MARINElife Survey Report: Neptune Line ‘Neptune Aegli’ Southampton-Santander 8-14 February 2018

Philip Dutt and Stephen Hedley; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Outward - ranging from overcast, poor visibility with a westerly wind force 7 to a calmer wind force 4 with excellent visibility on the second day.Return -brighter, good visibility with glare at times: north-westerly wind force 8/9.  Similar conditions to start on the second day but dense fog by mid-day which didn't clear until near sunset.

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 104
Unidentified Dolphin Sp 20
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 1
Cuvier's Beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris 2
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1

Fulmar  Fulmarus glacialis 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 147
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 18
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 27
Lesser black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 7
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 2
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 19
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 100
Black-headed Gull Croicocephalus ridibundus 6
Larus Sp 82
Gull Sp 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 58
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellate 4
Cormorant Phalacracorax carbo 2

Stephen and I arrived at the Southampton Docks car park mid-morning and walked to berth 105 to board the MS Neptune Aegli car carrier.  The vessel was still loading but sailed for Portbury on schedule just after midday.

We did a few hours surveying before dark at 5.15 and left the bridge shortly after we passed Weymouth.  The following morning, we began surveying just north of Lynmouth on the Devon coast well on the way into Portbury.  As we approached the lock gates to the inner harbour we could see large numbers of Shelduck feeding on the mud flats and one Oystercatcher.  We moored just before midday.

Shelduck Adrian Shephard 01

Shelduck (Adrian Shephard)

We had a few hours ashore at Portbury and after visiting the Seaman's Centre we explored the wildlife corridor which connects the shore with the hinterland between the car parking areas.  There is some reedbeds and the remnants of some lagoons.  Teal, Long-tailed Tit, Bullfinch, a solitary Goldfinch were spotted amongst the blackthorn hedge, willow and birch scrub.

The next morning crossing to Rosslare we had several sightings of Common Dolphin (19 animals), one Grey Seal and a Red-throated Diver. The coastal habitat around the port looked promising and easy to access but unfortunately there was no time to explore it.    On the way out, we spotted one one Harbour Porpoise and had more sightings of Common Dolphin (77 animals) as they raced in to ride the ship's bow wave.

Common Dolphin Steve McAusland 01

Common Dolphin (Steve McAusland)

Sunday morning found us west of St. Nazaire with the calmest weather we had had but there was still a swell of more than 2 metres.  We had regular sightings of Gannet and Kittiwake and our first Common Dolphin sighting at 9.15 a.m. when we were in 150 m. depth.  We were watching the depth  contours hoping for some larger cetaceans as we neared the abyssal plain. We reached 4000 m depth at 14.45.  An hour later a small pod of unidentified dolphins (ca. 20) were seen about half a kilometre off the starboard beam heading purposefully north, presumably on a hunt.

We arrived at Santander early the next morning.  We ventured out into a very cold Spain with snow on the Asturian mountains.  We had to be back on the ship for 11am and  there wasn't time to access the area outside the dock.  Birds spotted were Meadow Pipit and Pied Wagtail, everything else possibly being scared off by the port's recording of gull alarm calls keep them off the new cars.

We left Santander early and headed for a wild-looking sea beyond the harbour.  Large breakers coming in on the rock where we had been expecting to see Shag and Cormorant gathered.  Yellow-legged Gull, Guillemot, Cormorant were seen on the way out.

YL Gull ad Mike Bailey 01

Yellow-legged Gull (Mike Bailey)

The weather looked threatening with grey cloud, a 4/5 m. swell and a sea state of 8.  It got a bit brighter but remained rough for the rest of the day.

By 14:30 we were into deeper waters (1000m.), dropped off the Santander canyon and were at  3000m by  15:15.  Stephen spotted a Cuvier's Beaked Whale masquerading as a log.  In fact, there were 2 and one of them blew just as they passed quite close to the starboard side.  We were hopeful of seeing a lot more in what would be our last opportunity on the deeper waters but the spotting conditions were not favourable. We did have one more Common Dolphin sighting close in before the end of the day.

Cuviers BW Russ Neave 01

Cuvier's Beaked Whale (Russell Neave)

The next morning we went to  the bridge just before entering the Traffic Separation zone off the Iles d'Ouessant.  Wind speeds were 8/9 most of the time (gusting to 50 knots, but we stayed on the bridge to survey the birds at least.   This was the first time we saw any fishing boats for the whole trip.  We had steady numbers of Great Skua, Gannet, Kittiwake and larger gulls, some of them following the boats.  Just north of Roscoff, 2 Common Dolphin came in to bow-ride.

Great Skua Mark Darlaston 01

Great Skua (Mark Darlaston)

We arrived overnight in Le Havre and after several rough nights, we had a reasonable night's sleep.  After going thought the harbour lock the following morning we finally left the Le Havre breakwater at 3.15 pm.  The wind speed quickly got up to Bf.7 again and by 5 pm. the light was too poor to survey.

Our thanks to Captain Georgios Xylouris, the crew and to the cook, Oleg Krasovskyi for keeping us fed and watered throughout the trip. 

Philip Dutt and Stephen Hedley; Research Surveyors for MARINElife