MARINELife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Endeavor’ Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 14-21 May 2017

Graham Ekins and Robin Langdon, Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Weather conditions:
Sunday 14: pm clear and sunny with SW wind 4 knots increasing to 14 by dusk.
Monday 15: am Heavy rain, with E wind, 7 knots: pm, low cloud and light rain, wind to 12 knots by dusk.
Tuesday 16: Dense mist at dawn, 25 knot W wind; pm W wind to 30 knots with excellent visibility; heavy W swell to 3 metres.
Wednesday 17: am S wind 5 knots, heavy westerly swell; low cloud with rain and mist clearing later.
Thursday 18: Heavy rain all day, low cloud with NW wind 10 knots. Moderate swell from NW.
Friday 19: Wind NW 8 knots; excellent visibility all pm.
Saturday 20: Wind NW backing W 4-8 knots; excellent visibility and sunny all day.
Sunday 21: Wind 4 knots SW, overcast and light rain with low cloud clearing later.

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 5
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 715
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 10
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 12
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 1
Long-finned Pilot Whale  Globicephala melas 10
Unidentified Dolphin  41
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2

Fish/Sharks
Basking Shark  Cetorhinus maximus 1
Blue Shark  Prionace glauca 2
Ocean Sunfish  Mola mola 1

Seabirds
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 4
Common Eider Somateria mollissima 27
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 59
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 2754
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 2
Macaronesian Shearwater Puffinus baroli 1
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 13
Gannet Morus bassanus 462
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 15
European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 14
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 1
Common Gull Larus canus 13
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 137
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 203
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 4
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 43
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 92
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 1
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 2
Guillemot Uria aalge 75
Razorbill Alca torda 5
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 5
Puffin Fratercula arctica 9
Large Gull sp. 100

Terrestrial birds during survey effort
Mute Swan  Cygnus olor 5
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator 4
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 4
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix 1
Pied Wagtail   Motacilla alba yarellii 1
Swallow Hirundo rustica 10
House Martin  Delichon urbicum 7
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis 1
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus 1
Spotted Flycatcher  Muscicapa striata 1

Sunday 14th
Robin and I had a very enjoyable drive north from Ipswich to Liverpool early Sunday morning. The roads were clear and it was sunny and mild.  We were met at the Liverpool dock entrance and after our passports were checked we were driven to the M.V. Endeavor.  Here we met Captain Vladimir Gornev who made us very welcome.  We were then shown to our cabins and after a very enjoyable lunch we were given a detailed safety briefing by the 2nd officer, Ignatius Perez.

Kittiwake Graham Ekins 08
Kittiwake (Graham Ekins)

By mid-afternoon the Pilot was on board and we were making our way out of the lock to the River Mersey.  When we were due south of Formby Point we started the survey.  Within a short time we had recorded both Harbour Porpoise and a large bull Grey Seal.  We also had regular sightings of mainly adult Kittiwakes, Gannets and Guillemots.  As we travelled west towards the southern tip of the Isle of Man we started to record Manx Shearwaters and summer plumaged Puffins.  The majority of these birds were moving either north or south presumably to and from breeding grounds on islands in the Firth of Clyde such as Ailsa Craig.  As we neared the Calf of Man we added Fulmars and Shags to the growing list of species.

At dusk we finished our recording and had an enjoyable cup of tea before getting a great night's sleep.

Monday 15th
This morning we were off The Isle of Arran heading steadily north in the Firth of Clyde.  The wind was a moderate easterly with light but continuous rain.  After only a short time we had our first sighting of a pair of fishing Bottlenose Dolphins followed by a steady stream of Harbour Porpoises including two close groups of seven, an unusually large number, suggesting that feeding was good in that area.  As we passed Wemyss Bay we started to see increasing numbers of Shags and Common Gull as well as Puffin and Guillemot in summer plumage.  We were also delighted to see several summer plumaged Red-throated Divers, presumably from nesting sites on lochans high up in the hills. At Gourock we had a flock of six male Eider fly past and our first summer plumaged Black Guillemots.  As we neared Greenock dock the numbers of Black Guillemots steadily increased and we also added a small group of Red-breasted Merganser and more male Eider. As we neared the dock we finished recording and then went below to start entering data.

Black Guillemot Graham Ekins 04
Black Guillemot (Graham Ekins)

A walk around the harbour was a little damp but enjoyable with 20 Arctic Terns fishing off the breakwater, newly returned from their Antarctic wintering grounds, also several Eider picking mussels exposed by the low tide and several Red-breasted Merganser and Black Guillemot fishing close inshore.  I also watched a Rock Pipit busy feeding large young in a nest in the breakwater. Greenock really is a superb port to visit.

Robin and I spent the rest of the afternoon entering data and processing images.  After another excellent evening meal the Pilot came aboard and the Endeavor headed south passing Dunoon and Innellan to the west. We had our last sightings of Eider, Black Guillemots and Shags as well as the occasional small groups of Guillemots.  As we passed Great Cumbrae Island we spotted a flock of 60+ Gannets, many sitting on the water, they were fishing around a group of 3 Bottlenose Dolphins.  We continued to log Kittiwakes, auks and fishing adult Common Gulls until dusk.

That evening the Greenock Pilot had shown us great images of a Humpback Whale that had spent a few days in April off Greenock Harbour.

Tuesday 16th
Overnight the wind strengthened from the SW as a cold front came through. By dawn we were enveloped in a thick sea mist and although we had the occasional Gannet and Kittiwake close to the ship we could not see very far beyond the bows. We were now heading south through the Irish Sea passing Anglesey to the east and Dublin to the west. Due to the viewing conditions we entered data and updated the blog rather than start recording.  The thick sea mist continued until 08.20 when it lifted enough for us to start recording. Almost immediately we started to log summer plumaged Razorbill and Guillemot and the first of many Manx Shearwaters. This continued for the rest of the morning. By mid-day we had also started to see adult Gannets heading west and the occasional adult Kittiwake and Fulmar.  After an excellent lunch we noticed a steady increase in the numbers of Manx Shearwaters with flocks of up to 80 sitting on the sea. These were presumably birds from breeding colonies on islands such as Skomer off the SW Welsh coast.  During the early afternoon we had our first pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins coming into bow-ride, this marvellous spectacle continued well into the evening.  It was great to see that several pods contained young animals.  Most groups were between 5 and 20 but one impressive group consisted of 155 animals. The very heavy swell from the west increased during the day and made us glad we had good sea legs. The visibility was superb and allowed us to see many of the dolphin pods well before they arrived at the bows.  By the end of the day we had logged an impressive 330 Short-beaked Common Dolphins.

During the evening when we were approximately 40kms N of the Scilly Isles we had 5 Swallows and 7 House Martins attempt to roost on the ship.  The Martins quickly departed N as a group but 3 of the Swallows roosted overnight on one of the containers.

Wednesday 17th
After a great night's sleep we awoke to low cloud and rain with very little wind and a steady swell from the west.  We decided we could record within the 300 metre box and so for the next 2 hours we logged our first Yellow-legged Gull amongst a flock of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Puffin, Storm Petrel, Fulmar and several Gannets, the latter heading west out to sea presumably from one of the Normandy colonies. The three Swallows that had roosted overnight were seen briefly before heading off east into the low cloud. By 7.30 the mist and rain had reduced visibility to less than 150 metres and so we decided to update the blog and enter data while we waited for the weather to improve. We also learned from Captain Vladimir Gornev that he had been told to avoid the St Nazaire Canyon area due to a live firing exercise.  This was the area where we had seen the majority of the Fin Whales on the April survey. By 8.30 the fog had lifted sufficiently for us to continue recording, the visibility steadily improved during the rest of the day while continuous light rain finally stopped late afternoon. As we started recording a Hummingbird Hawkmoth flew up and down outside the bridge windows, this or another was also seen late afternoon. We also had great views of a Blue Shark on the surface close to the starboard side before it disappeared into the depths. During the morning we saw several more Storm Petrels as well as immature Gannets including first summer birds.  In the excellent viewing conditions late morning a Basking Shark swam past close to the starboard side.

Macronesian Shearwater Graham Ekins 01
Macronesian Shearwater (Archive photo: Graham Ekins)

By early afternoon we were entering water over 1,000 metres deep, the first cetaceans were two Striped Dolphins that quickly passed the ship, they were quickly followed by a pod of 5 Long-finned Pilot Whales, these were both new species for this survey.  By 16.30 we were over the Canyon de la Rochelle at 3,300 metres and within minutes a superb Fin Whale passed close to the port side quickly followed by another pod of 5 Long-finned Pilot Whales, these were very photogenic and images showed that the group included 2 young animals. Robin then found a major rarity in the form of a Macaronesian Shearwater, these small Shearwaters are a scarce species in Biscay and are usually seen from July.  The nearest breeding grounds are in the Azores and Madeira. We also had our first of two Balearic Shearwater of the survey. From then until dusk we had a steady stream of Short-beaked Common Dolphins coming into bow ride. The largest consisted of 70 animals with several groups having young in attendance. We also had our second Blue Shark sighting, like the first this was also on the starboard side and two more small groups of fishing Striped Dolphins with their attendant Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls. A short rain shower mid-evening resulted in a Tree Pipit dropping in briefly before heading off north while a large flock of immature Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls followed the ship before settling on the water to roost. This had proved to be an excellent day with many very interesting records logged.

Pilot Whale Graham Ekins 05
Pilot Whales (Graham Ekins)

Thursday 18th
We awoke just as the Endeavor docked in Bilbao, it was raining heavily with a moderate wind from the NW. My idea of having a walk on the hillside Nature Reserve above the port was cancelled and so we decided to update the blog and enter data in the spreadsheet. Early afternoon saw the rain stop and the sun showed briefly. A check of the hillside nature reserve showed that birds were making the most of the improved weather with Swifts moving west in a steady stream along with a Honey Buzzard, Black Kite and a few House Martins. Over fields by the port Ravens, Black and Red Kites were much in evidence while Black Redstarts were visible fly-catching on one of the terminal fences.  Best of all was to see 2 Iberian Red Squirrels chasing each other in the conifers nearest to the port entrance.

Friday 19th
We left Bilbao late morning, the skies were clear and the sea was a beautiful white-flecked blue.  We encountered many adult Yellow-legged Gulls moving east and west along the coast from nearby breeding colonies on the cliffs.  We also had several primarily immature Gannets. Once away from the coast the number of seabirds decreased but we had a steady stream of Short-beaked Common Dolphins in small pods coming to bow-ride until dusk.

Saturday 20th
The morning started well with a Balearic Shearwater passing the bows and heading east, the second on this survey.  We also started to see single Storm Petrels as well as increasing numbers of first summer Gannets, an age group we had not seen on the April survey. Robin had a great record in an Ocean Sunfish close to the starboard side of the ship while a steady stream of bow-riding Short-beaked Common Dolphins kept us busy all day. As we passed between the Isles of Scilly and Land's End in beautiful weather we encountered large numbers of Manx Shearwaters heading north, presumably foraging birds that were returning to their south Wales colonies. Towards mid-evening in St George's Channel 80kms west of Aberystwyth we found several large groups of Manx Shearwaters feeding in close association with feeding Short-beaked Common Dolphins. It was incredible to see them diving into the water close to the fast moving mammals.

Common Dolphin Graham Ekins 06a
Common Dolphin (Graham Ekins)

Sunday 21st
This Sunday morning we were off the NW coast of Anglesey heading towards Liverpool Dock.  The wind was a light SW and overcast with low cloud and as the rain started a Spotted Flycatcher quickly followed by a Willow Warbler appeared briefly before flying off east as the visibility improved.  A short while later a male Pied Wagtail rested on one of the containers for a few minutes before flying off NE. We had a steady stream of Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters as we headed towards Liverpool with increasing numbers of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The tide was high and this may be the reason why we had just one sighting of a Harbour Porpoise as we entered the Mersey Estuary.  It was great to see fishing Sandwich Terns, the only ones on the survey. As we approached Liverpool Dock we packed away our equipment and thanked Captain Vladimir Gornev for all his interest and help over the previous week. We also thanked his officers and crew as well as Oscar Pacama the cook who had provided us with so many enjoyable meals.  We would also like to thank J.R. Shipping for continuing to support this important survey route.

This was another very successful survey with 796 Cetaceans and 4076 birds logged.

Graham Ekins and Robin Langdon, Research Surveyors for MARINElife