Duncan Fyfe surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Skies were clear with no precipitation throughout the trip. The sea state was a steady 2-4, barely reaching a sea state 4 on few occasions with minimal wind speed (12 knots max) and wind predominantly from the southeast and southwest.
Summary of species recorded
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 2
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 1
White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris 9
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 32
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 5
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 2
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 4
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 46
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 11
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 1
Gannet Morus bassanus 5948
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 20
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 3
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 4
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 2
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 35
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 18
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 11
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutes 19
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 807
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 9
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 113
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 21
'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 73
Puffin Fratercula arctica 18
Guillemot Uria aalge 747
Razorbill Alca torda 5
Tern sp. 4
Larus Gull sp. 15
Auk sp. 222
My journey from Yorkshire to Rosyth was a pleasant one and I arrived early which gave me time to have a look around Dunfermline - Scotland's ancient capital and where some of my family are from. I actually got married in the Abbey which is well worth a visit if you happen to be in Fife and have the time before or after a survey.
I was allowed to board the Finlandia Seaways on the Thursday evening shortly after it arrived in port. This allowed me to get some much needed sleep before the ship set sail and the start of the survey early the following day. I am really grateful to DFDS for allowing MARINElife to do this as it makes a massive difference to our surveyor teams and the logistics of organising the surveys.
Day 1: Southbound
I started the survey around 5.30am on the Friday morning as Bass rock had just disappeared out of sight. The conditions were good and sea state barely got above a 3 and wind speed of 3 all day. Not surprisingly there was a constant stream of birds to record including many Gannets and Kittiwakes and with numbers of Guillemots increasing as we got closer to the Farne Islands.
Minke Whale (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)
Once again this survey showed just how good the Northumberland and North Yorkshire coasts can be for wildlife. The first cetacean encounter of the day was of a group of at least 6 large robust looking dolphin actively feeding a few miles off shore from Newcastle. Their general 'jizz' and a hint of a white saddle made me think they were quite possibly White-beaked Dolphin. There was quite a lot of feeding activity and splashing so I only got glimpses of them but they were exciting to watch.
As we moved south I started to record the first Harbour porpoise of the trip which were easier to spot thanks to the relatively calm sea conditions. Then just off the North Yorkshire/Cleveland coast I got a glimpse of 2 large dolphin leaping away from the boat - possibly Bottlenose Dolphin.
Thereafter there were Harbour Porpoise sightings at approximately 15 minute intervals until somewhere in the vicinity of Flamborough Head a large black back and body roll no more than 600m away revealed a Minke Whale.
Bird numbers continued to be good along the Yorkshire coast with Gannet, Guillemot, Puffin and Fulmar all sighted. The highlight of the trip being a good view of a Balearic Shearwater at about the same time as 2 White-beaked Dolphin somewhere off the North Lincolnshire coast. The final cetacean sighting of the day was a couple of hours later with a brief glimpse of a Common Dolphin bow riding. Despite the calm conditions I hadn't seen it approach the ship - it just suddenly seem to have appeared in front of the bow. Something that many of our surveyors will be familiar with for this particular species.
White-beaked Dolphin (Archive photo: Tom Brereton)
The final bird highlight of the day was a group of 4 Arctic Skua that sat very obligingly on the water and came right into the 300m box area before reluctantly flying off.
Day 2: Northbound.
The ship arrived in Zeebrugge in the early hours of the morning which enabled me to get a relative lie in. I used the time to enjoy some of the suns warmth on the outer deck before recommencing the survey around lunchtime once the navigation pilot had left the ship. Again the conditions were good with sea state 2-4 being the order of the day.
There were small but steady numbers of Kittiwake, Gannet, Guillemot and Fulmar to record as well as Common and Grey Seal and 3 more Harbour Porpoise sightings. It was particularly noticeable that as we approached the North Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts towards the end of the day that the number of Guillemots increased. Usually with one adult bird sitting next to a juvenile but often larger 'rafts' of 10-30 birds. One of these Guillemot rafts consisted of about 40 birds. The unusual thing about this was that there was a flock of 30 Kittiwakes actively attacking the juvenile Guillemots - behaviour I had not witnessed in this small gull species before.
As day 2 drew to a close increasing numbers of Little Gull were seen heading towards the coastline.
The number of Guillemots and other auks also noticeably increased towards the end of the day but with the sun to the Northwest it was difficult to make out their silhouette until they had almost passed through the box, at which point I decided to call a halt to the days survey.
An early start at 5 AM but well worth it. I had time to wake up and warm up for the main event as Bass rock came into view. As we got closer the Gannet numbers, not surprisingly, increased steadily along with small numbers of Herring Gull and Kittiwake and I got good value for money out of my biro as it didn't stop! Gannets really are magnificent birds. No matter how many thousands I have now seen I can never get tired of them or not be amazed by their beauty and powerful flight. At about 5.40 AM I was treated to an amazing Gannet spectacle as the ship appeared to sail right through the middle of a large group of feeding, flying and resting Gannets - a group numbering at least 5000 birds (and with many more unrecorded on the Rock and in the vicinity). They appeared to be all around as if we were right amongst them. Truly amazing and reason alone for any of our MARINElife surveyors who have not done so yet to undertake this survey.
Little Gull (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)
I stopped the survey near to Dalgety Bay and used the last few moments on the ship to enjoy the surroundings and view the numerous seals (mostly Common) that were hauled out on the rocks, marker buoys and pontoons in the vicinity.
Once again our thanks go to DFDS and crew of the Finlandia Seaways for making this all possible.
Duncan Fyfe surveyor for MARINElife