters again a couple of kilometres out from Santander, with even more Cory's Shearwater in evidence. A number of small groups of unidentified dolphin were recorded at some distance from the ship, followed by a nearer group of 25 Bottlenose Dolphin. Throughout the afternoon, and with some enthusiastic spotting support from the crew on the bridge, a number of Fin Whale were recorded with blows and clear views of rolling backs and dorsal fins as close as 500 metres from the ship. The most spectacular sighting was of two Fin Whale lunge feeding 500 metres to starboard, closely accompanied by at least four Risso's Dolphin! Everybody on the bridge got very excited at this point. A lone Pilot Whale, initially picked up by one of the crew off the port side, gave very good views for all.

Great ShearwaterBird records were regular with continuing sightings of both Cory's Shearwater and Great Shearwater, and also two sightings of juvenile Long-tailed Skua and a couple of Storm Petrel, all close into the ship's bow.

Jane was very fortunate to record a Northern Bottlenose Whale 500 metres to starboard, and a second probable was recorded very late on as the sun was close to setting. In wonderfully low and soft sunlight, several groups of Striped Dolphin came into the bow to take brief turns at bow riding, while further out a last Fin Whale surfaced as the sun set on what had been a most magnificent afternoon of whale watching.

Day 3 was a bit of a come-down with low cloud and strengthening NNE winds from the very start, whipping up a choppy sea over a heavy Atlantic swell. Cetacean spotting was impossible, and all recording became impossible as dense fog settled in from mid-Channel until our final entrance into Poole Harbour.

Our most grateful thanks go to all the Brittany Ferries staff and crew of the Cotentin, who could not have been more helpful and interested in our work.

Rob Petley-Jones and Jane Petley-Jones, Research Surveyors for MARINElife