MARINElife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Endeavor’ Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 7-13 September 2017

Rob Petley-Jones; Research Surveyor for MARINElife

8 September - Wind WNW 5-3; Sea state 5 decreasing 3; Visibility initially 6, decreasing 3
9 September - Wind W-SW 1-3: Sea state 1 increasing 3; Visibility 6; Glare starboard
10 September - Wind WSW 5-9; Sea state 5 increasing 9; Swell 2 increasing 3; Visibility 5
11 September - Wind W 6-5; Sea state 6; Swell 3 easing to 2; Visibility 5-6
12 September - Wind W 1; Sea state 0-2; Swell 3 with long Atlantic swell; Visibility 6
13 September - Wind WNW 6 decreasing 4 increasing 7; Sea state 5-7; Swell 2; Visibility 6
14 September - Wind WNW 6-3; Sea state 6-3; Swell 2 decreasing 1; Visibility 6

Marine Mammals
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 3
Risso's Dolphin Grampus griseus 1
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 10
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 60
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 24
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 84
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomediea 179
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 1097
Macaronesian Shearwater Puffinus baroli 1
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3195
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 50
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 1
Gannet Morus bassanus 1441
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 84
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 3
Eider Somateria mollissima 79
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 18
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 4
Parasitic (Arctic) Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 5
Common Gull Larus canus 7
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 42
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 99
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 82
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 31
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 359
Sabine's Gull Xema sabini 2
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 4
'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 43
Black Guillemot  Cepphus grylle 2
Puffin Fratercula arctica 10
Guillemot Uria aalge 1160
Razorbill Alca torda 22
Auk sp. 3

Terrestrial Birds
Raven Corvus corax 3
Swallow Hirundo rustica 1
White (Pied) Wagtail Motacilla alba 1

Thursday 7 September

I arrived at Seaforth Dock at 07.00 and was very quickly welcomed on board the Endeavor and settled down to breakfast.

The ship had been delayed getting into port overnight, and those of the crew not on duty were sleeping in their cabins so I spend a couple of hours in my cabin settling in.  By lunchtime, everybody was awake so I met the captain and officers and proceeded to have lunch followed by a very thorough safety tour of the ship and a look at the bridge where I would be spending most of my time over the next week.

As the ship was not due to sail until the early hours I spent a quiet afternoon and evening preparing myself for the trip and sorting out the papers for the survey.

Friday 8 September: Isle of Man to Greenock

Dawn found the Endeavor off the Isle of Man heading north towards Greenock, and after a quick breakfast I was on the bridge to start recording just after sunrise.  There was a stiff NW wind and a choppy swell which made for a couple of hours of uncomfortable surveying, but conditions began to improve mid-morning despite regular heavy showers which continued for the rest of the day.

Rissos Dolphin Adrian Shephard 04

Risso's Dolphin (Adrian Shephard)

With a steady sea state of 4-5, cetacean spotting was always going to be difficult, and in the end only one individual was recorded but as this was a Risso's Dolphin I was not too unhappy!  It suddenly appeared in my binocular view as I was scanning the sea ahead for resting seabirds.

There was a steady flow of sightings of Gannet, Fulmar, Manx Shearwater and Kittiwake all day, with numbers of Gannet rising dramatically as the ship approached Ailsa Craig.  There were fewer auks than I had expected, these mostly Guillemot but with small numbers of Razorbill and couple of Puffin.  A Great Skua passed by in mid-afternoon.

Good numbers of Gannet were also recorded right up the Firth of Clyde to Greenock where the ship docked in the early evening.  The Firth also contained several different gull species, as well as fair numbers of Eider and a few Black Guillemot as we approached the dock.  An Arctic Skua chasing some Commic Tern and Sandwich Tern was a bonus, as was a Great Crested Grebe.

A very satisfying if somewhat tiring day with 11 hours of recording, so feet up in the evening to recover and to begin the huge task of entering all the exciting data onto the MARINElife spreadsheets!

Saturday 9 September - Greenock to Ailsa Craig

Dawn found the Endeavor still at her berth in Greenock, and while she was being loaded with her cargo I spent the morning finishing off yesterday's data inputting, with occasional breaks to watch the Eider flock just off the berth and the Cormorant gathering on the wreck of the MV Captayannis!

The weather was significantly improved on yesterday, with a gentle breeze occasionally ruffling an otherwise calm Firth of Clyde while the distant Trossachs were bathed in early autumn sunshine.  This must be one of the most beautiful views in Scotland!

It was therefore a bit frustrating as the expected departure time slipped by and it was only at 16.00 when the Endeavor slipped her moorings and we began to slide down the tranquil waters of the Clyde.

But it was really worth the wait!  The next hour was one of those rare periods that all marine surveyors dream of - mirror calm waters occasionally broken by gleaming black backs and dorsal fins!  By the end of that hour I had recorded 22 Harbour Porpoise and six Bottlenose Dolphin, as well as a Grey Seal.

BND Adrian Shephard 04

Bottlenose Dolphin (Adrian Shephard)

Many of these animals were busy feeding, and there were two groups of six Harbour Porpoise feeding together with the Bottlenose Dolphins.  More remarkable was that all this activity was going on amidst very busy Saturday afternoon boating traffic, from large freight ships, through Calmac ferries, to many small launches and sail boats. The animals seemed not to care about all this activity so there must be something very special about the Clyde which keeps them happy!

With all these cetaceans, the bird life was having to take a bit of a back seat for my attention, but as the Endeavour passed out into the Firth of Clyde, I could no longer ignore the birds.  There were very large rafts of Guillemot (where were they yesterday?) and Manx Shearwater across the sea surface, and on the approach to Ailsa Craig numbers of Gannet increased dramatically.  As we passed this magnificent basalt island with its hexagonal columnar cliffs I was amazed by the numbers of breeding Gannet still on site, all precisely spaced so regularly across the nest areas above the cliffs. Even more spectacular were the many hundreds of Manx Shearwater and Kittiwake frantically feeding on a fish shoal alongside the starboard beam of the ship!  To cap a perfect recording session there were further Harbour Porpoise and Bottlenose Dolphin to record!

I stayed on the bridge until sunset at 20.30 (ship's time!) with Ailsa Craig disappearing into the dusk behind us, while ahead loomed a large bank of cloud.  This was the forerunner of tomorrow's expected foul weather, and already the sea state had notched up a few levels.  The captain asked me if I got sea-sick………!  Hmmmm…..

Gannet Graham Ekins 07

Gannets (Graham Ekins)

Sunday 10 September - St David's Head to Ushant

The stormy weather was the star performer today, with gales from first light and a very heavy Atlantic swell up to 6 metres throughout the day.  Frequent heavy squally showers and a period of more prolonged rain midday reduced visibility considerably.  The rolling of the ship meant that standing on the bridge became increasingly difficult, let alone trying to hold up binoculars or writing records on the log sheets!

Despite these very challenging conditions and that the gale seemed at times to have swept all life from the ocean, this was a remarkably successful day!  Although things were fairly quiet for the first few hours with regular Gannet and Manx Shearwater, and a lull midday as we approached Land's End and the Scillies, things perked up as we passed into the Western Approaches on our way towards Ushant.  To lift the quality of records, a solitary Balearic Shearwater (in its dark Sooty Shearwater lookalike phase) passed in front of the bow just after lunch.  The first of six encounters with Short-beaked Common Dolphin began as the Endeavor passed the Scillies, all of these animals leaping with glee through the mountainous swell to try to bow-ride in front of the ship!

One unforgettable moment of delight was a gathering of the Clan Shearwater, when numbers of Cory's, Great, Balearic and Manx Shearwater all appeared together in one flock, accompanied by a Common Dolphin, as a five metre Atlantic breaker approached the beam of the ship!

Corys Shearwater 03_Graham Ekins

Cory's Shearwater (Graham Ekins)

The storm continues tonight as I try to write this blog - if only the mouse would stop madly swerving about the desk in an attempt to delete all the text!

Monday 11 September - Mid Biscay to Bilbao

The stormy weather had eased somewhat overnight but a powerful Atlantic swell remained dominant all day, and strong winds meant the sea state was too severe for effective cetacean spotting.  Birds seemed to have been swept from the sea and sightings were few and far between throughout the 10-hour recording period.

However, there were some notable sightings, with the first bird of the day being a Pomarine Skua, followed soon after by the first of the day's Cory's Shearwater.  As I watched this bird sweep by, I noticed a tiny Storm Petrel just in front of the ship's bow.   There followed a very slow progression of Gannet in various age classes, more Cory's Shearwater, a few Great Skua and another Pomarine Skua, but generally the sea scape was devoid of life for much of the time.  By tea-time and after 8 hours recording I had seen only 50 individual birds and no cetaceans!

However, after tea things revived somewhat with a distant blow of a Fin Whale restoring my enthusiasm, followed almost immediately by a superb Sabine's Gull.

Sabine Gull Adrian Shephard

Sabine's Gull (Adrian Shephard)

This seems to have opened the flood gates a little and as the Endeavor approached the Spanish coast at sunset there was a brief flurry of activity from Great, Cory's and Balearic Shearwaters.  Not huge numbers but somewhat satisfying after what had been a very long day.

Tuesday 12 September - Santurtzi (port for Bilbao) then South Biscay

This would have been a fine day to be out in Biscay recording cetaceans, but the Endeavor was in port loading up her next cargo, so I took advantage of the weather to walk up Serantes Hill to the radio mast station at the top.  This is a great place for wildlife and although most of the flowers were over I did find one of the specialities of the site, some Autumn Lady's Tresses.

Autumn Ladies Tresses

Autumn Ladies Tresses (Adrian Shephard)

A good number of butterflies were flying, including lots of very fresh male Adonis Blue and a couple of Clouded Yellow.  There were large flocks of Goldfinch and Greenfinch feeding on the teasel seed heads, and small flocks of Stonechat were everywhere.  Several Sardinian Warbler were hiding in the scrub.  I was delighted to see a pair of Chough on the heather-clay upper heights, and the visit was superbly rounded off when a Booted Eagle and a Griffon Vulture soared over head!

After the hill, a hike into Santurtzi was entertaining as everybody was out enjoying the sunshine.

The Endeavor was loaded and ready for sailing by 19.00, so I spent a productive 90 minutes surveying as we passed out into Biscay.  I made a tally of the numerous Yellow-legged Gull inside the breakwater the harbour, and as the ship passed the breakwater I watched an Arctic Skua as it successfully harried a Commic Tern for its tea!  A White Wagtail briefly stopped for a rest on one of the containers, but wisely resumed its migration to Spain some 2 km to the south, instead of hitching a ride with us back to the UK!

Shearwater activity began soon afterwards with a steady passage of Cory's and Balearic Shearwater, while a Pomarine Skua and another Arctic Skua passed by close to the bow.  Further out, and beautifully picked out by the strong rays of the setting sun, I watched a group of Great, Cory's and Balearic Shearwater feeding, with the Cory's plunging dramatically at low angles into the sea.

As the sun set, I saw some splashing away ahead to starboard, and a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin came plunging in to bow ride on the ship.  An excellent way to end this short but very productive spell of survey.

Serantes Hill wildlife
Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus 1
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus 1
Sparrowhawk Accipter nisus 1
Swallow Hirundo rustica 8
White Wagtail Moticilla alba 2
Wren Trolodytes troglodytes 4
Stonechat Saxicola torquata 30
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala 5
Phylloscopus warbler sp. 4
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus 2
Magpie Pica pica 10
Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 2
Raven Corvus corax 3
Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor 12
House Sparrow Passer domesticus 30
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis 50
Greenfinch Carduelis chloris 30

Butterflies and Moths
Small White 5
Clouded Yellow 3
Adonis Blue 30
Small Copper 1
Southern Speckled Wood 1
Wall 10
Small Heath 1
Gatekeeper 1
Meadow Brown 4

Plants of note
Autumn Lady's Tresses
Maiden Pink

Wednesday 13 September - Mid Biscay to North Biscay

The day began quietly with overcast skies and regular rain showers, and with few birds for the first hour.  There followed a steady passage on the moderate westerly winds of Cory's Shearwater and Great Shearwater, with a few Great Skua and a single Fulmar (my only record for Biscay!). A superb light phase Pomarine Skua also flew past along the port bow.

Two simultaneous strong blows just off the port bow indicated the presences of large roquals, probably Fin Whale, but the strong swell prevented my getting any view of the actual animals!

Fin Whale Brittany

Fin Whale (Adrian Shephard)

I had more luck with the pod of 32 Short-beaked Common Dolphin that came into bow ride for a few minutes just before lunch.  They had appeared as I was assessing a huge flock of shearwaters which the ship had been passing through for several minutes, virtually all of these Great Shearwater, but with small numbers of Cory's and Balearic Shearwater as well.

The steady flow of records of the large shearwaters continued well into the afternoon, but the sea became very quiet after tea, with just 2 Short-beaked Common Dolphin coming in to bow ride and a solitary Great Skua rising from the sea and flying off.  Virtually the last bird of the day came as low bright sunshine picked out a super little Macaronesian Shearwater resting on the water only 50 metres out from the starboard bow. Quite far north for this species, but perhaps not so unexpected after the fierce Atlantic weather of the last week.

Thursday 14 September - Severn Sea-Isle of Man

The last of the Atlantic swell began the day but this soon dissipated as the Endeavor entered the shelter of the Celtic Sea with Ireland to the west, and the rest of the day was typical Irish Sea.

Throughout the day there was a steady stream of Gannet and Fulmar, especially as we passed Skomer, with sporadic Manx Shearwater and Puffin.  A Great Skua and rather bizarrely a Sabine's Gull (good record for the Irish Sea) were reminders of the Biscay seascape now far behind.

A small pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin came briskly in to play on the bow wave as we passed Bardsey, but towards dusk after South Stack the sea became empty of wildlife.

Common Dolphin with calf John Arnott 01

Common Dolphin (John Arnott)

A quiet end to my very full week of survey from the Endeavor, with the weather perhaps not behaving quite as I would have liked, but what a rare privilege to see Biscay in all its wild fury!

My thanks to RV Shipping and especially to Captain Vladimir Gornev and his crew for making this survey possible.

Rob Petley-Jones, Research Surveyor for MARINElife