MARINElife Survey Report: DFDS Seaways ‘Finlandia Seaways’ Rosyth-Zeebrugge 19-21 August 2016

Steve Morgan and Jack Lucas, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

Outbound: wind SW 3-4, sea state mainly 3-4, visibility good
Return: wind SW 6-7, sea state mainly 5-7, visibility fair to good

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 4
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 2
Atlantic Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 9
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 4
Seal sp. 8

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 32
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 26
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 1
Gannet Morus bassanus 1426
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 59
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 5
Common Gull Larus canus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 34
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 78
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 2
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 21
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 104
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 13
Little Tern Sterna albifrons 3
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 51
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 7
Puffin Fratercula arctica 35
Common Guillemot Uria aalge 188
Razorbill Alca torda 30
Diver sp. 1
Shearwater sp. 2
Gull sp. 15
Tern sp. 69
Auk sp. 60

Terrestrial Birds
Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 27
Canada Goose  Branta canadensis 2
Swift Apus apus 1
Feral Pigeon Columba livia 8

We checked in with DFDS and boarded the Finlandia Seaways shortly after it had arrived in its berth and thus in good time for a full night's sleep before starting the survey the next morning off the Northumbrian coast. Conditions were very good: a very light southwesterly wind gave us a sea state of between three and four and visibility was excellent. We were hopeful of seeing cetaceans throughout the course of the day with Minke Whale and White-beaked Dolphin very much in our thoughts.

However, the day passed by relatively uneventfully. There were a few shearwaters around, notably one Sooty Shearwater, together with Guillemot, a few Puffin and some Razorbill. We also recorded Gannets including a fair number of juveniles in various plumages. The avian highlight of the day was the spectacle of an Arctic Skua harassing a Kittiwake and attempting to steal its catch.

Arctic Skua Peter Howlett 15
Arctic Skua (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)

Twice we recorded Common Dolphin, both times finding two animals approaching our bows. Neither encounter proved very lengthy however and on both occasions the dolphins surfaced a couple of times before disappearing. Very tantalising! Grey Seal was more in evidence and we spotted them in small groups or as 'singletons' several times along the Yorkshire coastline. We continued our search until about 19:45 when the rapidly fading light obliged us to bring the day's survey to an end.

The following morning in Zeebrugge harbour we had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast before our departure just before 10:00. A Little Gull was in the harbour, along with various Black-headed and Herring Gulls and a single Cormorant. In the bright sunshine it seemed like a fine day was in prospect but once out in the open sea conditions rapidly deteriorated. Before long we had a stiff southwesterly gale behind us and the sea piled up in formidable looking waves. We hoped that later in the day conditions might ease as we put the land mass of East Anglia between ourselves and the gale but in the meantime it was obviously going to be difficult to spot small cetaceans such as Harbour Porpoise.

We did however find some good birds a bit later in the day. First there was an Arctic Skua bullying two Common Terns. Then came more terns, among them one much smaller and sporting a distinctive yellow bill and white forehead - a Little Tern! Two more followed a bit later, along with more Common Terns. The other highlightwas the passage of several groups of Little Gull, their dark under-wings clearly evident as they crossed our bows.

Little Gull Peter Howlett 09
Little Gull (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)

Conditions did ease slightly in the afternoon though in the rough conditions it was still hard to spot marine mammals. Jack saw two splashes close by our starboard side which he thought might have been Harbour Porpoise and we did find a few Common Seal. But when the fading light eventually obliged us to end the day's survey at just after eight o'clock we hadn't unfortunately added a great deal to our marine mammal list.

We still had a couple of hours on the last day as we entered the Forth estuary and rounded Bass Rock. As expected, there were large numbers of Gannet here, both in flight and on the rock itself. A sky full of a thousand or more Gannet made quite a spectacle and was one worth getting up early for!

Gannet Jack Lucas 01
Gannet (Jack Lucas)

A little later we encountered Guillemot, mostly in small rafts on the sea and then, as we approached the Forth Bridge, there were terns in abundance. Most seemed to be Common Terns though there were also significant numbers of Sandwich Terns among them. A lone Curlew, two Canada Geese and a fair few Oystercatcher added to the avian diversity in the river. Then, having cleared the bridge, we left the captain and his officers to the business of manoeuvring the Finlandia into its berth and concluded the survey.

Our thanks go to captain and his crew as well to the staff at DFDS for their unstinting help and support throughout the survey.