MARINElife Survey Report: Poole-Santander 'Cotentin' 16-18 March 2013

Teresa Donohue and Stephanie Wright, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Day 1: SSW 4-8. Day 2: SW-NW 3-5. Day 3: NW 3-0.

Marine Mammals
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 5
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 15
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 124+
Pilot Whale Globicephala melas 6
Dolphin Sp. 1

Seabirds
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 216+
Gannet Morus bassanus 966+
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo  4
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 4
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 17
Common Gull Larus canus c27
Herring Gull Larus argentatus c60
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 1
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 54
Guillemot Uria aalge 213
Razorbill Alca torda 25
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 1
Puffin Fratercula arctica 1
Auk Sp. 4
Gull Sp. 660+
Skua Sp. 1

Terrestrial Birds
Wader Sp. (like Common Snipe) 1

In Poole, rain was bucketing down from a slate grey sky and we were quickly escorted onto the 'Cotentin', joking a little anxiously with the terminal staff about the rough weather forecast. Leaving the harbour we saw Cormorant, Shag and several gull species, with Guillemot, Gannet and Kittiwake becoming more frequent as we headed out into the Channel proper. Sea conditions grew gradually more challenging throughout the morning as swell height increased, with both survey members taking very regular breaks for fresh air! The afternoon saw us passing through several impressive squalls where visibility fluctuated dramatically, from dazzling glare to heavy rain, but we managed to record Great Skua along with many auks and gulls, before retiring early when writing and using binoculars became too difficult.

LF Pilot BrittanyOn the 2nd morning conditions had calmed a great deal and we remained hopeful for a good day of sightings. We started with a tasty croissant and coffee kindly provided by the crew, and settled down to record a steady occurrence of Gannet gliding over the waves and troughs of the Bay of Biscay. Our first cetaceans, Common Dolphin, appeared in several pods leaping excitedly towards the ferry. Large ships soon became visible on the horizon, and the fantastic Cantabrian mountain range of northern Spain also emerged out of the haze and cloud. It was here that we were granted excellent views of Pilot Whale, travelling slowly in a group of 6. Their dark, broad dorsal fins and the bulky head shape of the males were clearly discernible, and we were amazed to see them passing slowly below the starboard windows.

CD 1Sandwich Tern and Cormorant greeted us in Santander, along with a range of gull species busily foraging amidst a regatta of colourful sailing boats. After a good rest and a delicious lunch onboard we soon began the homeward leg and commenced our survey once again. It was not long before we came across Bottlenose Dolphin swimming in front and then disappearing under the ferry, with Gannet trailing after. Swell picked up again in the afternoon, but with perseverance and strong stomachs we picked out 2 Fin Whale rolling at the surface, and 3 more in the distance giving spectacular whale blows. More sightings of Common Dolphin rounded off the day, and we packed up just as sea state began to increase again.

On the 3rd day Great Skua appeared in good numbers, and a mystery bird came hurtling overhead which was too high to identify, but gave the impression of a Snipe. A probable Black Guillemot was also spotted sitting on the water but unfortunately dived quickly out of sight. As we entered the English Channel an enormous number of gulls, Fulmar and Gannet had amassed in their hundreds around some large fishing trawlers. An equally impressive pod of 50+ Common Dolphin appeared briefly, travelling in a very tight, compact group. Approaching Portland, the weather was stunning - clear skies and a sea state dropping to a glassy 0 at times, making a very pleasant journey.

Surveying on CotentinGuillemot dominated our sightings list, with fewer Razorbill, seen in small rafts encountered every few minutes. No more cetaceans were encountered despite the outstanding conditions, but we were kept entertained by the appearance of lots of interesting military ships, a submarine, and a naval helicopter flying close by the ferry. It was also a great fun to be able to spot some familiar coastal landmarks from the unusual perspective of the sea. We finished our survey shortly after adding Common Gull to our list, seen foraging amongst other gulls along a distinctly marked tidal front near to Old Harry Rocks. We then bid our farewell and thanks to the crew and vacated the bridge to allow them to manoeuvre into Poole harbour.

Unloading was a great excitement for both of us, having never been on a freight carrier before. We watched all sorts of strange shaped items strapped to long lorries being unloaded, and then were signalled to make our way out safely. Our sincere gratitude once again goes to the tremendously friendly and helpful crew who made our trip onboard 'Cotentin' such an excellent one. We also thank Brittany Ferries for continuing to support MARINElife's work, and we look forward to our next survey with you.

Teresa Donohue and Stephanie Wright, Research Surveyors for MARINElife