MARINElife Survey Report: Neptune Line ‘Neptune Dynamis’ Southampton-Santander 14 - 22 June 2019

Jack Lucas and Emma Bell, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Outbound: Sea state 1-5. SW winds. Clear with mostly strong breezes.
Return: Sea state 0-5. Winds E-SW. Calm seas, some mist and fog.

Marine Mammals
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 24
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 8445
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 9
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 5
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 11
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 5
Sperm Whale Physeter microcephalus 1
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 52
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 42
Unidentified Whale sp. 2

Other Marine Animals
Tuna sp. Thunnus sp. 3
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola 2

Seabirds
Auk sp. Alcidae 154
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 12
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 20
Gannet Morus bassanus 903
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 28
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 85
Gull sp. Laridae 62
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 162
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 35
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 72
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 2104
Razorbill Alca torda 7
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 13
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 9
Shearwater sp. 1
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 5
Tern sp. Sternidae 11
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 29

Terrestrial Birds
Rock Dove / Feral Pigeon Columba livia 1
Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur 1
Swift Apus apus 2
Swift sp. Apodidae 4
Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 1

Day 1

Having arrived at Southampton docks in good time, Emma and I headed onboard the Neptune Dynamis and had a few hours to settle in, meet the crew and have lunch before the ship left port in the early afternoon. This was to be my third time across the Bay and Emma's first long route with MARINElife after her introductory survey in the Channel earlier in the year; we were both excited and eager to get underway! It was fairly quiet heading out into the English Channel, but we had plenty of gulls to keep us company and a few Sandwich Tern and Fulmar to start the survey off. To conclude our first evening's surveying we were joined by a small group of Common Dolphin that approached the ship to bowride, an expected surprise this far into the Channel.

Common Dolphin Jack Lucas 04

Common Dolphin (Jack Lucas)

Day 2

We started surveying at first light (~6am) the next day just South of Brittany, but due to sea state 5 and poor visibility it wasn't until lunchtime that we encountered our first cetaceans of the day in the form of some more Common Dolphin. These animals are always a delight to encounter on surveys due to their fondness of approaching vessels and lovely clear views as they breach. The encounters soon came thick and fast and by early afternoon we had recorded nearly ten different groups of Common Dolphin. Things started to spice up a bit as we crossed the northern continental shelf edge of the Bay of Biscay and I spotted our first whale blow of the trip.

Fin Blow Jack Lucas

Fin Whale Blow (Jack Lucas)

Additionally, upon later review photos of a strange dolphin we observed leaping near the boat, it appears that it may have been a hybrid of a Striped Dolphin and one of the larger offshore delphinid species (possibly bottlenose?). Over the next few hours we sighted five more Fin Whale, including one surfacing just ahead of the boat, and encountered multiple small groups of Striped Dolphin; a Biscay specialist only found in the deeper waters beyond the shelf edge. The only birds to be out this far were some immature Gannet, as most self-respecting seabirds of breeding age should be nesting during this time of year! The sun set with whales still spouting in the distance. Around midnight I walked out on deck to take photos of Jupiter peeking out behind the full moon and was startled as a loud blow erupted from the inky darkness off the port side!

Day 3

Waking up in Santander port the next day, the ship loaded ahead of schedule and by early afternoon we were back off across the Bay of Biscay. In the shallow coastal waters there were multiple Yellow-legged Gull to add to the list and a fantastic view of a Great Skua flying across the bow. As we approached the southern shelf edge the cetaceans started rolling in again in the form of Common Dolphin, Striped Dolphin and Fin Whale. With all the action care had to be taken with each dolphin encounter to ensure we were not missing the Striped Dolphin, as whilst these animals have a highly conspicuous breaching nature in the distance, they do tend to bunch up and slip quietly past once the ship gets closer; making the confirmation of species difficult at times. Despite straining our eyes as we crossed the complex underwater canyon systems, stronghold of the mysterious beaked whales, the sea slightly too rough to glimpse any of these elusive creatures.

Soon however we were rewarded with a peculiar blow in the distance, directly ahead of the ship. The low angle, prolonged nature of these blows and sudden disappearance with no re-sightings despite calm sea and 360 degree views suggested this was a Sperm Whale; the largest toothed predator on the planet! We were also amused to find an undocumented stowaway onboard in the form of a Turtle Dove, which had apparently fallen asleep on the roof of the bridge in Santander and awoke to find itself hundreds of miles from shore travelling across the Bay of Biscay! We do hope it enjoys its surprise summer holiday in Ireland… More Striped Dolphin and Fin Whale concluded our evening, now crossing the Abyssal Plain (the deepest part of the Bay of Biscay) over 5000m below the ship.

Striped Dolphin Jack Lucas 01

Striped Dolphin (Jack Lucas)

Day 4

The next morning was magical, stepping out on deck to find the ocean mirror-calm and a surreal mist in combination with the sunrise made everything glow orange. We were just off the continental shelf edge and before we had even taken our position reading dolphins appeared all around the ship. Hundreds of Common Dolphin quickly surrounded us but our eyes were drawn to a smaller group of larger dolphins just off the bow that were behaving differently from the rest.

Minke Whale Jack Lucas 01

Minke Whale (Jack Lucas)

Photographs later identified these as Bottlenose Dolphin, probably the offshore ecotype. The whales soon started popping up and we had fantastic close views of several Minke Whale and some larger blows in the distance assured us that Fin Whale were still in the vicinity.

As we progressed along the shelf edge, were found ourselves inundated with literally thousands of Common Dolphin approaching the ship from all directions. This went on for several hours and soon it became extremely difficult to estimate numbers, as a quick 360 scan with binoculars revealed fins breaking the surface all the way to the horizon; we had found ourselves in the middle of a superpod! In total we recorded over 6000 dolphins in less than 3 hours. More whales and dolphins followed, and a few lone splashes caught in the corners of our eyes indicated that possibly some tuna were present.

The unexpected highlight of the day came when I noticed a large pale circular object disturbing the surface passing beneath the bridge wing; an Ocean Sunfish! Looking at the photos afterwards its mouth was out of the water and it was spitting a plume of water in the air; very bizarre behaviour. Emma potentially sighted another one some hours later and I couldn't be certain, but a darker circular object swimming a few metres beneath the surface passed by was probably a turtle.

Sunfish Jack Lucas

Sunfish (Jack Lucas)

To make up for the low numbers of birds, several tiny Storm Petrel were noticed throughout the day flitting across the deep water. What an exciting day in the Bay!

Day 5

Sunrise the next day found us heading across the Irish Sea a few hours from Rosslare. A few Common Dolphin were sighted and our first Grey Seal and Harbour Porpoise were added to the growing species list, in addition to the first real bird densities of the trip with Manx Shearwater and Gannet in abundance. Once in port, Emma nipped to the shop in Rosslare and we prepared for departure again.

Little did we know that the most diverse hours of the trip were just ahead! Straight out of the harbour, distant views of a few large dolphins feeding assured us that these coastal waters held Bottlenose Dolphin. The sea had flattened to a mirror and in a few minutes the marine mammals started appearing; Grey Seal, Harbour Porpoise and Common Dolphin seeming to alternate one after the other.

Grey Seal Jack Lucas 01

Grey Seal (Jack Lucas)

At this point we were well into the Celtic Deep and Manx Shearwater and Common Dolphin were being recorded in their hundreds, often feeding together, and several excellent surfacings of Minke Whale quite close to the ship provided good photo opportunities. Emma noticed a strange blow and some large splashes coming from a group of feeding birds and dolphins just off the starboard bow and we watched as a huge fin, several metres high, rose out of the white water; perplexing us for several seconds (could it be Orca?!). Then a columnar blow, a huge dark rolling body and finally the swept back fin allowed me to confirm that what we were actually witnessing was a fin whale lunge feeding at the surface, complete with dolphins riding its bow wave and surrounded by diving birds! A spectacular feeding frenzy to observe, and the day finished with more dolphins and porpoise feeding with their seabird counterparts as the sun set.

Common Dolphin Jack Lucas 06

Common Dolphin (Jack Lucas)

Day 6-8

The next day a thick sea fog obscured everything more than a few metres from the ship, which made surveying all but impossible for much of the day. And the next few days traversing the English Channel to Zeebrugge and Le Havre seemed to consist of mostly night-time passages and day-time port-stops, so only a few hours each evening could be spent on effort. We spent the time entering data, reviewing the blog photos and working on our respective cetacean-based Master's theses. The sunsets were extremely beautiful, but all quiet on the marine megafauna front. We were kept company by several lovely members of the Ukrainian crew who during the voyage took every opportunity to practice their English at length with us. No further marine mammals were sighted, but a scattering of coastal bird species kept us busy. We docked ahead of schedule in Southampton, said goodbye to the crew members on watch and made our way home with fond memories of our survey. We would like to thank the Captain and crew of the Neptune Dynamis for accommodating us during this fantastic crossing, the first MARINElife survey to be conducted on this vessel.

Sunset Collage Jack Lucas

Sunsets (Jack Lucas)

Jack Lucas and Emma Bell, Research Surveyors for MARINElife