Swan Hellenic

Sightings Archive

Marinelife ran a programme of education aboard the Swan Hellenic Cruise ship between 2008 and 2010.

Marinelife no longer operates with Swan Hellenic. 

 

Recent Sightings

Our 'Swan Song'

Posted 13 August 2010

The last full day of our epic 'Saga of Ice and Fire' cruise found us sailing south along the UK east coast, passing the Yorkshire promontory of Flamborough Head, before approaching the East Anglian coastline several hours later. The day provided a last chance to admire the seabirds that have become so familiar to us and marvel at their supreme power of flight in this harsh environment. Storm Petrel, Manx Shearwater, Puffin, Guillemot, Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Common Tern and a variety of gulls all graced us with a flypast at some stage during the day, giving our passengers a final opportunity to test out their improving identification skills. A couple of Harbour Porpoise popped up briefly, reminding us that despite the wind farms, the gas platforms and the busy shipping lanes, we still share the North Sea with marine life.

Harbour Porpoise


Today also provided a chance for reflection, especially as Emma and I were delivering a presentation on the wildlife we had sighted throughout the voyage. An expectant crowd had gathered early in the luxurious Darwin lounge and it was a delightful privilege to speak to so many friendly faces, many of whom we had got to know extremely well over the two weeks. I showed many images of the birds, marine mammals and scenery that we had photographed, and I talked about the memories of each sighting, the identification criteria for each species and some of the ecological issues pertinent to their survival. Emma then talked about the work that we do for Marinelife and the impact that we are trying to achieve through our research and education programmes.

Throughout the two weeks onboard we have been inundated with questions about Marinelife's work and everyone who has approached us has been most impressed by the way that Marinelife conducts its scientific research surveys. Moreover, the passengers have all relished the enthusiasm and dedication which Emma and I have shown as we've conducted our education programme and we spent today humbly shaking many people's hands as they offered their appreciation and praise for the work we've done. I am convinced that our 'Swans' will be going home and telling everyone they know about what they learned of the wildlife out at sea, and of the work that Marinelife does. The children and grandchildren they will speak to will hopefully become supporters of the charity and help to spread the vital conservation message that our world's oceans require urgent protection.

And finally, as the last day drew to a close, each of the Guest Speakers was invited to share a five minute reflection of the cruise with the passengers. Sharing the stage with such eminent figures as Dr Hugh Doherty, Dr Peter Cattermole and the Right Reverend Stephen Platten, Emma and I felt honoured to talk about our highs and lows, the wonderful sights we'd encountered and the fun we'd had with the fabulous crew. But most of all, we wanted to convey our appreciation for the support given by the passengers themselves, as they had become wildlife enthusiasts and budding birders too. They had seen the birds and animals, and many had even seen some which we had missed, and all had relished the profound enjoyment which can be experienced from the fascinating natural history out at sea.

Best regards, Mikey and Emma

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Fringe Festival Fun

Posted 12 August 2010

After docking bow-to-bow with the retired royal yacht HMS Britannia in Leith, Edinburgh, the Minerva 'Swans' disembarked for a whole day of sightseeing around the Scottish capital city. Emma and I joined them to explore the Fringe Arts festival, but not before we'd spotted Common Terns, Grey Herons and Cormorants around the docks!

The frequent courtesy buses ensured that we could return to the ship whenever our aching feet demanded it, so after a day of pacing the historic cobbles of the 'royal mile' amid the throngs of festival attendees, we headed back to update our blog and edit the photographs in preparation for our lecture tomorrow which will review the highs and lows of the trip.

As dusk fell, we departed through the ingenious lock system of Leith docks and ventured back out to sea, past Bass Rock (which unfortunately was in darkness) to head south overnight. Our last full day on the waves beckons, and our last chance to add to the wildlife sightings…

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

The Ones That Got Away...

Posted 11 August 2010

A very quiet day at sea today as the Minerva made her way steadily southwards past the Orkney Isles and on to sail down the east coast of mainland Scotland. The Captain brought us as close as he was allowed to the Old Man of Hoy (the bizarre rock column created by years of tidal erosion), and the sea began to calm a little, ensuring a smooth voyage.

Old Man of Hoy


The Bridge however became rather busy, as the Captain opened up access to all passengers, and we had a steady stream of intrigued and interested 'Swans' who were amazed by the fabulous view and myriad of console buttons. Emma and I are certainly very grateful to Swan Hellenic and Captain Biasutti for allowing us unlimited access to the Bridge throughout the voyage as it has made a huge difference to the effectiveness with which we can work, and we consider ourselves very privileged to have worked alongside the Bridge crew each day.

The Captain had given specific instructions to ensure that no-one touched any of the console buttons, especially the 'big red one', but his most serious demand, the one which none dared challenge, was that nobody, and he really meant NOBODY, was to touch his stash of PG tips!

A small amount of 'liquid sunshine' did nothing to dampen anyone's spirits and the excitement increased further when the Captain suddenly yelled across the Bridge that he had seen a fin in front of the bows. Emma spotted the animal very briefly but I was looking in completely the wrong direction! From the very restricted views obtained Emma thought it was most likely an Orca but despite much scanning and searching in our wake we failed to relocate it. Sometimes cetacean watching can be extremely frustrating!

Fulmar

Worse still, a little later in the afternoon, just as Emma and I left the Bridge for a quick visit to the restaurant for a bite to eat, the passengers on the Bridge spotted a small group of dolphins heading straight into the bows. Our 'Swans' took great pride in excitedly describing how Emma and I had missed them by mere seconds!

Still, we did manage to see six European Storm petrels, two Manx Shearwaters, and our usual host of accompanying Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Gannets. A few Arctic Terns were seen as we neared the Orkneys and Puffin numbers built up, but there were no new birds seen all day.

Tomorrow we dock in Leith, Edinburgh, so we suspect there will be little in way of cetacean sightings, but with the Fringe Festival and a variety of excursions to choose from we are all looking forward to some alternative sights!

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

A Difficult Day

Posted 10 August 2010

Having spent the majority of our lives observing cetaceans and seabirds in their natural, wild and free state all over the world, both Emma and I have found today extremely challenging indeed. Our passion for working with marine mammals has been clear for all to see whilst onboard the MV Minerva, as we are heavily involved in the protection (and rescue) of cetaceans, and take pride in being extremely enthusiastic when helping people to experience the thrill of seeing these majestic animals as free spirits in their natural environment. And so our emotions ran particularly high today, and at times we struggled to maintain our composure, as we had docked in Torshavn, the capital of the Faeroe Islands. This is the home of awesome towering sea cliffs, quaint fishing villages, and mist-shrouded mountains, but also home to the 'grind'; one of the most brutal whale and dolphin hunts still practised anywhere in the world today.

The morning had begun with Emma delivering yet another powerful lecture on contemporary whaling. Passengers were presented with carefully selected slides showing the least graphic images of the horrors to which the animals are subjected as they are driven against the beaches around the Faeroes and slaughtered with blunt hooks pulled through their sensitive blowholes. Emma professionally explained both sides of the contentious arguments, exploring the pro-whaling lobby's reasons for continued hunting and taking the audience through the unsustainable statistics of annual cetacean catches. Moreover, she was careful to ensure that the arguments in favour of traditional aboriginal subsistence whaling were explained so that our 'Swans' were presented with a balanced summary of the facts, with no rhetorical spin or bias. Arguably of most concern however, was the delivery of the fact that over 650 Pilot Whales have been killed during the four weeks prior to our arrival, and of the ironic poignancy that we have seen none at all during our voyage…

And so we disembarked the Minerva for our variety of excursions around these beautiful islands, but with recurring images of what happens to any small whales or dolphins that might move into Faeroese waters, fresh in our minds. Emma and I accompanied passengers on a boat trip along the stunning coastline and I gave a commentary about the birds we were watching, their ecology, identification criteria and population issues. The Faeroese still hunt species like Puffins, but with the devastating breeding season this year it seems that culling has been stopped, for this year at least. We saw Ravens, Shags, Black Guillemots, Hooded Crows, Rock Pipits, Wheatears, Gannets, Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls as we were expertly taken through a labyrinth of tunnels and rock formations that towered above us on all sides. At times it really was breathtaking!

Vestmanna Cliffs


On return to the coach our Faeroese guide began a commentary as we headed back towards Minerva, about the islands, and we stopped for coffee and cake above an idyllic coastal village, surrounded by little wild flowers and sheep. However, as soon as we set off again, he announced to everyone that the beach we had just overlooked had been the site where two weeks earlier a 'grind' had taken place and 71 Pilot Whales had been killed. There was stunned silence on the coach.

Site of a recent drive hunt


It soon transpired that both our guide and boat driver had taken part in grinds and were very open to discuss it with our passengers. They believe that the grind is an essential part of their traditional history and is easily sustainable, although they were completely unable to provide the evidence to prove that the populations remain unaffected…

The only positive comment he made was that the young people in the Faeroes are now refusing to eat the Pilot Whale meat as they are beginning to understand the arguments put forward by the anti-whaling nations. The big question is, will the tide turn quickly enough before the north east Atlantic population is decimated beyond recovery?

It was a very difficult day indeed…

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Whales All Around

Posted 09 August 2010

After four days of land-based excursions, Emma and I woke early, excited at the prospect of a whole day back out at sea, observing from the Bridge alongside the ever-optimistic Captain Biasutti. And despite long periods of scanning an endless horizon of emptiness, the passengers on the outer decks were treated to some thrilling moments of adrenalin-inducing sightings as the day progressed. Moreover, Emma's lecture on the History of Whaling was to become the focal point of discussion amongst the 'Swans' as it raised plenty of interesting questions about the nature and impact of whaling, both traditional and modern.

Fulmar


The day began with several passenger reports of small whales (which sounded like Minkes from their very accurate descriptions) but our primary focus was on the morning presentation. Emma's excellent research and knowledge was very much appreciated by the many passengers who attended, as well as those who listened on the televised broadcast in their cabins, and it sparked an immediate response from those who had been emotionally affected. Emma and I spent a great deal of time answering questions and helping the passengers to explore the many contentious issues surrounding whaling. The discussions continued throughout the day, especially as Iceland, the country we had all so recently enjoyed, and the Faeroes, to where we are headed next, are both such significant protagonists.

After lunch, Emma and I conducted a dedicated deck watch and not soon after I radioed from the Bridge that we had entered water in excess of 450 metres (and were therefore in similar depths to the sightings of Fin Whales from last week), one of the passengers reported seeing a handful of blows on the horizon. Several minutes passed before the animals re-surfaced, and luckily we were able to ensure that almost everybody on the outer decks had fabulous views of the six Fin Whales that swam down our port side. They were all in close proximity to each other as a very tight pod and remained on the surface for several minutes as they re-oxygenated.

Fin Whale

We had to wait for two more hours until we had our next sighting, but this really took us both by surprise, as Emma was busy revising her presentation for tomorrow on Modern Whaling, and I was writing the blog. Suddenly, as I happened to glance up from the laptop screen, a whale surged out of the water not forty metres from the bows, right in front of the Bridge wing where we were positioned. I tumbled off my stool as I scrambled for the camera and shouted to Emma to announce it to the passengers. Luckily the Captain was on hand and expertly guided the ship to position us a safe distance from the animal and as it surfaced again we were able to see the distinctive dorsal fin and pointed rostrum of a Minke Whale. Emma managed to announce the sighting and we remained behind the cetacean to avoid causing any disturbance as it continued to surface, allowing the excited passengers on the outer decks the opportunity to see it well.

Minke Whale


As the evening advanced upon us, information was received from the internet that the aurora borealis (northern lights) had been visible recently and we were extremely hopeful of an atmospheric conclusion to the day. Several 'Swans' remained on deck long into the early hours of the morning hoping to catch a glimpse of the flickering show but unfortunately there was a little too much cloud cover. The moon, however, did make an appearance, providing a profoundly beautiful sight with which to fall asleep and dream of future cetacean sightings…

Moon

Best regards, Mikey
 
Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Whooshing whales and fiesty Fulmars

Posted 08 August 2010

For many of the Swan Hellenic passengers, today was arguably the highlight of their 'Sagas of Ice and Fire' adventure. Having docked early this morning in Akureyri in northern Iceland, the excursions headed off in different directions: one to Lake Myvatn, one to Godafoss Falls and one to go whale watching from Husavik. Emma and I opted for the latter in the hope that it may provide a close encounter with cetaceans. The research we'd done indicated that sightings during the previous seven days had included Blue Whale, so we kept our fingers (and toes!) firmly crossed…

Arriving at the little harbour, we saw an impressive number of tourists queuing for the flotilla of sturdy wooden boats, and immediately realised the potential of the whale-watching industry to triumph over the hunters. With expectant faces smiling and waving, the fleet of boats set off into the vast fjord to search for cetacean activity.

We were given a quick guide to the use of directions when on a whale-watching boat, and Emma and I sat back with immense satisfaction during the 'test' as all of our 'Swans' were immediately able to point in the 2 o'clock direction, or the 7 o'clock direction on cue; we've clearly trained them well!

A handful of Puffins fluttered and belly-flopped out of our way as we headed out in near perfect calm conditions, and it wasn't long before the first shout of "Whale… one o'clock," was bellowed right down my ear by Emma! Everyone onboard leapt to their feet and rushed to the sides as we watched a superb ten metre Minke Whale slice effortlessly through the water three times before diving.

Minke Whale

Three minutes passed. Then four. Then five. After eight minutes we assumed the whale had moved off elsewhere, and just as the passengers began to take their seats I spotted the distinctive roll of the animal about 40 metres away. "Minke at two o'clock," I yelled (a satisfying retaliation to Emma's earlier deafening screech) and everyone again launched themselves to the sides to get a cracking view of the impressive cetacean as it surfaced twice more in quick succession.

Emma and I began to excitedly answer a wide variety of interesting questions from our 'Swans' about the Minke's ecology and identification, and it wasn't long before midway through a sentence I spotted a tiny triangular dorsal fin pop up 30 metres away. A delightful Harbour Porpoise was swimming right in front of us and everyone was able to get fabulous views, especially as we could even see the trail of bubbles and miniature fluke prints allowing us to track its underwater progress before it surfaced to breathe. At one stage we could even hear its short whispered breath; a real treat!

Harbour Porpoise

After hot chocolate and cake we headed over towards the coastline on the western flank of the fjord and as we sailed through a short squally shower I spotted a spectacular adult Long-tailed Skua cruising overheard with two full tail streamers stretched out gracefully behind. Out of range and a little early for this species, it was a very welcome surprise, but unfortunately I didn't have time to grab a photograph as the camera was sheltering from the rain. And then, as soon as the shower ceased, another shout of "Whale" reverberated from our boat. Someone had spotted a cetacean close by, somewhere along the visible line separating the salt water of the sea from the fresh water of the feeder rivers, but then all went quiet…

Suddenly, right next to us, about ten metres from our boat, a full adult Minke Whale surged to the surface, lifted its pointed rostrum and exhaled with an almighty "Whhooooooooosh!"

Minke Whale

An audible gasp echoed round our vessel, as we couldn't quite believe our luck. Some of us at the front could even smell its breath; truly a 'stinky' Minke! Its next surface was a little further away, but for the passengers onboard this had been the defining moment, a close encounter like no other, where one of the planet's most enigmatic creatures allowed us to observe it in an exceptionally intimate fashion.

The journey back to the harbour provided yet another opportunity to study the Fulmars as they zipped past at head height, but a few were provided with a closer view than they were perhaps comfortable with as the Fulmars appeared to be seeing how close they could get without quite managing to tap someone with a wingtip. So close were they, that the rushing air could be heard as they passed; an astonishing show of aerial mastery. No Blue Whales (apparently they required a longer full-day boat trip further out in the fjord), but a wildlife spectacle nonetheless; we were all more than satisfied.

Back on dry land we ate lunch in a local restaurant and had time to visit the nearby 'Whale Museum'. Intrigued, but somewhat concerned, Emma and I cautiously investigated, and made our way along the very informative and interesting exhibits of whale bones, skeletons and dried baleen as well as a showcase on rescuing stranded cetaceans. But then we found the section on whaling. Harpoon heads adorned the cases and photographs depicting the slaughter of Minke Whales by the Icelandic whaling fleet turned our stomachs. Having spent a thrilling three hours watching Minke Whale in their natural habitat, the reality of what these animals face came crashing down upon us and we left in a sombre and contemplative mood.

Luckily, the sight of Godafoss Falls seen during a brief stop on the return to the Minerva brightened everyone's day, and not even the heavy rain shower (to be known as 'liquid sunshine' from here on) could prevent us from reminiscing about our moment with the live Minke…

Godafoss Falls

Icelandic Sheepdog

And as the day came to a close, the MV Minerva sailed further north, around the north eastern tip of Iceland, and in doing so crossed into the Arctic Circle. As we crossed 66° 30' north we all raised a glass to toast Neptune and asked for smooth sailing over the next few days. A moment to celebrate and a chance for Emma to make final preparations for her lecture tomorrow on the History of Whaling in the North East Atlantic.

Best regards, Mikey


Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

The Magic of Vigur

Posted 07 August 2010

After a comfortable night, where darkness never quite managed to defeat the lingering embers of daylight at these northern latitudes, the 'Swans' aboard the MV Minerva awoke to find a dramatic and imposing arena of volcanic snow-dappled mountains leering above the harbour of Isafjordur in north western Iceland.

A hastily eaten breakfast ensured that we were ready for our early boat ride towards the remote and rather insignificant Vigur Island, but the morning was to prove to be anything but insignificant…

Vigur Island

No sooner had our two boats departed the quayside than Emma and I spotted two Minke Whales from our separate vessels. Surfacing briefly a few times, they disappeared as usual beneath the calm fjord, and we were left wondering if they'd ever been there at all! The twenty minute crossing produced 'dynamic soaring' Fulmars effortlessly gliding alongside us, whilst Puffins zipped past, as if on some urgent errand. And as we docked and walked up the ramp we realised we'd arrived in a special place. The tranquility and serenity of this little island was immediately apparent as we listened to the gentle whistles of the Black Guillemots, the soft cooing of the Eiders, and the delicate haunting calls of the Arctic Terns. Velvety white Common Seal pups lounged on a nearby reef, their cute puppy faces and dopey eyes gazing at the strange visitors emerging from the boat whilst diminutive elegant Red-necked Phalaropes span in tight circles amongst the rockpool seaweed. We were speechless…

Common Seal Adult Arctic Tern

We were taken on a tour by our guides to learn about the history of the island, but it was the birdlife which engrossed almost all of our 'Swans'. Whether it was the cheeky Puffins hobbling around in the grass above their burrows, the brief view of a Snow Bunting perched on top of the Post Office roof, or the numerous Arctic Tern chicks begging for food from their parents (they seem to have had a more successful breeding season here than in Scotland) we were truly spoilt for choice. One thing was certain though: this was no insignificant little island!

Arctic Tern chick


After taking in the distant, yet impressive glacier (apparently the only 'growing' glacier in Iceland) and a delicious morning tea of homemade cake, it was sadly time to leave this magical and enchanted place. But the memories will live with all of us who were lucky enough to experience the profound beauty of Vigur Island.

Eider Duck

 

Eider Duck
Glacial Valley opposite Vigur Island

Back at the Minerva's berth we were disappointed to see a whaling ship, with its explosive harpoon gun mounted on the bow, but at least it remained in port and wasn't out hunting, although we have no idea if any others were out at sea. Several of the passengers were extremely alarmed to hear about Iceland's continued involvement in commercial whaling and two of our 'Swans' returned to the ship devastated at having found Minke Whale on a local menu board.

The mood improved somewhat as we departed and headed further north before turning east to make our way along the spectacular northern Icelandic coastline, as two pods of White-beaked Dolphins put on a brief show. As we were bathed in sunshine the decks were filled with passengers, most of whom managed to get good views of these robust cetaceans, and everyone happily retired for dinner and the evening's entertainment. Emma and I stuck it out on the Bridge as long as we could and managed to record our first sightings of Brunnich's Guillemots; their diagnostic fine white bill line clearly visible as they flew past the ship's bows.

White-Beaked Dolphin

Brunnich's Guillemot

 

View from Minerva


As we finally made it inside we overheard the Classical Concert rendition in the Darwin Lounge of The Sound of Music's "My Favourite Things", but were amazed to hear they had substituted one of the lines with "Seagulls with posh names!" My insistence to all of the passengers that there is no such thing as a 'seagull' is clearly having its desired effect…!

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Clowns, an Eagle, Moby Dick and Clouds

Posted 06 August 2010

We awoke for breakfast this morning to be greeted by several passengers who had already seen dolphins riding the bows. What a way for our 'Swans' to start their day!

The Minerva docked at Grundarfjordur; a very quiet and tranquil seaside village, nestled amongst dramatic volcanic mountains and lush green pastures. Swimming gracefully inside the small harbour were family parties of Eider and a handful of Black Guillemots, but it was the presence of the striking Glaucous Gulls which grabbed our attention. With their pearl grey mantle and wings contrasting with their pristine white wing-tips, even the most hardened 'gullaphobe' couldn't fail to be impressed. And as Arctic Terns flew overhead, and Purple Sandpipers crept over the seawall, we hopped onto a fleet of waiting coaches for our various excursions.

Glaucous Gull in harbour


Arctic Tern

Emma and I opted for the 'Archipelago Boat Trip' and were taken on a short drive past mirror calm mountain lakes, recording Golden Plovers in their resplendent summer finery sitting nonchalantly by the roadside. Upon arrival at a little fishing harbour, we boarded our 'nature boat', fascinated by the hordes of jellyfish in the waters, and headed out to the scattered islets nearby.

Jellyfish

The manoeuvrability of the vessel was impressive and permitted a real up-close-and-personal experience with the seabird colonies nesting on the rock faces. Kittiwakes yelled at us and Fulmars stared, safe in the knowledge that if we got too close they are perfectly adept at defending themselves by vomiting putrid fish oil at us! Luckily we escaped untouched, and proceeded to enter a grotto of islets, which according to the fascinating commentary, and Icelandic legend, held a complex history of mythical trolls and elves.

Adult Kittiwake and chick

Juvenile Kittiwake

We were then treated to a captivating scene of nature at her best as a troop of comical clown-like Puffins waddled out of their burrows to see what all the fuss was about. Once they were satisfied that we posed no threat, they hurled themselves off their grassy cliff tops and tumbled down to crashland in the water before shaking themselves off and paddling away with their bright orange feet. Delightful!

Puffin

Puffin on take-off

Going, going, gone - Puffin diving down

Suddenly we spotted a huge bird soaring behind one of the islands and were thrilled to see a magnificent White-tailed Eagle gracefully making its way along the coast like an enormous flying barn door! The adrenalin rush continued as a squadron of Puffins, several with fish in their parrot-like beaks, whizzed overhead, and a pair of Shags stretched open their wings in a prehistoric pose. All too soon the journey was over, so as we made our way back to the Minerva I gave the coach passengers a talk on the birds we had seen and the challenges they are facing, especially this season with the devastating crash in sand-eel availability.

White-Tailed Eagle

Adult and juvenile Shag

The Minerva gracefully made her way out of the harbour and after a short lunch we headed further north, venturing into a chill icy air. Emma and I were both on the Bridge keeping watch when I suddenly spotted the tell-tale sign of a cetacean blow ahead of the ship. The second blow it gave was clearly angled forwards at 45 degrees, and the distinctive dorsal hump was observed, enabling a firm identification of Sperm Whale; the deepest diving of all the whales. But just as Emma announced it to the passengers on the outer decks we both watched in awe as the beast lifted its tail flukes clear of the water and headed down on a dive. When we checked the echo-sounder we were amazed to find that we were in less than 100 metres of water and we had high hopes that it may surface again quickly.

Sperm Whale blow

An agonising wait ensued, as the passengers on the Promenade deck scanned the sea, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of this leviathan of the deep. And then, suddenly, there it was again, blowing on our starboard side. A little more distantly this time, but still clearly visible to the passengers. Finally, after several minutes of re-oxygenating at the surface, the whale fluked once more, showing us its tail for one last time.

More sightings followed, but unfortunately they were much briefer and none of the passengers saw them. The first was a very close Sowerby's Beaked Whale which surprised me by surfacing only thirty metres from the bows, took one look at the Minerva and dived straight back down again, all before I'd even had time to grab my camera. And the second was a small group of three White-sided Dolphins which refused to come in to bow ride, instead preferring to swim away from us before anybody else could spot them. But whilst this was indeed rather frustrating, at least the spectacular Icelandic coastline was still visible in the twilight, even though it was 11pm! Shrouded in clouds that were being forced over the precipitous cliff edges by the katabatic wind (a drainage wind carrying a high density airflow from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity), the view was profoundly beautiful and a fitting way to end the day.

Cloud movement affected by katabatic winds

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Geothermal Activity and the Birding Bug

Posted 05 August 2010
Yet again, upon arrival in Reykjavik, the speed and efficiency of disembarkation by the Swan Hellenic team was impressive to say the least, especially as so many passengers were booked on coach excursions today. Emma and I decided to join the Volcanic Tour, visiting the still unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull volcano (apparently the phonetic pronunciation is meant to sound something like "ayer - fyat - luh - yer - kootl"…but that's easy for you to say!).

Setting off on the eight hour drive we almost immediately began to see some interesting birdlife. In particular, we were very excited to spot the endemic Barrow's Goldeneye, even though it was in eclipse plumage, actively diving on a roadside lake, before we'd even left the city limits! And as our fascinating geology/volcanology tour continued, we added several species to our growing Icelandic list including Whooper Swan, Greylag Geese, Black-tailed Godwit, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Arctic Tern, Redshank, Eider, Merlin, Blackbird, Whimbrel, Arctic Skua, Oystercatcher, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and an Atlantic Grey Seal. But the ornithological highlights were definitely the stunning summer plumaged Great Northern Divers we found on an inland lake and the pristine white-winged Glaucous Gulls cruising past the harbour wall.

Redshank

Whooper Swans

And the geology was equally as impressive. Lava flows, rock formations, volcanic eruptions and ash deposits were all explained to us by both the local Icelandic guide and Dr Peter Cattermole. We saw bubbling mud pools, a spectacular waterfall (under which we braved the elements as we were able to walk right behind the torrent), and an exploding steam vent which decided to 'blow' just after we had crossed over it! We even managed to collect a sample of the volcanic ash that had fallen a few months previously and despite the smell of sulphur lingering in our nostrils we returned to the ship in high spirits.

Moss-covered Lava Field

Ash-covered valley near Eyjafjallajokull

Sulphur-rich mud pools

Steam vent erupting

Once back onboard we met passengers from the other excursions who excitedly told us about their own birding exploits, the most impressive of which were their own sightings of Great Northern Divers, and best of all, a pair of Gyr Falcons circling a waterfall! The infectious birding bug is spreading throughout the ship!

Emma and I decided to conduct a late evening Bridge-watch as we headed out from Reykjavik and it paid off with a brief sighting of Minke Whale (which, as so often happens, 'slinked' its way past us without any passengers managing to see it). Several Manx Shearwaters accompanied us, and were joined by a European Storm Petrel, but it was just as we were about to finish for the night that the best sighting of the day surfed in to the bows. Two White-beaked Dolphins began to ride the sub-surface pressure-wave created by the ship's forward motion, and as Emma and I grabbed our cameras and headed to the speaker system to announce their presence to the passengers, the dolphins disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Elated, but frustrated that they hadn't stayed, we took one last look at the fading sky before heading inside to chat with the passengers about the day's sightings.

White-Beaked Dolphin

Best regards, Mikey
 
Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011). 

Difficult to see, impossible to say!

Posted 04 August 2010

With a force 7 blowing from the west, steady precipitation and a significant swell, dawn brought very little to excite our passengers this morning. The continuous drizzle persisted throughout the day, only breaking occasionally to give us our first glimpses of the land of ice and fire; we had finally arrived in Icelandic waters.

As we progressed along the south coast of this imposing volcanic island, the Captain tried his best to position the ship along the top edge of an underwater slope in the hope that we may encounter some cetaceans, but unfortunately it was in vain and he was as disappointed as we were.

Still, the seabirds continued to entertain, with the most noteworthy avian sightings being a flock of approximately eighty Fulmars which insisted on following the ship throughout the day, wheeling across the surface of the sea just millimetres above the waves, employing what's known as 'dynamic soaring' as they utilise the updrafts generated from each wave to maintain energy-efficient flight. This particular flock would glide ahead of the ship, drop casually onto the water, allow the Minerva to cruise past, before they took to the air to glide alongside us once more. Despite the drizzle and the wind many passengers were truly enthralled by this show and Emma and I were happily kept busy answering lots of intriguing questions.

Fulmar cruising over the waves


During the afternoon we arrived at the Vestmannaeyjar Islands of Heimaey and Surstsey and listened, enthralled, to Dr Peter Cattermole's informative commentary on the volcanic origins of the islands. He is a lecturer in planetary geology, a volcanologist and fellow Guest Speaker. Although the mist and rain prevented unobstructed views, it seemed to add to the atmosphere, and provided a memorable introduction to the Icelandic geology. Moreover, we also gained tantalising glimpses of the infamous Eyjafjallajokull volcano, although there was no ash column to be seen. Still, we were all challenged to attempt to pronounce its name, and much hilarity ensued as a variety of interpretations were heard throughout the evening...!

Eyjafjallajokull volcano

 

Surtsey

After a very quiet day on deck, we retired for the night, looking forwards to our excursion day tomorrow on mainland Iceland in the hope that we may see some endemic wildlife and more fascinating geological phenomenon.

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

'Fintastic' Fin Whales Follow Faeroe Frustration

Posted 03 August 2010
It was another very early start for us today as we both wanted to see what wildlife we could find in the waters off the Faeroe Islands, especially following the recent horrifying news that the Pilot Whale drive hunts continue in 2010, with a total exceeding 650 (including pregnant females) killed during the last four weeks. Unsurprisingly we didn't see any cetaceans all morning. With a mixture of relief (that any animals nearby may have left the area) and frustration (that so many have been killed resulting in no sightings for our Swan passengers) we cruised past the islands in a sombre mood, but were still able to marvel at the spectacular cliffs and the phenomenal numbers of seabirds.

An hour after the Faeroes had been left in our wake two pair-trawlers appeared on the horizon, and as we approached, the passengers were treated to a huge number of Fulmars and Kittiwakes, numbering several thousand of each species, following the fishing boats and helping themselves to a free meal! Gannets were plunge-diving and skuas were harrying them, but despite this fabulous show, Emma and I explained to the passengers that pair-trawling is a serious problem for marine mammals as it frequently results in their death as by-catch victims. Banned within the 12mile zone around the UK, it is still clearly being practised elsewhere in European waters.

Pair Trawlers

We were determined to be more optimistic however, and as the day progressed we finally got the sightings we wanted. First of all, a Sooty Shearwater completed a circuit of our vessel before continuing on its epic migration towards the southern hemisphere, and then a small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins surged through the waves along our port side, their ochre-coloured tail-stock flash showing occasionally to the keen observers on deck. These were then closely followed by our first whale blows, and as the decks filled with our excited passengers, we all watched as these magnificent animals rolled majestically towards us. They were Fin Whales, the second largest animal on the planet, and we eventually saw twelve during the course of the day, including a mother with a juvenile; a little unusual at this latitude.

Atlantic White-Sided Dolphin

Fin Whale

More action followed, but to everyone's amusement, Emma and I both managed to miss it! We were just gathering equipment from our cabins and heading up to conduct a deck watch when we were met by lots of passengers (who had gathered in preparation for the deckwatch) who had all seen six cetaceans cruising down the port side of the Minerva. A frantic ten minutes of debate followed, as people gave their descriptions and tried to work out what they had seen, but luckily, one gentleman approached us and produced a camera… he had photographs! As soon as Emma looked at them she pointed out the position of the dorsal fin and the blunt head profile, and we were able to confidently identify them as Northern Bottlenose Whales. It seems that a significant number of our 'Swans' had seen them, including a large number who were inside conducting an Art class at the time. We've clearly trained them well…!

Northern Bottlenose Whale

As I headed inside to deliver my lecture titled 'Life on the Wing - Birdlife of the North East Atlantic', Emma spotted two very distant breaching Cuvier's Beaked Whales, but they didn't show very well at all. The passengers who attended my presentation (or watched it later on their television screens) learned about the evolution, ecology, and identification criteria for the species of seabirds we've been watching and hope to watch over the two weeks at sea. By the end of the lecture we had generated a ship full of budding birders, so it is hoped that sightings will increase dramatically as we venture towards Iceland…

Northern Sunset
Best regards, Mikey
 
Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Minkes in the Mist

Posted 02 August 2010

Emma and I were a little surprised when we popped up to the Bridge early this morning to find that we were actually heading in a southerly direction! Apparently we'd arrived a little early into Shetland waters and were gently cruising down the rocky east coast. After several more 180 degree turns we finally headed into Lerwick and arrived on the berth at 0730.

Several seals of both species bemusedly watched as the passengers were disembarked from the Minerva onto various coaches for a variety of excursions. With the usual efficiency and delightful ease that we've come to expect from Swan Hellenic, we were soon whisked away on our coach tour towards the small Shetland isle of Mousa with Derek, the very knowledgeable local guide. Emma and I escorted the 'Swans' as the Minerva passengers are affectionately known, so that we could point out the diverse wildlife and answer any questions on the marine mammals and birds to be found around the islands. And they weren't to be disappointed…

On approach to Mousa

Our coach took us to a tiny harbour where we boarded a small boat which carried us across to Mousa on a 20minute journey, surrounded by spectacular rocky islets and bays. The wet weather did nothing to dampen our spirits, especially as we managed to spot several Harbour Porpoise and were able to show all of our 'Swans' these fabulous cetaceans. Shags and Black Guillemots flapped away in front of our boat giving stunning views, and a handful of Fulmars were spotted nesting on the cliffs.

Shags on rocks
Fulmar and chick

Mousa itself was a fascinating island where Emma and I were able to help everyone to identify a variety of different birds. We found migratory Wheatears hopping around the stone walls, Rock Pipits on the shoreline, Snipe 'drumming' overhead in display flight, a flock of the endangered Twite (a small finch with a pink rump), and an incredibly persistent Arctic Skua which proceeded to dive-bomb us as we walked along the path past its recently fledged chick. Arriving at the world's tallest 'broch' (a 2000yr old iron-age drystone round tower) we talked about how the European Storm Petrels use it as an important breeding site where they fly in at night to avoid predators, having spent all day far out at sea. And we had breathtaking views of the beautiful Black Guillemot (known as the Tystie in these parts due to the Norse name for their whistled call) as they competed for space on the narrow rock ledges.

Adult Arctic Skua

Arctic Skua fledgling

Black Guillemot

Unfortunately we learned from the RSPB wardens on the island that the seabirds have suffered a catastrophic breeding season this year, especially the Arctic Terns, which appear to have raised no chicks at all due to a huge shortage of sandeels and some heavy storms earlier in the season. This information really brought home to the passengers how fragile the marine environment is, how many challenges face our native wildlife, and how the research being gathered by organisations like Marinelife is so fundamentally important.

Having watched a confiding Common Seal playing in a cove below us we headed back to the coach and had a whistle-stop tour of Shetland, adding Whimbrel, Raven, Lapwing, Whooper Swan, Oystercatcher and several other birds to our growing list, but it was the diminutive Shetland Ponies which appealed most to Emma and many of the passengers!

Common Seal

The journey out of Shetland was equally exciting as we had heard reports of cetacean sightings during the previous seven days in Yell Sound, so the ever-supportive Captain Biasutti made arrangements to alter our planned course to steer the Minerva expertly through this evocative and spectacular coastline. Things were looking good as we managed to spot two different Minke Whales, giving most passengers excellent views during our allocated deck-watch and hopes were high as we entered Yell Sound. Unfortunately the weather closed in, preventing us from making any further sightings of marine mammals, but the atmosphere it created in the Sound was hauntingly evocative and all of the passengers on deck enjoyed the eerie experience of sailing so quietly through these beautiful waters, whilst ghostly headlands emerged out of the mist before disappearing again almost as quickly.

Minke Whale

Puffins and Arctic Terns continued to entertain us as we left the Shetlands behind and an exhausted first summer Kittiwake landed on the foc'sle, desperate to take a rest from the elements, teasing the Captain by doing its business on his clean ship!

Kittiwake on the foc'sle

And so, as darkness wrapped itself around us, we began our journey towards the Faeroes, and ultimately Iceland, where the land of Ice and Fire awaits…

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Porpoise and Seals of the Orkneys

Posted 01 August 2010

An early start on the Bridge today at 0600 produced tantalisingly brief and frustrating views of distant dorsal fins, one of which was probably a female Orca, but unfortunately nothing was close enough to point out to the early rising passengers who were stretching their legs on the Promenade deck. It was 0945 when we finally spotted a group of breaching Bottlenose Dolphins and several passengers managed to see them but even this sighting only lasted a short time as the animals stopped jumping all too soon. However, as we approached the Orkney Islands, we began to pick out both Atlantic Grey and Common (Harbour) Seals peering up at the ship and were pleased to see more Harbour Porpoise quickly slipping past us in their attempt to remain unseen!

Atlantic Grey Seal

A report from two passengers of a Minke Whale in the Minerva's wake kept everyone on their toes but wasn't seen by either me or Emma but at least the birds maintained everyone's interest throughout the morning. Gannets, Puffins, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwakes, Great Skuas, Guillemots and Shags were seen with increasing frequency as we neared the Orkneys and many passengers got their first glimpses of the vividly contrasting blacks, reds and whites of summer plumaged Black Guillemots. Some even managed to see the European Storm Petrels which flitted and danced their way over the waves, arguably made easier by the lovely sea state zero which welcomed us into Kirkwall.

 

Shag

Several interesting and exciting excursions around mainland Orkney were run by Swan Hellenic with the support of their local agents, but Emma and I decided to catch a bus to the village of Finstown where a Bearded Seal, usually found in the high arctic, has taken up residence since February. We eventually found it, basking on a sandbank at the mouth of the cove, allowing us to compare the obvious structural differences from the UK's two resident seal species we'd seen earlier in the day.

Back in Kirkwall, a pale leucistic Starling provided further interest as it resembled the much rarer Rose-coloured Starling, but its dark bare-part colouration and structure eliminated the latter species, whilst a raft of two hundred Eiders in eclipse plumage floated in the nearby harbour. We boarded the Minerva once again and set off north towards Shetland with high spirits after another exciting day.

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

A Day in the North Sea

Posted 31 July 2010

After a delightful evening meeting the passengers and swapping stories of previous pelagic voyages, we woke early today, full of anticipation of what might be seen. With steadily calming seas and a plethora of birds we weren't to be disappointed.

As the MV Minerva made her way over Dogger Bank (a significant underwater topographical feature offshore from the English East coast) we found ourselves surrounded by flocks of seabirds, attracted to the area by the increased availability of food due to the upwelling created as the tidal currents surge over the raised seabed. Rafts of Manx Shearwaters, large flocks of Kittiwakes and good numbers of Razorbills and Guillemots revealed, upon closer scrutiny, a small number of recently-fledged juveniles, indicating a successful breeding season for at least some of our seabirds.

 

Manx Shearwater

At 0700 a flock of forty-eight small white gulls with black heads, white wing tips and dark underwings flew alongside us, dwarfed by the larger and commoner gulls, confirming why they are appropriately named Little Gull. These birds were all heading south indicating that autumn migration is underway. They were closely followed by eighteen Arctic Tern; a delightful species which we hope to see again as we journey northwards to their breeding grounds.

Emma started the programme of lectures this morning by introducing the marine mammals found in the North East Atlantic. It was extremely well-received with many passengers eager to go straight out to the decks to begin searching for any cetaceans they could see.

As the morning passed by we recorded our first Puffin and Common Scoter and continued to see large groups of Kittiwakes but there was only one sighting of cetacean all day when three Harbour Porpoise surfaced nearby, affording the passengers who were quick enough to get to the railings an all too brief view.

Things quietened down during the afternoon as we passed approximately 80km East of the England/Scotland border but we have high hopes for further sightings tomorrow when we approach the Orkney Islands…

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

Setting Sail from Dover

Posted 30 July 2010

From the moment we arrived at the terminal in Dover, Swan Hellenic treated us, as usual, to their exceptional levels of courtesy and support, ensuring that our exciting partnership continues to thrive and develop. The boarding and embarkation process onto the fabulous MV Minerva was effortless and efficient allowing us to settle into our cabins quickly. As soon as the engines started we made our way to the outer decks and our 'Sagas of Ice and Fire' adventure began.

Leaving the evocative white cliffs of Dover in our wake we turned north and tracked up the East coast of Kent, passing the Thames estuary and East Anglian offshore wind farms, but it was the wildlife that immediately demanded our attention as we were treated to the first of our sightings. A stunning adult summer Mediterranean Gull drifted elegantly past the starboard side of the ship and was closely followed by species which were to become very familiar to the passengers during the next few days: Fulmars, Gannets and Kittiwakes.

Most exciting of all however, were our sightings of the UK's most diminutive marine mammal: the Harbour Porpoise. These shy little animals are increasingly difficult to see as so many of them are sadly being killed as by-catch from the commercial fishing industry, but luckily we were treated to a total of six different animals including the thrilling sight of a mother and calf swimming together; perhaps there is hope for the species yet…

Harbour Porpoise - not always easy to spot!

On our first evening we were introduced to Captain Giovanni Biasutti and it rapidly became apparent that he shared our passion for the diversity of exquisite wildlife to be found during our forthcoming voyage in the north-east Atlantic. All we need now is good weather and good fortune… All of our fingers are crossed…!

Best regards, Mikey

Minerva will be returning to Iceland and visiting St Kilda on MIN110721 (21 July - 05 August 2011).

An Educational and Research Trip to Iceland

Posted 29 July 2010

Marinelife is very pleased to announce a continuation of our exciting collaboration with Swan Hellenic which will see us on board the Minerva on her scheduled round trip from Dover, UK to Iceland via the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, clockwise round Iceland and Faroe Islands, which leaves on Wednesday 28th July 2010. Emma Webb and Mike Bailey from Marinelife will be carrying out an extensive passenger education programme as well as monitoring marine wildlife seen during the entire trip.


MV Minerva

We hope to be able to keep you updated with our progress and sightings on a daily basis from the ship. Please keep visiting our blog to read the latest updates and to see the latest photographs. We hope you enjoy reading about this exciting research trip.

Plenty of dolphins… and a most unusual Humpback whale encounter!

Posted 17 November 2009

Having spent another very enjoyable day in port, this time the city of Salvador de Bahia, we have set sail again for a two day journey to the wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro.

Salvador beach

And I have to say that these last two days have given us some of the most spectacular and unusual sightings of the trip so far!

Friday 13th November saw us sailing through the deep water of the continental slope during the early part of the day, before heading up into the much shallower waters of the continental shelf. The day started exceptionally well, with a sighting of 100 Clymene Dolphin coming in to bowride. The black marking on the tip of the rostrum was clearly observed which is a key identification characteristic of this often elusive species. Bow-riding dolphins are always enjoyed by the passengers, especially when it's a new species for the trip, and it's great to spend time answering all of the questions.

Clymene Dolphin


As we started to travel into the shallower water associated with the continental slope, we came across more dolphin activity; this time a very active group of 200 Spinner Dolphin, many of which came in to bowride. Captain Moulds again brought the ship closer to this extensive group of dolphins and passengers were treated to fantastic views of the animals bow-riding and spinning as they leapt out of the water during this prolonged encounter. The activity of these dolphins is truly remarkable and the rotations they make as they leap are enough to make the spectators feel dizzy, let alone the dolphins themselves! Very shortly after the Spinner Dolphin had passed us by, we had 3 Bottlenose Dolphin suddenly appear on the bow and they spent a good ten minutes riding the subsurface pressure wave before peeling away.

Acrobatic Spinner Dolphin


Early in the afternoon we were joined by some bird species, including Masked Boobies which were using the updraft created by our forward movement to soar high above the bridge before swooping down to catch the flying fish the ship was putting up. By mid-afternoon, more and more birds were joining us; at least 20 Masked Boobies and 10 Brown Boobies were soaring around the ship, putting on some spectacular aerial displays which entertained the passengers on the back deck. Suddenly, the birds all peeled away and headed off ahead of the ship with purpose. A quick scan with binoculars revealed a huge feeding frenzy taking place well ahead of us with several hundred boobies and some dolphin activity; something the birds were able to spot long before us. As we drew closer, around 50 Pantropical Spotted Dolphin broke away from the frenzy and came to play in the bow-wave, staying with us for several minutes before breaking away to rejoin the frenzy.

Brown Booby

 

Masked Booby

Masked Booby with a Flying Fish


Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphin


The next day started off well with a distant sighting of two Humpback whales just after daybreak. However, we then had to wait until the middle of the afternoon before things got really interesting again!

A very busy afternoon started with the sighting of a large whale blow ahead of the ship. As we got closer, it became obvious that this was again a mother and young calf Humpback Whale pairing with the animals logging motionless at the surface. Captain Moulds was able to slow the ship right down so we could safely drift past the animals without disturbing them, providing the passengers with fabulous views of both animals.

Humpback Whale calf

The area proved to be highly productive for sightings with many Humpback Whale mother/calf pairings observed and several more distant groups, however, the best sighting of the trip was yet to come!

Just after 5pm, we suddenly spotted a huge eruption of water well ahead of the ship and slightly to starboard. An adult Humpback Whale breach! This was immediately followed by a much smaller breach. The calf was copying its mother. This species is known to be highly acrobatic at times. A quick phone call to the captain and we were able to turn the ship slowly towards the animals, hoping they would remain active as we approached. As we came closer, continuously monitoring the animals and talking to the many interested passengers about what we had just seen, we saw that both the mother and calf were repeatedly tail-smacking…. Suddenly, two more large tails came up high out of the water and we could see from their size that these were in fact two males close to the female! What we were witnessing was an attempted mating!

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales tailsmacking

The officer of the watch was able to slow the ship to almost a stop and the frenzied tail-smacking continued alongside us. Suddenly, the female rolled at the surface with the blow clearly audible and this was followed 5 seconds later by an extremely loud vocalization. She repeated this extraordinary vocalization although quieter on her next surface roll, obviously very agitated by the attention the two males were paying her. Male Humpback Whales compete with each other for the attention of females after they have given birth and it is not unknown for calves to be accidentally injured by the attentions of the males.

This truly was an extraordinary encounter and I know that all of the passengers, as well as Clive and I, feel extremely privileged to have been able to witness it firsthand! We are seeking extended field notes from all passengers who witnessed this amazing encounter and also heard the vocalizations.

The next two days see us in the wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro before we head out for another three days at sea as we travel down to Montevideo, Uruguay.

Best regards, Emma

Brazil…. Recife and whales…..

Posted 13 November 2009

Well, we've made it to Brazil…. Recife to be exact, where we have had a very enjoyable full day in port allowing the passengers plenty of time to explore the city known as the Venice of Brazil.

Recife

On disembarking the ship, we were greeted by a fantastic and colourful display by some local dancers who later came on the ship in the evening to perform a show for us, all which everyone enjoyed thoroughly.
Dancers greeting the ship

Both Clive and myself decided to spend the morning on a relaxing river cruise organised by Swan Hellenic as one of the excursions and after spending some time at an old maximum security prison which had been re-opened as a cultural centre, we embarked on a catamaran and had a very informative 1 ½ hour cruise along the river of Recife. We were again able to point out the wildlife to the many interested passengers who were treated to some very close views of Great White Egret and Snowy Egret which nest along the river banks.

Great White Egret

The following morning saw us back out to sea having departed Recife at 23.00 the previous evening and we were straight into sightings! We had some early morning sightings of small numbers of Bottlenose Dolphin racing into the bow of the ship to play in the bow-wave.

Bottlenose Dolphin on the bow


We had just finished watching the Bottlenose Dolphins and once again focussed ahead of the ship when we were greeted by the blow of a large whale. Clive dashed to the PA system to alert the passengers on the outer decks to the sighting whilst I continued to monitor the water hoping to see the next blow… As he was announcing it, the animal rolled at the surface and I could clearly identify it as a Humpback Whale! This was quickly following by another two sightings of Humpback Whale including one animal which rolled onto its back at the surface and waved its long pectoral fins to us as we passed.

Humpback Whale waving good morning!


Captain Moulds is a very keen wildlife enthusiast and had already agreed that if we encountered some good whale sightings he would slow the ship down to safeguard the animals and enhance the encounter for the passengers, crew and us! This he did expertly mid-morning when we came across a loose aggregation of Humpback whales - a nursery group with three small calves. We were able to get some fantastic sightings of these charismatic and often playful whales. All the passengers were absolutely delighted to see the calves and it was great to see so many smiling faces as they leaned over the railings to watch the animals. It really became the hot topic of conversation around the ship, with passengers eager to hear all about these whales and the threats they continue to face globally. I don't think anyone missed the sighting!

Humpback Whale fluking

 

Humpback Whale mother & Calf


Later in the afternoon, we had a brief and distant sighting of Spinner Dolphin, however they were easily identifiable from the repeated jumping high out of the water and spinning 360° longitudinally before re-entering the water, something for which this species of dolphin is famous. Hopefully as we travel down the coast of Brazil towards Rio de Janeiro we will get some closer sightings of this acrobatic dolphin species.

Best regards, Emma

Rocks in the middle of the Atlantic!

Posted 11 November 2009

The last two days have seen us continuing our journey across the Atlantic towards Brazil where we aim to make landfall at Recife on Tuesday 10th November.

Unlike last year when we crossed the Atlantic, we are recording few birds. However, we are making the journey two weeks earlier and it is possible that this is having an impact on sightings as the migration of many of these birds occurs over vast distances and is impacted by weather conditions, therefore doesn't run exactly to the same schedule every year. Last year, we observed many hundreds of Great Shearwater and Cory's Shearwater on their southward migration whereas this year, we are only recording sporadic sightings of Cory's Shearwater and are yet to record Great Shearwater at all. 7th November did see us recording our first Booby of the trip however, a white morph Red-Footed Booby close to the ship. The bird stayed with us for a few minutes and was plunge diving for flying fish put up by the bow.

Red-Footed Booby

Captain Moulds very kindly arranged for us to pass close by St Peter and St Paul Archipelago on 8th November as this is an area of upwelling and often a good area for cetacean and seabird sightings. The archipelago was formed by uplift of the seabed and is non-volcanic in origin - something that Charles Darwin discovered when he stopped there when on the Beagle voyage. The rocks are a megamullion, or ridge which runs perpendicular to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and where the deep oceanic abyssal plain rocks of the mantle reach the sea surface.

St Peter & St Paul Rocks

As we started to close on the Rocks, the number of birds did start to increase and we had a good number of Brown Boobies around the ship for a prolonged period. These fascinating birds were using the updraft of the ship to soar and then catch fish in and around the water disturbance caused by the ship.

As we passed close by the rocks, we observed a large and active group of Bottlenose Dolphin which came in to ride the sub-surface pressure waves at the bow. Numbering around 50 in total the group stayed with the ship for around 10 minutes, delighting the passengers before regrouping in the wake wave.

Bottlenose Dolphin on the bow

Following on with the theme of isolated islands, the next day saw us passing very close to theFernando de Noronha Archipelago. This is an amazing set of islands designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an important place for breeding seabirds. As we approached the islands, the amount of bird life skyrocketed, giving us the opportunity to highlight the birdlife to the passengers, with amazing sightings around the ship of White-Tailed Tropicbird, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Noddy, Black Noddy and White Tern as well as the various Booby species - Red-Footed Booby, Brown Booby and Masked Booby.

Fenarndo de Noronha

Passengers watching the wildlife

White Tern

We have had another casualty on board the ship. Clive received a call in his cabin to inform him a passenger had found a small bird on the deck and could we come and check it over. As soon as we picked the bird up, we realised it was something different to a Leach's Petrel (the species we have been rescuing on a regular basis). This little visitor was in fact a White-Faced Storm Petrel and I am pleased to say that after a quick check over for injuries, it was safely released off the stern of the ship. These small birds have great agility, angling their wings to catch the wind rising off the sea and literally bouncing off the waves on their long legs and webbed feet - simply wonderful to watch.

White-Faced Storm Petrel

Quite late in the day after we passed St Peter & Paul Archipelago, we were treated to a visit by King Neptune as we crossed the equator. The Crossing the Line Ceremony was thoroughly enjoyed with the passengers and I am pleased to say we all crossed into the Southern Hemisphere…. although some of us were a little messier than others!

Our Cruise Director feeling the wrath of Neptune!

The Captain asking Neptune for safe passage across the Equator

So far, the passengers have been absolutely delighted with the sightings we have shown them and have been very interested in the work we are doing and about the marine environment in general.. We have never really been off-duty yet and are always ready to answer the questions passengers have as well as giving the regular passenger de-brief presentations in the Darwin Lounge. We hope this continues through the trip.

Best regards, Emma

From Cape Verde and beyond

Posted 07 November 2009

Thursday morning saw us arriving on the small island of Sao Vicente in Cape Verde where we had the morning ashore exploring the island. Unusually, there has been a lot of rain this year in Cape Verde and the islands are looking very lush. Sightings of the endemic sparrow, the Iago or Cape Verde Sparrow, were had by most passengers and several of us were treated to the spectacular sight of an Osprey actively fishing over Catfish Bay during the excursion.

Catfish Bay, Sao Vicente

We departed Sao Vicente in the early afternoon and headed south to start our long voyage across the Atlantic towards Recife in Brazil. It is going to take us 4.5 days to make this journey and we will be taking in St Peter & St Paul archipelago and Fernando de Noronha archipelago en route; both very important breeding areas for seabirds. We had good sightings of Red-billed Tropicbirds on the way out of Sao Vicente, flying high along the cliffs. These brilliant white birds with their long tail streamers were highlighted well against the dark rocks and many passengers managed to see them.

We came into cetacean activity just over an hour after leaving port with around 30 Atlantic Spotted Dolphin active on the port side of the ship. They did not come into bowride, but were very actively leaping in the wake wave and it was fantastic to hear the passengers cheering in excitement every time one of the dolphins leapt out of the water…. You can always guarantee a good dolphin sighting will make people smile and laugh! No sooner had the passengers all settled back down in their sun loungers than they were up at the railings again for another group of Atlantic Spotted Dolphin which did come into the bow and offered excellent views down the port side of the ship.

Seabird sightings have been quite scarce over the last couple of days with a few scattered sightings of Cory's Shearwater gracefully shearing low over the sea or Leach's Petrel flitting ahead of the ship. We have also had our first near-casualty of the trip with a Leach's Petrel being found stranded on the Promenade deck. This little bird created a great deal of interest amongst the passengers when we took it down to the stern to check over and release back to sea and it was good to be able to show them first-hand one of these tiny ocean-going seabirds.

Whilst tracking over the deep waters of the abyssal plain on Friday in waters of over 5000 metres depth, we had our best sighting of the voyage so far. Clive was scanning ahead of the ship and suddenly called "large black dorsal fin 600m ahead of the bow." A quick scan with the binoculars revealed a very tall, triangular dorsal fin cutting through the water towards us: a bull Killer Whale!

Clive quickly alerted the Captain to the sighting who immediately slowed the ship right down to 4 knots and put her into hand steering so we could manoeuvre easily. With passengers lining the decks and the Minerva moving very slowly in a circle, we had a fantastic encounter with 3 Killer Whales no more than 100 metres away from us.

 There they are! Passengers enjoying the sighting

One of the animals - a female or sub-adult male - was very inquisitive and came right over to have a look up at us. It then erupted out of the water giving everyone a fantastic view of the eye patch and white chin for which this species is famous.

Bull Killer Whale

Interestingly, it was noted and photographed that the eye patch was small and the animals had no visible saddle patch showing. More-or-less every passenger had excellent sightings of this A1 predator of the world's oceans and the buzz around the ship after the sighting was fantastic… it was lovely to see the decks filled with people pointing and cheering as the sighting took place. Here's to some more good sightings like this one!

Best regards, Emma

Onwards to Cape Verde

Posted 06 November 2009

Days 3 and 4 of our voyage have seen us leaving the Canary Islands well behind us and continuing our southerly journey towards the Cape Verde islands, Sao Vicente in particular where we will dock in the port of Mindelo on Thursday morning.

Thankfully the wind has eased back over these last two days to a force 4 and this has aided us for cetacean sightings. We had to be patient for our first cetacean sighting this trip which finally came at 16.50 on Tuesday. A large splash caught my eye about 500 metres ahead of the ship and I managed to get the binoculars up just in time to see a small Beaked whale breaching high out of the water. Unfortunately we were unable to be any more specific on the species as the animal did not show again and the small beaked whale species known to inhabit this area are all very similar in appearance, some differing only in the position of their teeth which are only visible in the adult males!

Wednesday improved dramatically for cetacean sightings with a good early sighting of a group of 12 Short-Finned Pilot Whale which were seen moving actively at distance and showing relatively well. In particular, one bull in this group had a very broad-based, rounded dorsal fin and was surging actively through the water.

A second group of probable Short-Finned Pilot Whale was sighted at 11.30 ahead of the ship. Initially very active ahead of us, they unfortunately went quiet as we passed them, so many passengers struggled to see the animals….. we hope to get a easier sighting next time!

Finally, in mid-afternoon, we had our first confirmed dolphin sightings of the trip. A fairly active mixed group of around 30 Pantropical Spotted and Spinner Dolphin moved across the bow ahead of us and despite not coming in to bow-ride, they were very active close to the starboard bow.

This was followed by quite a flurry of activity with another 4 Pantropical Spotted Dolphin coming in close to the ship and a very inquisitive lone Rough-Toothed Dolphin coming right under the port bridge wing and looking up at us on its way past. The passengers were delighted with the excellent view of such an elusive dolphin! The Captain can see the excitement of the passengers and as we have spotted animals, he has very kindly diverted the ship so we can close the encounters and as a result the passengers are being treated to some very close sightings of cetaceans. Many thanks to Capt John Moulds for his co-operation!

Seabird-wise, we have started to sight many petrels over the last 2 days with records of Leach's Petrel, Bulwer's Petrel and a very close encounter with a Wilson's Petrel feeding at the surface. We have also been recording several Cory's Shearwater.

Other wildlife has been keeping us busy with two separate passenger sightings of probable Manta Ray and two very close Loggerhead Turtles at the surface. We are also now starting to encounter very high numbers of flying fish and they have been keeping the passengers on board entertained with everyone determined to see some!

Most unusual sighting of the trip so far has to go to the many Painted Lady butterflies we are recording over the ship! They are all appearing to be heading SW and are making use of the trade winds for their migration. It will be interesting to see whether we record any of these butterflies on Cape Verde.

Best regards, Emma and Clive

Bon Voyage from Funchal

Posted 05 November 2009

Well, what a difference three hours makes! We left Gatwick on an extremely wet and windy Sunday morning and three hours later had our first glimpse of the beautiful island of Madeira where we would be joining our home for the next three weeks, MV Minerva.

A very smooth journey escorted through arrivals by Swan Hellenic saw us being met by coaches to ferry us to the Port of Funchal where we embarked onto the ship. As always a very smooth and stress-free process so many thanks to the Swan Hellenic team!

The first leg of our journey takes us down the eastern side of the Atlantic to Sao Vicente, one of the western-most islands in the Cape Verde chain. Taking three sea days to arrive, this will give us plenty of time to hopefully sight some of the wildlife which make this area of the Atlantic their home.

We departed a very sunny Madeira at 18.00 as the sun was sinking accompanied by around 100 Cory's Shearwater outside the harbour entrance. All the passengers on deck watching departure were treated to a fantastic sunset, complete with Green Flash!

Cory's Shearwater

The first full day at sea marked the start of our education program to the passengers with an introductory presentation to the work of the charity and the wildlife we aim to encounter during the course of their cruise - with such productive seas around the islands; we really want to ensure the passengers were fully prepared. The presentation was very well received and the passengers couldn't wait to start looking for wildlife - many had not realized that the waters we would be cruising through are home to so many species of whales, dolphins and seabirds, but were delighted that experts were on hand to help them spot and identify the animals. One passenger had not quite heard us correctly saying she was sad that "the arching of the back of a whale is a sure sign that is was going to die" - We reassured her that this was a sign that the whale was going to dive, not die…..

Our first day at sea saw us sailing past the westernmost Canary Islands, a fantastic hotspot for cetaceans. However, unfortunately we woke to a force 7 sea which stayed with us all day apart from when we were in the lee of the land. Most of the day was spent close to La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro, but weather conditions really hampered our observations. Seabirds were keeping us very busy however, and we came across several large congregations of feeding Cory's Shearwater close to La Palma and El Hierro. We did have one report of a dolphin species by a passenger, but this was not seen more than once.

La Palma, Canary Islands

Hopefully, tomorrow will see the wind ease back and the sea state calm which will make it much easier for us to survey. We have another two days at sea heading towards Cape Verde and hopefully a busy time ahead for sightings!

Best regards, Emma and Clive

The End of a Special Trip

Posted 08 December 2008

Well we have reached the final day of the research survey aboard the Minerva, our home for many weeks and I will be very sad to leave. It has been a remarkable trip aboard a superb platform for wildlife observation and we have recorded many species of marine mammal, including whales, dolphins, porpoises and pinnipeds together with a variety of seabirds.

The final day has seen us traveling over very shallow waters which have not generated any cetacean sightings; however the bird life has certainly kept us busy!
The passengers have taken a keen interest in the many species of birds we have encountered over the course of the trip and today was no exception with further new species being observed for the first time today. These included Fairy Prion, Thin-Billed Prion, Cape Petrel and a Pale-Faced Sheathbill which spent much of the day on the ship - certainly peaking the passengers interest! It then left later in the day, probably in search of penguin droppings for dinner…

I hope you have enjoyed the blog and sharing in some of the sightings we have encountered during the trip, perhaps inspiring you to go on a similar cruise yourself. We have been able to survey a huge area of ocean through our work with Swan Hellenic and we extend our thanks to them and the crew on board the Minerva for their help and hospitality whilst on board.

Best regards, Clive

Birds Everywhere!!!

Posted 07 December 2008

Today, having passed the Peninsula Valdes, we encountered a choppy sea state and a force 5 wind speed at first light - not the best for spotting cetaceans, but it proved to be ideal for the birds!

As we headed south, I began to pick out distant birds on the horizon, as we got closer, the numbers of birds seemed to multiply before my eyes - 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000 - a truly amazing spectacle.

The birds were of several species, the majority being Black-Browed Albatross (in excess of 600), but also hundreds of Little and Great Shearwaters, as well as Great-Winged and White-Chinned Petrels. The area was obviously a rich feeding ground, with a number of South American Sea Lions and Magellanic Penguins also in association.

We didn't encounter such numbers of birds over the course of the rest of the day.

Best regards, Clive

Playful Penguins

Posted 06 December 2008

Every wildlife researcher's dream weather conditions greeted us today - the sea state never exceeded a 1! Even the slightest movement in the water could be picked out at considerable distance.

A South American Sea Lions was once again to be seen around the ship, taking quick glimpses at us as we cruised past - this one captivated our attention more than most as it surfaced holding a fish in its mouth, much to our delight.

The sea state also provided great viewing conditions for the more aquatic birds - in particular Magellanic Penguins, which provided some close views. The passengers love it when we point out penguins to them - whether they be sitting on the surface or disappearing a vast speed below the surface in search of food.

We also had some good sightings of Southern Giant-Petrels and the daily sightings of magnificent Black-Browed Albatross.

Best regards, Clive

Heading for Peninsula Valdez

Posted 05 December 2008

After a brief visit to the fantastic city of Buenos Aires, today we set sail with much better weather conditions - a gentle breeze following the ship. We cruised back up the silty waters of the Rio de la Plata and out into the shallow coastal waters on our route south.

As the morning progressed, again I watched closely for Franciscana, thus far no success with this species, but I did catch a glimpse of a very distinctive dorsal fin - instantly recognisable as that of a Spectacled Porpoise. Like many porpoises, the sighting was brief, with just surfacing twice before the animal went for a dive.

Again, we encountered more playful South American Sea Lions, Black-Browed Albatross and Great-Winged Petrels with a scattering of Kelp Gulls.

As we go further south, we will be passing very close to Peninsular Valdez, but during the hours of darkness…

Best regards, Emma

Into the Rio de la Plata

Posted 04 December 2008

The weather was ghastly on the 3rd! We were traveling south in very shallow water towards Argentina. The wind was a force 6 (hitting us on the beam) which in combination with the shallow waters ensured the sea remained a muddy brown colour.

We had our first sightings of South American Sea Lions today. These marine mammals are very entertaining to watch - surfacing to look at passers-by, before ducking below the surface as the ship approached.

We also continued to see Black-Browed Albatross, as well as various species of petrel, including White-Chinned and Great-Winged species and Antarctic terns.

The 4th December brought us into the Rio de la Plata (in Spanish, Silver River - in English, the River Plate) - a huge estuary between Uruguay and Argentina. Although wide, the shipping channel was very narrow, meaning we got very close views of the other shipping traffic. Estuaries worldwide are often very diverse in their wildlife and in particular I kept my eyes peeled for elusive Franciscana's which are known to periodically enter this estuary - but as yet, no sightings of these elusive dolphins which inhabit the coastal waters from Brazil down to Argentina.

We will be arrived into Buenos Aires and as the ship docked, I and a number of passengers noticed a stricken pigeon that had somehow become exhausted and ended up in the water beside the ship. With calls to a guard patrol boat from all those concerned for the birds welfare on the ship, we were able to bring about a rescue - with cheers and applause, the rescuer on the patrol boat took a bow…

Best regards, Emma

Onwards and downwards

Posted 03 December 2008

Leaving Salvador, heading for Rio and into December, the ship continued its cruise south along the coast of South America. We have increasing hours of daylight as we head well into the southern hemisphere's summer, providing even more time to search the sea's and sky's for wildlife.

We had a couple of quiet days from a sightings perspective , which has provided extra time to talk with the throng of enthusiastic passengers and provide further guidance on what species to look out for in these new waters.

On the bird front, this of course means the numerous albatross species within the region…..

We didn't have to wait long for the first glimpse of an albatross, but that was exactly what it remained, a frustratingly distant glimpse - with any new species to record and show the passengers, you always hope it will be a close encounter.

But wildlife watching follows its own rules.

It would be another day before we got better views of these magnificent birds.

We headed up early the next morning to start the day's survey but as the day wore on, we became increasing aware of our proximity to the Southern Ocean - it's not without reason that it has a fearsome reputation for being the most ferocious sea on the planet.

The day started calmly with a gentle force 3, but the winds coming directly from the south, soon built to a force 8! Some brave passengers enjoyed the crashing of the waves and the splash-back up the bow.

But with high winds comes great air currents for the masters of the skies.

"Albatross"

I call to those on deck. It was the first of many Black-browed Albatross for the day, soaring effortlessly as they approached and passed the ship - their huge wingspan carrying them without so much as a flap! We encountered a number of other birds today - some of the Cory's and Great Shearwaters which we have encountered throughout the trip, together with a marauding Antarctic Skua, a Spectacled and a White-Chinned Petrel.

We did have a brief encounter with Spinner Dolphins, but with the high seas, the weather was not ideal for cetacean sightings.

The winds continued during the night and we start today with worse weather than yesterday ….. let us hope the albatross like it more than we do!!!

Apologies for no photos - technology is against us at the moment…

Best regards, Emma

Towards Salvador

Posted 28 November 2008

Tuesday saw our final full day at sea before arriving in Salvador Wednesday lunchtime. Travelling over the continetal slope for the majority of the day we had high hopes for sightings of both dolphins and some of the larger whale species.

The day started off fairly slowly with just a few Cory's and Great Shearwaters to entertain us as well as a Magnificent Frigatebird which spent a great deal of time perched on the mast of the ship waiting for passing Shearwaters to pounce on. At one point, it very purposefully flew off towards a Great Shearwater which it harried and harrassed until the poor Shearwater regurgitated its breakfast..... warm fish, yum! The Frigatebird was so determined it even picked the Shearwater up in its beak at one point! After, this tasty (if you are a Frigatebird) meal, it came back onto the mast and perched preening for several hours before finally leaving us for good.

Magnificent Frigatebird on the mast


Cetacean-wise, we were fairly quiet again with just 2 sightings all day. The first happened very quickly. I happened to glance down over the bridge wing whilst sitting down and suddenly noticed a big turquoise coloured blob in the water right below us - a subsurface small whale! A quick shout to Clive and we were both tracking the animal subsurface which was very easy to pick out in the clear water. However, it frustratingly didn't surface until well aft of the ship, despite us both yelling "surface" to it very loudly to no avail. The views and photographs indicate that this was a probable Antarctic Minke Whale - a small whale with a very pointed rostrum, small, hooked dorsal fin and no white marking on the pectoral fins.

Probable Antarctic Minke Whale


We had to wait several hours for our next sighting, which again was frustrating, but another new species to add to the growing list. We picked up the blow of a large whale dead ahead of the ship, about halfway to the horizon moving from right to left. Well positioned with camera in hand, we waited patiently for the animal to resurface off the port side. Not disappointed, the animal surfaced several times, size, colour and dorsal fin shape indicated either a Bryde's or Sei whale. The photograph shows a somewhat erect, but very hooked dorsal fin. Due to the distance from the ship, we were unble to confirm this as a Bryde's whale whose diagnostic features are 3 longitudinal ridges on the head.

Probable Bryde's/Sei Whale

Wednesday morning saw us making our final approach into Salvador and we were surprised with a variety of sightings. An early report of a Hammerhead Shark from a passenger and then a good sighting of a large Turtle species started the morning well.

Suddenly, Clive and the Captain both picked up the remnants of a blow ahead of the ship. We kept scanning, with camera on stand-by and relocated the animal still ahead of the ship, but now much closer. The roll of the body showed a small dorsl fin on a hump - Humpback Whale! A big flukeprint indicated this animal had probably made a deep dive, but we were hopeful it would resurface again soon. Suddenly, another blow - this time obviously V-shaped, with a smaller one beside it. The roll of these animals showed a huge girth to the animal and no dorsal fin - Southern Right Whale! A little confused now, we scanned around further, but could only relocate the mother and juvenile Right Whale again, there was no sign of the Humpback Whale which appeared to be in association with these other 2 whales.

Humpback Whale

 

Southern Right Whale Mother & Juvenile Pair


A report from the Captain after our arrival in Salvador of 4 Bottlenose Dolphins coming into the bow was logged and we were accompanied by several Brown Boobies who were again using the ship as a fishing aid!

After Salvador, we have a 2 day sail to Rio so will hopefully add to our sightings during this period.

Best regards, Emma

Land Ahoy......

Posted 26 November 2008

Well, a group of volcanic islands actually! Monday we passed very close to Fernando de Noronha which is an extremely important breeding ground for many seabirds in the Atlantic. It also has a resident pod of Spinner Dolphins which reside in one of the many coves on the Archipelago.

Magnificent Frigatebird


At first light we awoke to accompanying Magnificent Frigatebirds who were hovering over the ship waiting to harrass (very successfully) any of the Boobies for their breakfast. A close scan of the Boobies revealed we actually had 3 different species amongst them - Masked Booby, Brown Booby and both the pale and dark morph Red-Footed Boobies.

Pale Morph Red-Footed Booby


By mid-morning, Fernando de Noronha was starting to peak over the horizon and the numbers and variety of seabirds was increasing. As we passed close by the islands, it was easy to see where the birds were nesting - the trees and bushes were turned white by the nesting Tropicbirds and Boobies as were a great many of the rocks (as well as us from the Boobies above the bridge wings)!

As we sailed close by the main island, we were able to record thousands of Black and Brown Noddy, as well as White Tern and Sooty Tern. Right at the end of the encounters, we also had an amazing encounter with 3 Tropicbirds which flew directly overhead.

Brown Noddy
Tropicbird


Unfortunately, we did not encounter any cetaceans directly, although with the increase in the number of eyes scannings the waters as a consequence of our on-board passenger education programme, we believe one of the passengers observed 2 probable Pilot Whale off the port side of the ship whilst we were monitoring the seabirds off the starboard side. A large shark was also sighted cruising slowly just beneath the surface.

As we moved away from the Archipelago, the variety of bird species dropped away. However, the Boobies stayed with us until after dark and were seen using the ship as a fishing aid. They would hover over the bridge wings waiting for Flying Fish to be put up by the passage of the ship and then plunge down to get them. One dark phase Red-Footed Booby was particularly adept at this and caught the majority of the fish he went for.

Red-Footed Booby Chasing Flying Fish


I must finally tell about the night sky out here.. it is amazing! In the evening, whilst the rest of the passengers were enjoying a concert, we sat on the back deck with the Captain and he arranged for the deck lights to be switched off. The sky was full of stars and it became difficult to pick out the constellations, amongst the stars we don't usually see due to light pollution. We were also treated to awesome shooting stars as we go through the tail end of the Leonids meteor shower.

Best regards, Emma

Across the Equator!

Posted 24 November 2008

No cetacean sightings over the last 2 days, but amazing migrations of sea birds being picked up! Saturday morning we woke up to yet more Intermediate Egrets aroud the ship. This time 2 birds decided to stick with us for most of the morning and were seen pitching down onto the ship from time to time. It still amazes me the journey these land birds are making - 2000 miles TransAtlantic!

Many Cory's and Great Shearwaters are being seen primarily tracking right (west) to left (east). We have also recorded many Leach's Petrel and Bulwer's Petrel. From 15.00 onwards on Saturday we appeared to come across a major migratory route for the larger Shearwaters, with many hundreds of Cory's and Great Shearwaters continuously tracking through southwards - these shearwaters are probably the same birds we encounter earlier in year migrating through Biscay.

We have been kept quite busy over the last couple of days, recouperating and releasing Leach's Petrel and 2 Great Shearwaters which have come down onto the back decks overnight. I am pleased to say they all seem to have been released successfully and really just need a helping hand getting off the ship.

Leach's Petrel being released

The passengers are really interested in the birds we are encountering, many of which they will never have seen before - they therefore fit their descriptions of the birds to what they look similar to from what they know, be that Swan's, Geese or Ducks. We are providing on-going advice and education to help them recognise the differences between the key species we are encountering and with birds landing on deck, they are often treated to very close views!

Sunday saw us finally 'crossing the line' into the Southern Hemisphere and I am very pleased to say that I avoided any pool dunking during the 'Crossing the Line' party which was put on by the crew in the afternoon.

Crossing the Line Party - even the Captain got wet


Sunday morning saw us again crossing through many Great and Cory's Shearwaters and by the afternoon we were starting to pick up large groups of Sooty Tern's also. The best sight of the day for many people was the view of 2 Masked Booby's drifting slowly around the ship for several hours. One adult and one juvenile clearly showed us the plummage differences shown in the various stages of life.

Masked Booby

We crossed the equator at 17.56 in the evening accompanied by Masked Booby. As the Captain counted down over the tannoy and the ship's whistle sounded to mark the crossing we were treated to a spectacular sunset. A small Green Flash was also seen at the exact same time we crossed the line - we couldn't have timed it better if we'd tried!!!

On the Equator!


Tomorrow see's us taking in the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago on our way south and this could potentially be a good area for dolphins and breeding sea birds.

Hope the snow isn't too bad in the UK (we've got high humidity and at least 30 degrees heat!). It's going to be a bit of a shock coming home!

Oh, and by the way... the water really does run down the plughole the wrong way here!!!!

Best regards, Emma

Crossing the Atlantic (and Happy Birthday!)

Posted 22 November 2008

Before we tell you about the extremely interesting day we had yesterday, we must wish Pam (Clive's wife) a very happy birthday for yesterday also! Unfortunately, a temperamental internet connection yesterday precluded us from being able to update the blog until now.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY PAM!

The first full day at sea crossing the Atlantic has prove most interesting. sightings started shortly after sunrise, with a very close sighting of 2 adult Sperm Whale with a tiny calf. Photographs show that one of the females has an extremely unusual dorsal fin shape which is showing in the photograph below.


A small group of Short-Finned Pilot Whale was also recorded in waters 5350 metres deep. Again this small group had a small juvenile with them.


The best and most confusing sighting of the day however, came towards late afternoon in fantastic viewing conditions. We were crossing over a small sea mount which was around 550 metres in height when I suddenly spotted a big flick up of water well out to the horizon ahead of the ship. This had to have been caused by something as there was no white water about at all. We kept scanning and just a couple of minutes later, 3 small whale species surfaced travelling very fast down the port side of the ship. The light conditions made identification challenging, but they were the size of a large beaked whale or Minke whale. Clive suddenly called a cetacean close by the ship - a False Killer Whale moving fast in the same direction. The lone animal surfaced just the once, but offered good views of the conical-shaped head. As this was happening, I got onto yet another cetacean further out which was very brown in coloration, but gave nothing else away. We couldn't understand why there only seemed to be one False Killer Whale hunting, but a passenger later reported another 2 cetaceans off the starboard side at the time of our sighting which, from the description, were also probable False Killer Whale. It seems we split the group as we sailed by.

Bird sightings have been plentiful and we have recorded many Great and Cory's Shearwater as well as Leach's Petrel. However, the very best and most amazing sighting of the day was reserved until sunset. A flock of 12 Intermediate Egrets overtook the ship close by, following on from the 5 we recorded at lunchtime.


Today sees us still north of the Equator over the deep waters of the Abyssal Plain. Connection permitting, I will update you on sightings today later this evening.

Best regards, Emma

STOP PRESS... STOP PRESS... STOP PRESS...

Posted 21 November 2008

5 Intermediate Egrets have just been recorded 600 nm west of Africa and 260 nm southwest of Cape Verde. The birds tracked along with the ship (on a course of 190 dgrees) for approximately 1/2 an hour before we lost sight of them.

Photographs to follow!

Best regards, Emma

Cape Verde bound and the sun is shining!

Posted 19 November 2008

Well, after a very pleasant day in Gran Canaria where we managed to see African Blue Tit, Canary Islands Chiff Chaff and plenty of Monarch butterflies, we were on the move again - this time bound for Sao Vicente on the Cape Verde Islands. This is a journey which will see us at sea for 2 days.

Day 1 saw us tracking along the lower edges of the continental slope off the west coast of Africa. Hopes were high for some of the larger whale species, but again we were disappointed with no sightings of the large Rorqual whales or Sperm Whale. However, early sightings of dolphin started the day of well and a early lone probable Atlantic Spotted Dolphin was recorded close by the ship.

Probable Atlantic Spotted Dolphin


A very frustrating small blow was seen then ahead of the ship, but it disappeared no sooner than it was sighted! We then went for many hours without a sightings at all - even the sea birds were quiet today. However, as we know so well from the Bay of Biscay, patience really can be rewarded and in mid-afternoon we certainly were. A large group of 100+ dolphins was sighted in the 11 o'clock position ahead of the ship (12 0'clock is dead ahead of the vessel and we use the 12 hour clock face for directions of sightings) and it soon became obvious from their very characteristic longitudinal spins that we were looking at a large school of Spinner Dolphins. They were very actively chasing fish and paid us no attention at all. 2 very different animals were sighted racing in to the bow - initial glimpses favoured Pan-Tropical Spotted Dolphins as these are known to associate with Spinner Dolphins, but with better views and photographic analysis, we confirmed Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. Who said whale and dolphin researh or watching had to be easy?

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Throughout the day, a probable Loggerhead Turtle was reported to us from a passenger and we also had several sightings of Flying Fish. Bird life was minimal although we do have a stowaway on board. A Collared Dove has been with us for a day now (and was still on board this morning). The bird is either a Eurasian Collared Dove (which is the same as we get in the UK) or an African Collared Dove. Plummage-wise they are moreorless identical and the books we have indicate that neither species should be heading towards the Cape Verde islands! We will keep you updated on this one!

Collared Dove


The strangest sighting of the day has to be this bizarre beast - which we are fairly sure is a locust! It was found on the window of the bar and had obviously not been sampling the stock as it was climbing up the window with no effort at all!

Locust
 
 

Into the North Atlantic

Posted 16 November 2008

Well, it goes to show what can happen when you get it horribly wrong and decide not to get up at 2.30 in the morning to watch us travelling through the Straits of Gibraltar - at a more sensible hour of the morning, a very dedicated passenger reported to us that she and the Captain watched dolphins bow riding and leaping around the ship as we came through this hot spot for cetaceans in the early hours of the morning!

Saturday morning saw us back in the North Atlantic travelling off the coast of Morocco bound for Gran Canaria. The number of Gannets picked up throughout the day and travelling through some deep water areas we were expecting to pick up some of the bigger whale species as well as some of the lesser known Beaked Whales. Our first sighting was of 2 small Mesoplodon type beaked whales with the rostrum clearly visible first as the animals rolled at the surface - however, frustratingly they were rolling away from us so a profile of the head was never completely seen making it virtually impossible to positively identify these animals. A later sighting of another larger Beaked Whale was seen as the animal breached away from us at least 5 times at a distance of about 2 km. The animal was probably a Cuvier's Beaked Whale from it's size - Northern Bottlenose Whale was ruled out as the animal did not have a bulbous melon. Beaked Whales are notoriously difficult to identify and both these sightings highlighted this fact perfectly.

A late sighting of 2 Sperm Whale delighted many of the passengers. The animals were clearly seen blowing ahead of the ship with the characteristic 45 degree blow clearly visible. However, frustratingly they disappeared under the surface before we reached their position.

Sunday brought us 2 new species on this trip. Our first sighting of the day was a very active group of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins which were very energetic in the bow wave.

 

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin bow-riding

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins were seen again 3 times throughout the day and the biggest group was seen mid-afternoon where at least 50 animals raced in towards the bow. These energetic little dolphins are great fun to watch and really entertained the passengers today.

We sighted one small group of 8 Short-Beaked Common Dolphin who were not overly interested in the ship. They appeared to be travelling and at least 2 of the animals broke away from the group to come into the bow. However, unlike the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins seen today, they did not linger at the bow and quickly fell back behind the ship.

At the same time we were watching the large group of 50 Atlantic Spotted Dolphins racing in to bow-ride, a small group of 5 probable Short-Finned Pilot Whale were seen in the distance. There was at least one Bull in the group who was surging through the water and at least one juvenile also. These animals appeared to be in association with the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins who were at the bow of the vessel at the same time.

We have been picking up many migrant birds still and over the past 2 days we have recorded Song Thrush, Pipit species, Pied and Alba Wagtail, Chiff Chaff and Blackcap on the ship. Seabirds have remained somewhat quiet although today we did record Madeiran Storm Petrel.

Female Blackcap

Alboran Sea and Sunshine!

Posted 15 November 2008

Friday 14th November saw us travelling through the Alboran Sea, a known hotspot for many species of cetacean. Thankfully, the weather cleared overnight and we woke to glorious sunshine although the sea state was still not ideal - this did improve gradually throughout the day.

Still, today we have seen several groups of active dolphins. Early morning saw a duo of Striped Dolphin racing into the bow to play in the bow-wave. Out on the Bridge wings we are able to see the bulbous bow and actually observe the bow-riding taking place - something we certainly can't see on the Pride of Bilbao. It was also interesting to note that at a slower cruising speed, the dolphins are able to catch us up and come into the bow from the side of the ship as well as the front.

A lull in sightings followed, but we were treated to some fantastic bow-riding in the afternoon. Lunchtime was disrupted by an active group of Striped Dolphin and then in the mid-afternoon we had a mixed group of both Striped and Short-Beaked Common Dolphin at the bow. Passengers were able to get fantastic views of these animals as they peeled away from the bow. It was very pleasing to record Common Dolphin as they are classified as Endangered in the Mediterranean. The final group of Striped Dolphin which came in to bow-ride stayed with us for nearly 10 minutes before moving on and offered fantastic photographic opportunities.

Striped Dolphin bow-riding Minerva

Common Dolphin bow-riding

We also recorded many more sea birds today and both Mediterranean Gulls and Cory's Shearwaters were relatively frequent sights. We also recorded 1 Razorbill and just one Gannet which was seen towards the end of the day.

Arrival in Malaga was after dark and we had a pleasant evening strolling around the city and sampling tapas in some of the local bars before departing in the late evening. It is unfortunate that we will be travelling through the Gibraltar Straits in darkness (3am!) as this means we will be unable to survey this important area. However, tomorrow will see us travelling some interesting waters off the coast of Morocco so we will see what this brings!

Best regards, Emma

Postcard from the (not so) sunny Mediterranean

Posted 13 November 2008

Once again, we are on the move and currently travelling the western Mediterranean area towards Malaga and the Straits of Gibraltar. Yesterday saw us giving our introductory presentation to all passengers on the ship and this was very well received and generated a great deal of enthusiasm with everyone.

However, viewing any cetaceans has been difficult, partly due to our location at present, but also a small depression over Corsica has increased the wind speed up to near gale 7 on the beaufort scale and sea conditions have obviously worsened which does make it much harder to spot smaller animals. For the past two nights we have seen terrific thunderstorms with the night sky being lit up by amazing lightning displays. However, the forecast indicates that skies should clear now though and conditions improve so as we move nearer to the Straits of Gibraltar the likelihood of sightings increases.

We have recorded dolphins though. This afternoon a small group of just 4 probable Short-beaked Common Dolphin raced in towards the bow to play in the bow-wave. This was a brief sighting as the animals moved fast and didn't show overly well. However, their size and behaviour indicated that these were probable Common Dolphin, although we were unable to be any more accurate with the identification.

Bird sightings have been sporadic and the highlight so far has been a small Chiff Chaff stowing away on board yesteray afternoon. Africa-bound, the bird was making good use of the sun lounges and tables by the pool bar!

Chiffchaff on the Promenade Deck

Other passerines have been seen today including a Wagtail and a report of at least one more Chiff Chaff and a Robin from passengers have been received. Seabirds have been very few and far between and the only sighting of note was a lone Cory's Shearwater this afternoon drifting very lazily across the bow of the ship.

Tomorrow sees us arriving in Malaga in the early evening. We will be sailing through the most westerly parts of the Mediterranean during daylight and this is a very important area for many species of whales and dolphins including Long-Finned Pilot Whale, Orca, Short-Beaked Common Dolphin, Sperm Whale and Striped Dolphin. This area is proposed as a Marine Protected Area as part of the Global Whale & Dolphin Network and is known to be a hotspot for cetaceans so fingers crossed for some good sightings!

Best regards, Emma

Caio from Naples!

Posted 11 November 2008

Well, what a difference two hours makes! We left Gatwick on a very cold, extremely wet and windy Monday morning and two hours later were on our final approach to Naples which was enjoying basking in glorious sunshine. Landing at Naples airport offered amazing views of Vesuvius, the active volcano which overshadows Naples and the surrounding area.

Vesuvius from the plane as landing at Naples

A very smooth journey escorted through arrivals by Swan Hellenic saw us being met by coaches to ferry us to the Port of Naples where we got our first glimpse of our home for the coming weeks, Minerva where we were immediately made to feel very welcome by extremely efficient and friendly staff.

MV Minerva on her berth (dwarfed by Grand Princess!)

Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties with a new generator on the ship, our departure has been delayed by 24 hours (although I am now pleased to say we are underway and very excited about what sightings lay ahead) whilst we awaited certification from the Italian authorities. The delay was expertly handled by Swan Hellenic and it did mean we had the added bonus of time in Naples to look round this beautiful city as well as time to enjoy this stunning ship bathed in sunshine.

Fort overlooking Naples Harbour

However, now we are on our way so please do keep checking back for updates. Hopefully, tomorrow will bring us calm seas, blue skies and plenty of whales and dolphins!


Best regards, Emma & Clive

Exciting Research Trip Starts on 10th November 2008

Posted 08 November 2008

Marinelife is very pleased to announce an exciting collaboration with Swan Hellenic which will see us on board the Minerva on her scheduled trip from Naples, Italy to Ushuaia, Argentina which leaves on Monday 10th November.


Clive Martin and Emma Webb will be recording marine wildlife seen whilst carrying out an extensive passenger education programme.

We hope to be able to keep you updated with our progress and sightings on a daily basis from the ship. Please do keep visiting our blog to read the latest updates and to see the latest photographs.