UK/Ireland - Bilbao

Sightings Archives: August 2017

MARINElife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Endeavor’ Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 14-20 August 2017

Posted 25 August 2017

MARINELife Survey Report: JR Shipping 'Endeavor' Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 19-27 July 2017
Monday 14th August: Wind SW 12 Knots; rain early am and then from 14.00 until dusk. Visibility poor during rain but otherwise good.
Tuesday 15th August: Wind SW 10 Knots increasing slightly during the intermittent heavy showers that lasted until mid-evening. Visibility good to excellent except in the heaviest rain showers.
Wednesday 16th August: am: Wind SW 16 Knots until mid-day when it slowly increased to 24 Knots by mid-afternoon. Cloudy all day with visibility deteriorating from mid-day. Intermittent rain and occasional low cloud then continued until dusk.
Thursday 17th August: am: Wind W 10 Knots, low cloud and rain clearing later with light, high cloud by 13.00. Wind decreased pm and skies cleared, wind remained a very light SW until dusk.
Friday 18th August: Wind 5 Knots from SW, low cloud and intermittent heavy showers from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, then dry and sunny until dusk with a 4 Knot SW.
Saturday 19th August: am Wind 4 Knots from NW with scattered cloud and good visibility; swell between 1 and 2 metres from NW: pm Wind increased to 14 Knots, still from NW, sunny with excellent visibility, swell continued until dusk.
Sunday 20th August: am: Overcast with a very light NW wind later backing light NE; good visibility, dry with little swell. pm: from late afternoon light rain and reduced visibility still with a very light NE

Marine Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 38
Bottlenose Dolphin  Tursiops truncatus 57
Short-beaked Common Dolphin D. delphis 588
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 51
Unidentified Dolphin:sp 10
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 12
Sperm Whale  Physeter microcephalus 4
Cuvier's beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris 4
Unidentified Whale sp 1
Grey Seal  Phoca vitulina 10

Other aquatic species
Ocean Sunfish  Mola mola 1
(Blue-finned) Tuna Thunnus (thynnus) 14

Common Scoter   Melanitta nigra 9
Eider Somateria molissima 6
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 318
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 2
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 2074
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 12
Cory's Shearwater  Calonectris diomedea 485
Manx Shearwater  Puffinus puffinus 5956
Baroli's Shearwater  Puffinus Baroli 2
Unidentified Small Shearwater 8
European Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 30
Wilson's Storm Petrel  Oceanites oceanicus 6
Gannet Morus bassanus 2249                              
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 36
Shag  Phalacrocorax aristotelis 73
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 10
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 5
Arctic skua Stercorarius parasiticus 1
Long-tailed Skua  Stercoraius longicaudus 1        
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus 7
Common Gull   Larus canus 8
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 634                                                                  
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 242
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 45        
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 32
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 4                      
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 624
Large Gull Larus sp 80
Common Tern  Sterna hirundo 94
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 38
Roseate Tern  Sterna dougallii 1
Sandwich Tern  Sterna sandvicensis 20
Little Tern  Sternula albifrons 3
Razorbill,  Alca torda 391
Guillemot   Uria aalge 2439
Black Guillemot Cephus grille 20
Puffin, Fratercula arctica 1

Terrestrial Birds seen offshore
Great-crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 2
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 4
Swift Apus apus 1
Swallow Hirundo rustica 1


Sunday 13th August 2017

After a trouble-free drive north from Suffolk Robin Langdon and myself arrived at Liverpool Royal Seaforth Dock entrance. Here our passports were checked and security drove us to the M.V.  Endeavor. Captain Vitaly Shutov and his officers made us very welcome, we were then shown to our excellent cabins.  A short while later we were sitting down to a very enjoyable meal prepared by the Chef, Oscar Pacamana.  He had also been on the Endeavor on our April and May surveys and had provided us with some superb meals.  During the afternoon we prepared all the files for the recording that would take place the following day as we travelled north through the Firth of Clyde en-route to Greenock. A check of the nearby intertidal pools just north of the Royal Seaforth Dock resulted in the logging of 250 Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit, many still in summer plumage, 50 presumably Icelandic Redshank, 15 Whimbrel, 8 Curlew and a surprise in a Wood Sandpiper, not usually found on inter-tidal waters and 25 Common Tern with many juveniles.  I then checked the roof of the flour mill and found a roosting male Peregrine.

Monday 14th August

After a refreshing night's sleep we were up on the bridge at dawn. The forecasted rain had held off and the grey light was great for picking up seabirds and cetaceans.  We started recording off the south-west coast of the Isle of Man en-route to Greenock. We were kept very busy with large numbers of Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Kittiwake and the occasional Storm Petrel. We had an enjoyable time studying the different plumages of adult and immature Herring, Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gull that were roosting on the ships containers.  We also had 3 adult Kittiwake join the larger gulls for a short while. It looked as if the local Guillemot had a good breeding season as we saw many adults with well-grown chicks in attendance. As we passed Ailsa Craig we started to see large flocks of roosting Manx Shearwater, presumably waiting until dusk before they returned to their breeding burrows. We took very atmospheric pictures of the island with the upper half shrouded by mist. By now we were due south of The Isle of Arran and to our surprise a large warship appeared in the distance heading rapidly south. This was the very impressive aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth en-route to Portsmouth. We had great views as it passed on our port side.

As we continued north we encountered more flocks of roosting Manx Shearwater including a flock of over 500. Shortly afterwards we saw a large flock of mainly Kittiwake, Manx Shearwater and a Storm Petrel feeding over a group of actively fishing cetaceans, they proved to be 3 Bottlenose Dolphin and 2 Harbour Porpoise. This was the first time I had seen this communal feeding activity between these species.  A short while later I had another first for a MARINElife survey when a migrating flock of 17 Arctic Tern was found to have an adult Roseate Tern amongst them. Luckily, I managed to get an image for confirmation.

Roseate Tern 1_Graham Ekins

Roseate Tern (Graham Ekins)

As we continued North past The Isle of Arran we came across 2 more groups of Harbour Porpoise making a total of seven for day.  We also had a bull Grey Seal swim rapidly past the ship.  By the time we approached Greenock Dock we had logged over 1,700 Manx Shearwater, 400 Gannet and 250 Guillemot amongst a great variety of other interesting species.

Tuesday 15th August 2017

As we were not due to sail until mid-day I decided to walk along the esplanade to the south of Greenock Dock.  This was very enjoyable as the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. I had to search for the Black Guillemot as the young had fledged from their harbour wall nesting sites.  I finally found small groups of adults and young well out on the open water. This also applied to the Eider, they were also far out from the shore.  Close to the breakwater were some fishing Shag while the local Jackdaw were vocal and very tame.

Greenock Graham Ekins

Greenock (Graham Ekins)

We just had time to finish our excellent lunch before we were up on the bridge to start surveying for the southbound leg of the survey. Initially it was dry but before long the first of many intense rain showers appeared from the SW. We were surprised by the large flocks of roosting Manx Shearwater so far up the Firth of Clyde. We also found many family groups of Guillemot.  It was interesting to see that many of the adults photographed were in full wing moult and so flightless. In fact we only saw one flying Auk throughout our survey and that was a Puffin.



Each fishing boat that we passed had large numbers of adult Gannet as well as many Herring Gull of various ages but the numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gull were far fewer than in the May survey suggesting that part of the breeding population had already started migrating south. As we headed south past The Isle of Arran we had our first sighting of the day of 2 Harbour Porpoise on the Starboard side of the ship. Over the next two hours we had 3 more sightings of five different animals.

As we continued south towards Ailsa Craig the numbers of Gannet, Kittiwake and Guillemot steadily increased. We passed close to the western side of the island and photographed the vast Gannetry in the sunshine between the showers. It really was very impressive.  For the rest of the afternoon and evening flocks of Gannet passed us heading to or from the colony, often in long undulating skeins. We also passed large mixed flocks of Guillemot and the occasional Razorbill with well grown young in their midst. It was very impressive.  We were also delighted to see so many young Kittiwake suggesting that they had also a good breeding season. Mid-evening 3 Short-beaked Common Dolphin came briefly towards the ship, we were delighted to see them as they were the first of this survey. We continued to record until dusk finding increasing numbers of Manx Shearwater and Fulmar as well as many more family groups of Guillemot. We also had a couple of adult Arctic Tern pass the ship heading south, the only ones seen during the day.

Guillemot Graham Ekins 04

Moulting Guillemots (Graham Ekins)

After leaving the bridge and making a refreshing cup of tea I started to write up the blog for the day while Robin started the mammoth job of entering the day's data.

Wednesday 16th August 2017

After another restful night's sleep we were up on the bridge at dawn to start our recording. We were in St George's Channel off St David's Head en-route to Lands End.  Although overcast visibility was excellent and we were soon recording large numbers of Gannet and Manx Shearwater, the majority overtaking the ship and heading SW. As we passed over the Celtic Deep we were delighted to find both a Minke and a Fin Whale within a few minutes of each other. The latter was totally unexpected so far to the North.  A few minutes later we had a small group of Short-beaked Common Dolphin come into bow-ride before diving under the ship. We then had several more small groups approach the ship during the rest of the morning.

Later in the morning a flock of 4 Whimbrel overtook the ship and continued south into the strengthening wind. Shortly afterwards we found a flock of 500 feeding Manx Shearwater, it was an impressive site as birds continuously moved forward and dived into the sea. Shortly afterwards we found three separate flocks of roosting Fulmar totalling 200 birds, an unusually high total. The massive passage of Gannet and Manx Shearwater continued until mid-morning, slowly decreasing as we approached Lands End early afternoon.  As the wind strengthened and the cloud lowered we came across a Great Shearwater and several Manx Shearwater flying towards a distant flock of fishing seabirds.  As we approached we were amazed to see that it contained 80 Great, 30 Cory's, 5 Sooty, one Balearic and 200 Manx Shearwater as well as over 100 mainly immature Gannet. By now we were 22 Nautical Miles SSE of the Isles of Scilly.  We took several photographs of this memorable sight.

Ailsa Craig_Graham Ekins

Ailsa Graig Gannetry (Graham Ekins)

As we continued south the numbers of seabirds decreased but one small group of Manx Shearwater had a Petrel busy foot paddling amongst them. A close inspection proved it to be a Wilson's Petrel, this was the first on this survey after having logged several Storm Petrel the previous days. We then saw 100 Short-beaked Common Dolphin coming in to bow ride, we were delighted to see that 30% of the group were juveniles.  Over the next 40 minutes three smaller pods also came in to the ship. Then off on the port side a pair of Striped Dolphin jumped energetically clear of the water.

Wilsons Petrel Graham Ekins 01

Wilson's Petrel (Graham Ekins)

During the evening the mist descended and the visibility deteriorated. We decided to finish recording and start to enter data and write the blog. It had been a very rewarding day with so many great Cetacean and Seabird sightings.

Thursday 17th August

When we arrived on the bridge at dawn it was misty with some light rain.  However, within the hour the cloud lifted, the rain stopped and visibility rapidly improved. This was going to be a memorable day as we travelled south over several deep canyons and on to the Golf de Gascogne before reaching Bilbao Harbour.  Within minutes we had our first Great and Cory's Shearwater of the day, light was still poor but it was pleasing to see them. As we continued south we started to see more Cory's Shearwater with several coming close to the boat. The surprise was to see steadily increasing numbers of Great Shearwater, initially in small groups heading rapidly south but later we came across feeding flocks, often with Cory's Shearwater and Storm Petrel in attendance and sometimes associating with feeding Short-beaked Common Dolphin. Flock sizes varied from 12 to an amazing 300 with over 1,000 logged by the end of the day.  We did not see any large groups of Cory's Shearwater but we still logged an impressive 96.

As the visibility improved early morning we were thrilled to see 2 Sperm Whale off the port side, sadly they were quickly lost to view. They were seen over the Canyon des Sables d'Olonne where we had several Fin Whale on previous surveys. This was the start of what proved to be a memorable day for cetaceans.  Mid-morning we passed a shoal of Blue-finned Tuna, these were the first ones I had seen in Biscay for nearly 20 years, Robin and I were delighted.  Shortly afterwards a pod of 60 Short-beaked Common Dolphin came into bow-ride. The youngsters certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

At mid-day we had views of three Fin Whale as they swam past on the starboard side of the boat.  We then had a pod of three more during the early afternoon. The cetacean fest continued with a male Cuvier's Beaked Whale apparently displaying. Even though he was at some distance his pale colouration showed well in the sunshine.  A few minutes later a pair of Striped Dolphin were seen on the Port side, always a great species to see on any Biscay survey. Then 20 minutes later the observations were repeated with another male Cuvier's and 2 more Striped Dolphin. As we continued south in bright sunshine and ever decreasing winds we started to see more European Storm Petrel with one attendant Wilson's showing the pale carpel patches, brighter rump and the classic pattering flight, we logged 2 more before the end of the day.

Cuvierz BW Graham Ekins 4

Cuvier's Beaked Whale (Graham Ekins)

We continued to see the occasional small groups of Great and Cory's Shearwaters but another big surprise was to find 2 Baroli Shearwater sitting on the glass-like surface, they were very reticent to fly. In the very light winds we found a slow moving and photogenic female Cuvier's with another 30 minutes later.  Within 40kms of the coast we started to find pods of feeding Bottlenose Dolphin with a total of 36 logged from three pods, amongst the pods several young were observed. Then just 5kms from the harbour a 2nd year Long-tailed Skua flew past. As we watched this scarce species a blow was seen which proved to be an adult Fin Whale with a youngster, this was totally unexpected so far south.

As we watched the whales an Ocean Sunfish swam past, clearly visible in the crystal clear water.  Over the next 30 minutes we picked up a few adult and one juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. These were the only gulls seen in Biscay as we headed south. As we entered the harbour we could see hundreds of people sun-bathing on the Bilbao beach in the superb evening sunshine.

It had been a truly memorable day with so many fascinating cetacean and seabird sightings. After packing away our gear Robin started to enter data while I updated the blog as the last rays of the evening sun shone through the porthole of my cabin.

Friday 18th August (in Bilbao)

After an enjoyable breakfast I spent time checking through the gulls and terns in Bilbao Harbour.  Amongst the approximately 100 Yellow-legged Gull was a Mediterranean and 2 juvenile Audouin's Gull.  On the various buoys in the harbour were both Sandwich and Common Tern.  The cloud had rolled in overnight and so there was no sign of visible migration along the nearby ridge, however, it was great to see 5 Crossbill flying around one of the pine plantations and 2 Cattle Egret in the nearby horse fields.  At the base of the hillside on a fence was a Red-backed Shrike while on a nearby hedge were 6 very active Bee-eater.  Robin and I spent time working on data entry and the blog.

During the late afternoon the rain stopped and the low cloud lifted. A scan of the nearby hill and radar tower showed a flock of Jackdaw and a Black Kite moving west, then before we left the dock I found 2 Griffon Vultures soaring high over the hill and drifting west.  An enjoyable and relaxing day.

We left the mooring at 19.00 and had time for an hour surveying before the light failed.  We had a couple of flocks of Gannet heading west and several adult and immature Yellow-legged Gull just off the entrance to the harbour. Just before we stopped recording a pod of 32 Short-beaked Common Dolphin came into bow ride.  We left the bridge and updated our data file and blog before retiring for the night.

Saturday  19th August

We were on the bridge to see a beautiful dawn, the sun rising in the east through a thin layer of cloud.  The wind was light and the visibility excellent, just a steady swell from the NW. This was to prove to be yet another excellent day for cetaceans and seabirds.

The first Cetacean of the day was a large Fin Whale whose blow was visible in the light winds for quite a time.  Within minutes of this sighting we added two Sperm Whale making four for the survey.  We had only just finished recording the details when 2 more Fin Whale were logged close together.  What an excellent start to the northward leg of the survey.  Just a few minutes later 20 Striped Dolphin appeared close to the boat with a small pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin.

Sperm Whale Graham Ekins

Sperm Whale (Graham Ekins)

Over the next hour we recorded three more pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin coming to bow-ride and one of Striped.  All showed well in the light winds. While we logged the cetaceans we had a steady stream of Cory's Shearwater pass the bows, often giving great views. We also had the first of three adult pale-phase Pomarine Skua pass us heading steadily SW. The numbers of Cory's Shearwater continued to increase during the morning. An impressive sight was a flock of 60 busy feeding with a couple of attendant Great Skua.  We also started to see small groups of Great Shearwater, the numbers of these steadily increasing as we headed north.  As we approached the shallower water of the continental shelf we had several groups of terns rapidly pass the ship heading SW, they comprised 16 Arctic and 23 Common Tern. At the same time we started to record the first of several first summer Gannet.

Striped Dolphin Graham Ekins 02

Striped Dolphin (Graham Ekins)

After a two hour gap we started to record several more pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin and another one of Striped. We also had great views of a small group of large Blue-finned Tuna, the second sighting of the survey. During the afternoon, the numbers of Great Shearwater logged continued to increase with lesser numbers of Cory's Shearwater.  Mid-afternoon we also had very brief views of a rapidly flying flock of what were almost certainly 8 Baroli's Shearwaters but frustratingly images of the small Shearwaters taken through the UV filtered glass of the bridge could not confirm the sighting.

Great Shearwater 01_Graham Ekins

Great Shearwater (Graham Ekins)

Early evening saw us add an impressive feeding group of 250 Great, 50 Cory's and 4 Sooty Shearwater. By then we were 150 kms SSE of the Isles of Scilly.  Shortly afterwards we had great views of a small pod of feeding Bottlenose Dolphin with an attendant group of Manx Shearwater. For the rest of the evening small groups of Short-beaked Common Dolphin delighted us as they came to bow ride or dive under the ship. By the end of the day notable totals included 255 Short-beaked Common and 43 Striped Dolphin as well as 1030 Great and 355 Cory's Shearwater. We left the bridge at dusk delighted with recording such a wide variety of seabirds and cetaceans.

Corys Shearwater 02_Graham Ekins

Cory's Shearwater (Graham Ekins)

Sunday 20th August 2017

At dawn we were off the Welsh Pembrokeshire Peninsular in St George's Channel and were pleased  that when we went up to the bridge to start surveying we found an almost flat calm sea with light cloud, ideal viewing conditions for both cetaceans and seabirds.  Within minutes we recorded a group of Short-beaked Common Dolphin and the first of four pods of Bottlenose Dolphin, all busy fishing.  We also had a couple of pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin coming in to bow ride.  For the first two hours a steady stream of Manx Shearwater flew west past the ship accompanied by European Storm Petrel, Fulmar and Gannet.  While small pods of Harbour Porpoise were very much in evidence. Amongst the many Eurasian Storm Petrel we found our 6th Wilson's Storm Petrel of the survey as well as our last and most northerly Cory's Shearwater. We also had large numbers of mainly Guillemot with well grown juveniles and our only Puffin of the survey flew east. As we headed north into the more open water of Cardigan Bay the number of seabirds recorded decreased, however, as some compensation we continued to find Harbour Porpoise in the excellent viewing conditions.

We also had an adult Pomarine Skua briefly attack an immature Lesser Black-backed Gull before continuing south. As we continued North past Bardsey Island and into Caernarfon Bay the numbers of Guillemot recorded decreased but we found more family groups of Razorbill. All morning the cloud bank to the SW was steadily approaching and as it did so the wind went around to the NE and a light drizzle started. However, visibility was still good.  As we approached the Holyhead Peninsular we encountered increasing numbers of Auks with many immature birds. We continued to encounter large flocks as we rounded Anglesey and headed towards Liverpool Bay.

As we approached the vast wind farm off the Mersey River Estuary we started to find more Harbour Porpoise as well as a few Grey Seal. We also continued to record many groups of Guillemot and Razorbill with well-grown young. The numbers were impressive with 1113 Guillemot and 332 Razorbill logged by the time we docked.  As we approached the Mersey River mouth a flock of Common Scoter flew across the bows while an adult pale-phase Arctic Skua flew west, both new species for the survey.

Gannet 2 year Graham Ekins 05

2nd Year Gannet (Graham Ekins)

As we slowed to enter the river a group of 20 Common and 2 Arctic Tern started to follow the ship accompanied by 4 adult Little Gull.  Over the next 10 minutes many Lesser Black backed and Common Gull joined the throng. As we passed one of the large sandbanks Robin found 4 Grey Seal hauled out, they were close enough to give us great views.  Shortly afterwards we were nearing the lock entrance and so we finished our recording and packed away our equipment for the last time.

Captain Vitaly Shutov kindly allowed us to stay on board until the following morning.

We thanked him, his Officers and staff for making this such an enjoyable survey. The following morning we also thanked Oscar Pacamana, the Chef for providing us with such great meals.

We would also like to thank JR Shipping for making it possible to survey this very important route.

This was another very successful survey with 776 Cetaceans/sea mammals and 15,974 sea birds logged.

Graham Ekins and Robin Langdon; Research Surveyors for MARINElife.