MARINElife Survey Report: Rosyth-Zeebrugge "Longstone" 14 - 16 June 2013

Peter Howlett and Oliver Metcalf: Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Outward: S 3-5  Return: SW 8-3

Marine Mammals
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1
White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris 14
Harbour Porpoise  Phocoena phocoena 12
Grey Seal  Halichoerus grypus 2
Common Seal  Phoca vitulina 1 

Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 11
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata  2
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1
Fulmar  Fulmarus glacialis 69
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 22
Gannet  Morus bassanus 12,246
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 1
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Herring Gull  Larus argentatus 54
Lesser Black-backed Gull  Larus fuscus 84
Great Black-backed Gull  Larus marinus 1
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 1
Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla 3,131
Sandwich Tern  Sterna sandvicensis 96
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 22
Arctic Tern  Sterna paradisaea 29
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 28
Puffin  Fratercula arctica 308
Guillemot  Uria aalge 747
Razorbill  Alca torda 114
Auk sp. 2,586
Tern sp. 2

Terrestrial Birds
Common Swift Apus apus 3
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 1
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 1

The first surprise of this trip was to see the green-hulled Longstone steaming up the Forth - we had been expecting the Finlandia Seaways - the ship usually on this route. I had carried out MARINElife's first survey on this ship in April on the Immingham-Cuxhaven route which had been very enjoyable and, knowing she was moving on soon after, hadn't expected to ever do another survey from her, so it was going to be good to have the opportunity to do another survey from her

The friendly DFDS staff at Rosyth got us on board shortly after Longstone had docked and we headed straight to our beds, desperate to try and get as much sleep as possible and prepare for a marathon stint on the bridge - so close to the longest day there was going to be a good 17 hours daylight for surveying! A mere 4 or so hours later, at 03:45, we were up on the bridge, just in time to see Bass Rock slipping behind us. A slight blessing really as neither of us fancied being dropped straight into trying to estimate huge Gannet numbers at that time in the morning!

White-beaked Dolphin 01 Peter HowlettOur first cetacean sighting came fairly early on with a solitary Harbour Porpoise, followed half an hour later by a second. Further excitement came a few hours into the survey with the sighting of a group of five White-beaked Dolphin crossing a few hundred metres in front of the ship. Unfortunately they were rather furtive as they passed so we didn't get brilliant views. This was a mere 25 miles east of Newcastle. Forty minutes later we had a second group, this time of 8 animals, they too disappeared as they passed alongside the ship but gave good views as they played around in the ship's wake.

This northern section of the survey was busy for seabirds too. Good numbers of auks, particularly Guillemot and Puffin, and Kittiwake kept us on our toes and ensured the morning passed very quickly. Bird of the day was undoubtedly a sub-adult Pomarine Skua, which made a close pass across the bows.

Minke WhaleAs we headed down the coast a group of three Harbour Porpoise appeared and showed well enough to see that one of them was a juvenile animal. Next up, when we were 17 miles east of Scarborough, a Minke Whale - living up to its nick name of 'slinky Minke' by being seen for just one brief roll.

Bird numbers dwindled as we headed southeast and off the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts terns such as Arctic and Sandwich put in an appearance along with a couple of late Red-throated Diver. The remainder of the evening, as we passed abreast of Cromer and then headed off shore towards Zeebrugge, was uneventful and we were grateful when the sun set at 21:30 allowing us to bring the day to a close and get some sleep.

With departure from Zeebrugge scheduled for 09:00 we had the luxury of a slight lie in before getting back on the bridge for the return crossing. There had been some torrential showers in the early morning but fortunately these had cleared to leave lovely sunny conditions - apart from the southwesterly gale blowing up the Channel! The white-flecked sea meant little chance of spotting cetaceans and with few birds to record it was a long morning, brightened by the sudden appearance of a solitary White-beaked Dolphin breaching repeatedly a few hundred metres away from the ship. At this point we were only 26 miles east of Lowestoft which means it might be possible to see this species from the shore.

As we headed north the wind dropped away and bird numbers increased, although sadly the same couldn't be said for the cetaceans! Terns and auks were the most common birds for much of the day but by the time we were abeam the Humber estuary things got a little frantic. The auks and Kittiwake hurtling past towards feeding grounds a little further offshore were so numerous it was difficult to keep track and in the space of an hour we logged over 2,000 Kittiwake and 1,500 auk species. Activity tailed off as the evening wore on and we were treated to a spectacular sunset with almost mirror-calm seas and glorious light.

Gannet 10 Peter HowlettWith only five hours of darkness we were back on the bridge at 03:45 in time to see St Abbs Head in the dawn light. Despite there being large seabird colonies here there seemed a distinct lack of birds first thing and numbers didn't really pick up until we hit North Berwick and the vicinity of Bass Rock. This really is a spectacular sight with around 50,000 pairs turning the rock white. From our vantage point, some 3km away, the island is continuously surrounded by a blizzard of white specks - each a bird with a 1.7m wingspan! The number of birds around the island is staggering, with a huge number of non-breeding birds adding to the breeding adults there could easily be 150,000 birds present at this time of year. Fortunately we only survey within 2km of the ship so the majority of birds were outside the survey area and the number was, only just, slightly more manageable.

We rapidly got into the tranquillity of the Firth of Forth and the survey ended as we picked up the Forth pilot at the island of Inchkeith. Our thanks go to Captain MacLeod and the crew of the Longstone for their warm and friendly welcome on board and to DFDS for their continued support of MARINElife's work.

Peter Howlett and Oliver Metcalf: Research Surveyors for MARINElife