Peter Howlett; Research Surveyor from MARINElife
Weather: Scattered clouds, wind W 5-7, backing SW 5-6, sea state 5-6, visibility good
Summary of sightings:
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 42
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 55
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 8
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 5
Gannet Morus bassanus 169
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 14
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 40
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 5
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 4
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 6
Guillemot Uria aalge 3
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 1
I had last undertaken a survey on the Portsmouth-Jersey route last June and on that occasion I had stepped in at the last moment after the scheduled team had to pull out. It was a case of déjà vu as this year the other member of the team for this survey had to pull out at short notice and so I would be doing this one by myself again. Fortunately this route lends itself to solo surveying with the survey only taking place on the north-bound leg which takes just eight hours. On the train from Cardiff to Portsmouth I received a call from Condor to tell me that due to the gales the previous day the Goodwill was going to be running a little late. The delay gave me time to find somewhere to eat in Southsea before heading to the ferry terminal to board the ship and I was soon settled in my cabin and getting an early night ready for a dawn start.
Early morning light over Brehon tower (Peter Howlett)
Dawn saw us approaching St Peter Port in Guernsey, with the sun rising over Herm. The stop in St Peter Port is fairly short and we sailed just before 6:30 and I was able to start surveying as soon as we had cleared the breakwater. There was still a strong westerly breeze blowing so if I was going to see any cetaceans they were going to have to come in close or be very demonstrative - you have to live in hope. There were birds in evidence though and a good number of Manx Shearwater and several Balearic Shearwaters were seen during the short hop to St Helier.
The bridge crew told me they had seen a pod of 40-50 dolphins just off the south coast of Jersey on the sailing the previous day (how many times have I heard that!) and that despite the 40 knot winds at the time. Sadly as we sailed between Corbiere and St Helier there was no sign of them.
The ship spends about two hours in St Helier, however, the raised view from the upper decks of the Commodore Goodwill mean you get a grand view to the south and west of Elizabeth Castle and St Aubin's Bay beyond so there is always something to see to while away the time. On this occasion, due to the delay in the schedule, I got to see the strange amphibious vehicles which take passengers to the castle as well as a couple of the ferries which operate day trips to and from St Malo in France. The most obvious birds were the non-breeding flock of Oystercatchers on the beach by the castle. A few pairs also breed and there was an almost constant background noise from their alarm calls as they defended their nests from marauding Magpies and gulls. The castle is also home to a few pairs of Common Tern and these could be seen flying to and fro a bit further out.
The Elizabeth Castle 'ferry' (Peter Howlett)
I was back on the bridge and ready to restart the survey as soon as we had cleared the Elizabeth Castle breakwater, eyes peeled for any sign of yesterday's dolphin pod. This time they didn't disappoint and 20 minutes after leaving St Helier we sailed into a dispersed group of Bottlenose Dolphins. Dispersed that is until they all started powering in towards the ship to bowride, it was difficult to keep track of the animals coming in as they came from all directions ahead of the ship with some putting on a good show with a few acrobatic leaps. They were only with us for a few minutes but there were at least 42 including several calves - what a great start to the return journey - they also happened to be in exactly the same area as the previous day.
Bottlenose Dolphin (Peter Howlett)
Unfortunately, this was to be the only cetacean sighting of the trip, not that I'm complaining when that sighting is 42 bowriding Bottlenose Dolphins. As we made our way north towards Cap de la Hague with Sark off to the west I was kept busy with more sightings of Manx and Balearic Shearwaters. With a global population of c. 4,000 breeding pairs the Balearic Shearwater is Europe's most endangered seabird and has been a target species for MARINElife for some years. The Channel and Bay of St Malo is an important area for them during the summer months so it was good to be recording a few. The Balearics really stand out from Manx with their duskier underparts - very different to the clean white of the Manx - and their more flappy flight.
Balearic (left) and Manx Shearwater (right) Photos: Peter Howlett
I kept my eyes peeled hoping for a sighting of a Storm Petrel - our smallest seabird - I had hoped the strong winds might have pushed a few into the Bay of St Malo but sadly I couldn't find any. The most surprising sighting was of a Little Egret flying west low over the sea, looking very much like it would make landfall on Sark or Guernsey. Ringing recoveries have shown that these birds are not afraid of long sea crossings with sightings of British-bred birds as far afield as the Canaries.
As we passed through the narrow channel between Alderney and Cap de la Hague there was the customary burst of Gannet sightings as birds from the colonies around Alderney fly to and fro from feeding areas further up Channel. After that there were a few more sightings of Manx Shearwater on the southern side of the Channel but once past the traffic separation zone sightings became few and far between - as seems to always be the case.
Another very enjoyable survey on the Commodore Goodwill, the highlight definitely being the large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins but it was also good to see a reasonable number of Balearic Shearwaters. Many thanks to Captain Zelazny and his crew for the customary friendly welcome and to Condor Ferries for supporting the work of MARINElife.
Peter Howlett; Research Surveyor from MARINElife