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MARINElife Survey Report: Swansea-Cork 'MV Julia' 9-11 September 2011

Posted 16 September 2011

Maggie Gamble and Becky Scott, MARINElife Research Surveyors
Weather: SW; 4-7; Good Conditions

Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 17
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 4

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 2
Gannet Morus bassanus  3
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 3
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 3
Blackheaded-gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 25
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 2
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 6
Guillemot Uria aalge 1
Unidentified Large Gull sp 4

This last survey was on two evening departures which rather limited the time available for surveying with the shorter days. This was quite frustrating as we could imagine all those wonderful sightings we were missing due to lack of daylight!

After a comfortable night we were welcomed to the bridge at an optimistic 6am to find it was only just getting "light".  This at least gave us time for a leisurely mug of coffee after which we could finally see well enough to commence surveying. Very soon at 06.40 we had our first group of about fourteen Common Dolphins coming into the Julia to bow ride followed by a smaller group shortly afterwards. Now there's an animal that knows how to have fun!

Common Dolphin 1Common Dolphin 4

Approaching the Irish coast we had a sighting of four Bottlenose Dolphins - another species that loves to boogie! - but on this occasion they didn't approach the ship. This is a larger and more robust species than the Common Dolphin and the ones found around the British Isles are some of the largest.

Spending the day in Cork we had plenty of time to explore this vibrant city and sample some of the produce on offer in the English Market before returning to port for an overnight return crossing. At least on this survey we had plenty of time to catch up on some sleep. We were allowed back onto the bridge to continue surveying at Dawn to find ourselves by the Gower Coast approaching Swansea Bay. This can be a good area for Harbour Porpoise but we failed to spot them this time.

Thank you, to the Captain, crew and Fastnet Line Staff for making us welcome and I certainly hope to be back next summer for another MARINElife survey in this marvellous area. 

Maggie Gamble and Becky Scott, Research Surveyors for MARINElife

MARINElife Survey Report: Swansea-Cork 'MV Julia' 21 - 22 August 2011

Posted 29 August 2011

Maggie Gamble and Becky Scott, MARINElife Research Surveyors
Weather: NNW 1-3; Good Conditions

Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 5
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 270+
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 7
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 22
Unidentified Dolphin species 31

Common Seal Phoca vitulina  1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 75
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 2
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus  1514
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 1
Baleric Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 5
Gannet Morus bassanus  636
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 4
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 19
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 7
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 10
Blackheaded-gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 10
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 1
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 59
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 40
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 20
Guillemot Uria aalge 1838
Auk sp 918

Small waders 30
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 2
Oyster Catchers Haematopus ostralegus 6

Our Daylight crossing westbound and overnight return were very smooth, excellent conditions for spotting and identifying Marine Wildlife.  In fact during the late afternoon of the first day conditions were a little too good, as the lowering sun laid a golden track in front of us into which all manner of sea birds could disappear as we tried to identify the more unusual ones

Leaving Swansea Harbour in the early morning we had little time to admire the beautiful Gower Coastline because we were soon spotting increasing numbers of Manx Shearwaters, Guillemots and Gannets, plus many small groups of Common Dolphins often approaching "The Julia" for a quick bow ride. Many of these birds will have nested on the Pembrokeshire Islands and in the distance we could see Grassholm with its white frosting of nesting Gannets. Among the Guillemots were parent and chick pairs beginning the long swim to their wintering grounds.

When you're looking for Whales and Dolphins it's always worth looking out for circling seabirds because you will often spot cetaceans underneath them and that is how we spotted the only Minke Whale of the Survey. A small whale this, also known as "Slinky Minke" because of its often unobtrusive behaviour or "Stinky Minke" because of its bad breath, should you get close enough!

Approaching the Irish coast we saw straight ahead the unmistakable tall vapour blows of large whales and there were five of them! On closer approach we were treated to as good a wildlife spectacle as you can see anywhere. The water was boiling with lunge feeding Fin Whales, Common Dolphins and Manx Shearwater all in a communal feeding frenzy. Looking around it was great to see many of the passengers out on deck to enjoy the sight of the second largest animal on the planet feeding in our coastal waters.

After a quick turnaround in Cork (just time to spot a few Bottlenose Dolphin in the Harbour) and an overnight return crossing we were allowed back onto the bridge to continue surveying at Dawn. We soon found ourselves back in the area favoured by the Manx Shearwaters, Guillemots and Common Dolphins the day before. Only now conditions were even better, the sea almost mirror calm showing the "Manxies" off to perfection as they manipulated the slight air currents just above the sea surface which allows them their graceful "Shearwater" flight.

Approaching Swansea Bay conditions were good enough to allow us to spot a few of the shy diminutive Harbour Porpoise as they surfaced for a quick breath. From one of the largest to one of the smallest cetaceans, brilliant!

Once again our thanks go to the Captain, crew and Fastnet Staff who made us so welcome. It's survey days like this that we hope for whenever we sail.

Maggie Gamble and Becky Scott, Research Surveyors for MARINElife

MARINElife Survey Report: Swansea-Cork 'MV Julia' 7 - 8 August 2011

Posted 10 August 2011

Pete Howlett and Robbie Hawkins, MARINElife Research Surveyors
Weather: SW / WNW; 3 - 6; Fair Conditions

Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1

Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 4

Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 177

Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 9

Unidentified Dolphin sp 10

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2


Unidentified Shark sp 1


Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 140

Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 2

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 13,031

Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 2

Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 23

Gannet Morus bassanus 1,002

Great Skua Stercorarius skua 18

Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 1

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 20

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 16

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 105

Commic Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 50

Guillemot Uria aalge 1,174

Razorbill Alca torda 8

Auk sp 62


Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 1


MARINElife Surveyors 'blog': Fastnet Line 'MV' Julia Swansea to Cork 7th - 8th August 2011

Day 1

We arrived at the port in Swansea full of anticipation for what we might see on this, the third, of the summer surveys on the Julia.  

The excitement began as soon as we left Swansea with a superb bird sighting of a fully spooned adult Pomarine Skua flying across the bow barely a couple of hundred metres outside the port. As the survey continued quiet periods were rare! We encountered huge rafts of Manx Shearwater, one raft of about 5,000 birds was a spectacular sight. A Great Shearwater, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the Manx, was a good sighting - these birds are on their migration to the southern hemisphere. 

Common Dolphins provided us with some amazing close views as small groups came in to bow ride the ship. Occasional fleeting views of Harbour Porpoise, the smallest cetacean in British waters, added to the entertainment throughout the day and as we watched the sun set we reflected on what had been a great days surveying.

Day 2

After a few hours sleep we were back on the bridge before dawn and ready for a 12 hour stint on the return journey. Entertainment was again provided by birds including Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and Great Skuas until a massive whale blow, soon joined by others, way out in front of the ship grabbed our attention. We approached the animals slowly with excitement and anticipation mounting with us and the crew. As we drew closer, we animals continued to feed near the surface and we were able to confirm at least one definite Fin Whale and 3 other probable Fin Whales - these are the second largest whale on the planet, growing to around 25 meters in length!! One of the whales breached out of the water several times, probably a young animal judging by its size, but still producing a massive splash as it re-entered the water.

The day flew past with sightings of Sooty Shearwaters, another Great Shearwater, and the occasional appearance of small groups of Common Dolphins. A Minke Whale, showing well close to the ship just 11 miles south of St Anne's Head, was a brilliant way to round off what had been a cracking couple of days onboard Julia.  

Many thanks to Captain Grace and his crew for their hospitality and interest in our research, the warm welcome on the bridge made the survey all the more enjoyable.

Peter Howlett & Robbie Hawkins 

MARINElife Survey Report: Swansea-Cork 'MV Julia' 31 July-1 August 2011

Posted 02 August 2011

Stephen Dunstan and Richard Price, MARINElife Research Surveyors
Weather: W / N; 0 - 3; Good conditions

Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 3
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 43
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 19

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 42
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 2538
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 17
Gannet Morus bassanus 427
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus 3
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 1
Lesser Black-Backed Gull Larus fuscus 77
Great Black-Backed Gull Larus marinus 6
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 48 
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 3
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 15
Commic Term Sterna 3
Puffin Fratercula arctica 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 504
Razorbill Alca torda 36
Cormorant Phalacrocorax aristotelis 2
Swift Apus apus 1 

MARINElife Surveyors' blog: Fastnet Line 'MV Julia' Swansea to Cork 31st July to 1st August 2011

Day 1

The second survey of the route was another successful one.  We set off from Swansea in reasonable weather and were soon seeing a few Common Dolphins and some Harbour Porpoises.  There were also some spectacular groups of Manx Shearwaters, we saw more than 2000 of these distinctive black and white seabirds on the outward journey including one group of 700.  A Swift heading purposefully south over the sea was a surprise, presumably already on its way back to Africa.

As we left Swansea some distance behind we began to record a few delightful Storm Petrels.  These sparrow sized seabirds patter across the water with their feet and jink erratically over the waves.

As we approached Cork the crew of the Julia pointed out a very defined area at the mouth of the harbour where Bottlenose Dolphins are regularly seen from the ship.  Our luck was in as at least three of these impressive animals were frequenting the area.  As we pulled alongside the berth at Cobh we also saw several Mediterranean Gulls, similar to Black-headed Gulls these used to be rare in Britain and Ireland but have spread in from the south.

Day 2 

Day two we were up bright and early at 5.30am to make the most of the next couple of hours before we were alongside at Swansea.  The sea was like a millpond and we were therefore very successful in recording more Common Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises, with a total of fifteen observations of over 40 animals in two hours.

Coming into Swansea another Mediterranean Gull went past the boat to complete an excellent couple of hours of wildlife watching from the ferry and bringing to an end a rewarding trip.

 Stephen Dunstan and Richard Price: MARINElife Researchers

MARINElife Survey Report: Swansea-Cork 'MV Julia' 24-25 July 2011

Posted 25 July 2011

Adrian Shephard and John Down, MARINElife Research Surveyors
Weather: WNW 1-3 occasional fog

Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 4
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 250
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 25
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2
Unidentified Dolphin Species 3

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 26
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 5375
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 20
Gannet Morus bassanus 461
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 30
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 3
Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 2
Lesser Black-Backed Gull Larus fuscus 1
Great Black-Backed Gull Larus marinus 23
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 66
Sandwich Tern Sterna Sterna sanvicensis 1
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 2
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo 1
Puffin Fratercula arctica 14
Guillemot Uria aalge 1485
Razorbill Alca torda 4
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 1
Unidentified Auk Species 34

MARINElife Surveyors' blog: Fastnet Line 'MV Julia' Swansea to Cork survey 24th to 25th July 2011

DAY 1:

We arrived around 9am for this exciting first marine wildlife research survey filled with excitement about the prospects for the trip. A number of passengers in the terminal in Swansea were thrilled at the chance of seeing dolphins when they heard us talking about our research. We boarded and were introduced to the friendly reception staff before heading to the bridge to start our recording.

Common Dolphin breaching near the MV Julia (©Adrian Shephard/MARINElife)Gannet adults flying alongside the MV Julia (©Adrian Shephard/MARINElife)

The bridge team were incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about the wildlife on the route and were happy to share some of their own encounters on previous trips. We settled into recording and were encountering many seabirds within minutes and the first Short-beaked Common Dolphins within an hour of departure. The dolphins raced into towards the ship keen to bow ride, putting on an amazing display as they leapt clear of the water. The shouts and cheers of the passengers on the deck was testament to the excitement that wild dolphins provide for the public.

We continued recording throughout the hours of daylight, encountering huge rafts of resting seabirds, primarily Manx Shearwaters which breed on the nearby islands of Skomer and Skokholm - we recorded over 5000 during the return crossing. Other seabird highlights included Puffins, Gannets and Kittiwakes.

The sightings of Short-beaked Common Dolphins were relatively constant throughout the day, with small groups passing close to the MV Julia and almost always coming to bow ride the ship; many of the groups contained calves which kept very close to their mothers as they jumped clear of the water. A Grey Seal made a brief appearance mid crossing.

Common Dolphin with calf (©Adrian Shephard/MARINElife)Common Dolphins with calf (©Adrian Shephard/MARINElife)

We approached Cork as the sun was going down and were treated to a brief glimpse of two Bottlenose Dolphin in the harbour. We then settled in for a few hours sleep.

Day 2:

We were back on the bridge and recording early on Monday morning with daylight allowing a good four hours of recording at this time of year before docking. Again, sightings of Common Dolphin started almost immediately and the calm conditions provided great sightings of many thousands of seabirds. Over 1000 Guillemots were encountered during the return crossing as were a number of Storm Petrels; a tiny oceanic seabird.

As we approached the Welsh coast, we started to encounter Harbour Porpoise, the smallest cetacean (collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises) in European waters. They can be difficult to observe but several were seen in the calm sea-state quite close to the ship. 

As we docked, we reflected on an amazing first research survey: 250 Short-beaked Common Dolphins encountered as well as Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin and Grey Seals. The area is clearly a very important stretch of water for cetaceans and seabirds and we look forward to the forthcoming trips.

We would very much like to extend our thanks to the onboard crew of the MV Julia for making us feel so welcome and showing so much enthusiasm for the wildlife we observed during the crossing and the shore-based team for generously supporting our programme of research from ferries.

Adrian Shephard and John Down: MARINElife Researchers