DFDS ferry ‘Finlandia Seaways’ Rosyth-Zeebrugge 23-24 January 2015

Steve Morgan and Allan Carpenter, Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Weather outbound: wind SW 5, sea state mainly 4 to 5, bright with good visibility. weather inbound: wind NW 6, sea state 5, mainly bright with good visibility.

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 5
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 4

Eider Somateria mollissima 1
Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica 34
Atlantic Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 35
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 1
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus 30
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 1
Common Gull Larus canus 3
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 26
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 74
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 89
Puffin Fratercula arctica 5
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 1
Common Guillemot Uria aalge 156

Terrestrial Birds
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 2

We boarded the Finlandia Seaways in good time on the evening of the 22nd at Rosyth and, after a little light refreshment (generously provided by the ever-helpful steward Tatiana), had a good night's sleep prior to beginning the survey the following morning.

Soon after dawn we ensconced ourselves on the starboard side of the bridge, finding overcast conditions and a sea state of four. Birds appeared sporadically and we recorded Gannet, Fulmar, Guillemot and Lesser Black-backed Gull at regular intervals, albeit in fairly small numbers. One early highlight was a Storm Petrel, glimpsed briefly skipping along the surface between the waves.

Storm Petrel Peter Howlett 02

Storm Petrel (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)

I was hopeful of finding cetaceans - possibly White-beaked Dolphin or even a Minke Whale - in the waters off the Northumberland and North Yorkshire coast. But, despite a really concentrated effort, our luck was out. Eventually, in the late afternoon, Allan spotted a Common Seal quite close to our bows. Shortly afterwards, I did likewise, finding a second Common Seal resting on its back about a hundred metres to starboard. By 16.20 the light was fading rapidly and we drew stumps. Our cetaceans would have to wait until the next day on the return leg from Zeebrugge to Rosyth.

We awoke in Zeebrugge with the Finlandia Seaways readying itself for departure. After a leisurely breakfast we took up our position on the bridge once more and, at around 08.45, the ship began slowly moving away from its berth. Two Great Crested Grebes were present on our port side and various Common and Herring Gulls were milling around the harbour. The area immediately around the port was very busy and it wasn't until we had got several miles out that we found quieter seas. We were soon recording modest numbers of Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Gannets and, before long, I had the day's first marine mammal; another Common Seal, lounging around on the surface and nonchalantly watching us pass by.

In the late morning we finally found our first cetacean of the trip. The sunlight was shining into the water at just the angle to see a small black silhouette propelling itself along and towards the surface at about two hundred and fifty metres. Moments later it broke the surface and revealed a small stubby dorsal before instantly slipping away into the depths and out of sight. A Harbour Porpoise! It is always marvellous to see these creatures underwater in their entirety - normally of course one has only a very brief glimpse as it surfaces. Half an hour later two more Harbour Porpoise appeared, this time surfacing together four times in quick succession before disappearing to starboard.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 16

Harbour Porpoise (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)

In the early afternoon we began to find Black-throated Divers moving from port to starboard. They came in ones and twos over a period of half an hour or so, evidently moving from inshore to feeding grounds further out in the North Sea. We accounted for 34 of these fine birds, each in crisp black and white winter plumage.

In mid-afternoon I had a very brief glimpse of a black object which surfaced momentarily in a trough between the waves. It was probably another Harbour Porpoise, which sometimes barely graze the surface as they come up to breathe. This was followed by yet another, this time right under our port bows. It is unusual to get so close - normally Harbour Porpoise veer away to port or starboard at about three hundred metres - but this one we caught unawares. Perhaps it was sleeping? Our last marine mammal came late in the afternoon, Allan spotting another Common Seal resting on the surface. By 16.30 the light had gone and it was time to bring our survey to a close.

Our thanks go to the staff at DFDS and the captain and the Crew of the Finlandia Seaways, whose unstinting help and co-operation made our work straightforward and pleasurable.

Steve Morgan and Allan Carpenter, Research Surveyors for MARINElife