Duncan Fyfe surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Weather: Skies were overcast but with no precipitation throughout the trip. There was a light sea mist that obscured the visibility a little on the north-bound leg but sea state of 2 compensated with winds from the north and west.
Summary of sightings:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 15
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 6
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 1
Seal sp. 1
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 41
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 7
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 398
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 6
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 8
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 4
Common Gull Larus canus 13
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 3
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 111
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 12
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 22
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 5
Puffin Fratercula arctica 5
Guillemot Uria aalge 109
Razorbill Alca torda 25
Larus Gull sp. 12
Auk sp. 182
Shearwater sp. 1
Redwing Turdus iliacus 25
Starling Sturnus vulgaris 42
Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus 1
Passerine sp. 4
It was a pleasure to be doing this route again - one of my favourites. It gives a great view of the coastline and theoretically could yield some great sightings and has done at times.
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. It is great that DFDS allow MARINElife to do this as it makes a big difference to our surveyor teams and the logistics of organising the surveys.
Day 1: Southbound
I started the survey around 7.46am on the Friday morning somewhere off the coast of Sunderland. The conditions were good and sea state barely got above a 3 with a force 3-4 wind all day. There was a steady stream of Gannets to record along with a few Guillemots and gulls. A flock of 20 Common Scoter went passed and a lone Redwing circled and boat for about half an hour before continuing its journey west towards land. A while later a Little Gull flew through the box - somewhere north of Hartlepool.
Harbour Porpoise (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)
The first mammal sighting of the day was within sight of Bempton cliffs when an adult Harbour Porpoise swam slowly in front of the ship before disappearing out of view. There were a number of Grey (plus one Common) Seal sightings off the Holderness, Outer Humber and North Lincolnshire coasts. Typically it was head out of the water spy hopping and at times difficult to tell if it was a seal or a buoy.
There were a number of Puffin sightings too around this time as well as a Bonxie and increased numbers of Common Gull. The final Harbour Porpoise sighting was just as I was about to wrap things up for the day when I got a brief glimpse of an animal 2-3 times before it disappeared into the gloom. I ended the survey at 17.47 when the light had become too poor to be conducive to good identification.
Day 2: Northbound.
The ship arrived in Zeebrugge in the early hours of the morning. Once the sun had come up a scan around the harbour revealed some Curlew, Brent Geese and a Bonxie. After a hearty (and messy) egg sandwich for breakfast and as soon as the ship had cleared the main navigation channels I recommenced the survey just before 9.
Conditions were good with sea state 1-2 being the order of the day but there remained a light mist reducing visibility to around 5-10 miles. However, the calm conditions made for good spotting conditions. There were a good number of Little Gull whilst heading northbound with a flock of Starling and later Redwing all heading westwards.
The near mirror calm sea conditions were good for spotting Harbour Porpoise. The first animals barely broke the surface but just enough to reveal a hint of the distinctive triangular dorsal fin and a gentle body roll. A couple of Grey Seal sightings caused some momentary excitement. The first one appeared and disappeared with a Fulmar circling it quite intently. The reason soon became apparent when it turned to face me eating a large fish!
A later Grey Seal sighting made me stop for a few seconds when it appeared 500m in front of the ship. It appeared so small at first that it almost looked like an Otter with a head, body and tail. However, once it reappeared it was obvious it was a seal but it re-emphasised that with varying sea conditions, in this instance a port side glare and reduced visibility, the challenges sometimes of getting a sense of scale from aboard a large vessel.
Balearic Shearwater (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)
There were small but steady numbers of Gannet, Guillemot, Bonxie and Red-throated Diver to record throughout the trip. However, the trip highlight came late in the afternoon when one of Europe's rarest and most endangered seabirds - Balearic Shearwater - made an appearance. I got a really good view as it came very close to the 300m recording area (the 'box'). Only six minutes later two further birds flew right through the 'box' - giving great views and making me feel very privileged. Light was fading fast so I ended the survey at 17.45 that evening.
That night the clocks had gone back which together with the ships time being an hour ahead made me even more confused as to what time to set my alarm for in the morning. I woke on Day 3 to the hint of light coming through the blind. I cursed my automatic day light saving function on my phone and shot out of bed. However, it turns out we were within sight of the Forth Road Bridge already and at best I may have only got 30 minutes survey in that morning.
Once again my thanks to DFDS and crew of the Finlandia Seaways for making this all possible.