Condor Ferries (Commodore Goodwill) Portsmouth – Jersey (14th April 2015)

Steve Morgan, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Sea state: mostly 1-2. Wind: very light Southerly

Marine Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 10
Unidentified seal sp. 1

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 2
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 2
Gannet Morus bassanus 224
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 9
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 22
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 7
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 40
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 6
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 6
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 3
Guillemot Uria aalge 72
Razorbill Alca torda 10
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 2
Unidentified auk sp.  43
Unidentified gull sp. 140
Unidentified diver sp. 4

Terrestrial Birds
Unidentified passerines (at sea) 6

I awoke before dawn on the day of the survey to find myself in St Helier about forty-five minutes before our scheduled departure time and with the first hint of light in the east. Dawn coincided with our departure and I was invited up onto the bridge just as we left the harbour. A mist hung low over the sea though the weather forecast assured us that it would soon burn off. The sea itself was flat calm, which boded well for observing cetaceans.

Gannet Thomas Fisher 01

Gannet (Thomas Fisher)

Things were very quiet on our initial two-hour leg to Guernsey. Birds were scarce except for a few Gannet, small numbers of gulls and two Red-throated Diver. At Guernsey I took the opportunity to have a sumptuous breakfast in readiness for the long crossing of the English Channel.It was not until we had swung east of Alderney that things began to liven up. First I spotted a very distant Harbour Porpoise, a couple of surfaces at around a thousand metres that severely tested my eyesight! Then, half an hour later and this time at much closer range, a second Harbour Porpoise that initially had me wondering what I was looking at. There was an indistinct grey object lying on the surface at about 250 metres that I assumed was either a seal resting on its back or simply a piece of debris. Then it righted itself and rolled forwards revealing a small stubby black dorsal fin. It was a Harbour Porpoise which had been "logging" on the surface and which, on our imminent approach, had woken up. I have seen other cetaceans log in this way but very seldom porpoises.

Harbour Porpoise Rick Morris 02

Harbour Porpoise (Rick Morris)

More Harbour Porpoise followed in mid-Channel, including a nice group of three animals who made a series of perfectly synchronised surfaces. I also came across a seal wrestling with an enormous fish. Its meal was almost as long as itself and the long, slender body suggested it might be a Conger or a Ling. The seal was totally engrossed in ripping huge mouthfuls of flesh from it and seemed oblivious to the fact that we were rapidly bearing down on it! At the last moment it abandoned its prize and swam to port. Whether it was a Common or a Grey Seal was hard to tell; most of its features were obscured by the colossal fish it was trying to devour.

There were good numbers of auks in the Channel, mostly Guillemots, and, later in the afternoon, two Sandwich Tern flew past. But the most impressive result on the bird front was the very large numbers of Gannet. I saw several big groups heading westwards towards the northern tip of Alderney, one cohort containing fifty or so birds. Presumably they were off to visit an area of high fish concentrations. There were also a number of passerines, all going eastwards towards France, probably migrants which had flown northwards across Spain and now found themselves unintentionally out at sea.

As we finally neared the Isle of Wight activity declined. The occasional Gannet could still be seen but all cetacean activity had ceased which is hardly a surprise given the busy shipping lanes that criss-cross the whole area to the east of the island and the Solent. In Portsmouth there were a few Black-headed Gull and Herring Gull. I also recorded three Kittiwake, the only ones of the trip.

It had been a very productive day with flat seas and blue skies. The early mist had slowly dissipated, as the forecast had promised, and consequently conditions had been near perfect. My thanks go to Captain Thompson and his crew who could not have been more helpful and to the other staff on board who provided superb service and some excellent meals.

Steve Morgan, Research Surveyor for MARINElife