UK/Ireland - Bilbao

Sightings Archives: October 2017

MARINElife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Endeavor’ Liverpool-Bristol-Bilbao-Dublin-Liverpool 2-10 October 2017

Posted 16 October 2017

Robin Langdon; Researcher Surveyor for MARINElife

Marine Mammals
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 1
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1
Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas 5
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 11
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 360
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 95
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 60
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 12
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
Unidentified Seal sp. 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 1
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomediea 7
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 330
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus baroli 1
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 15
Gannet Morus bassanus 516
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 20
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 12
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 34
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 31
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 33
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 177
Guillemot Uria aalge 499
Razorbill Alca torda 15
Auk sp. 4
Gull sp. 3
Diver sp. 17
Tern sp. 1
Skua sp. 1
Shearwater sp. 12

Terrestrial Birds
House Martin Delichon urbicum 1
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros 1
White (Pied) Wagtail Motacilla alba 1
Bewick's Swan Cygnus columbianus 2

On the last survey I undertook to Bilbao, we had over 100 separate sightings of cetacean and over 1800 bird sightings.  So, as I was doing this survey by myself I thought I better get some training done before I turned up - I had a regime of 'Spot Thrusts' and 'Running on the Spot' to get my spotting abilities in top form!

Monday 2nd October

The weather was partly cloudy with a stiff breeze from the west.  There was a reasonable swell most of the day and a sea state of 4 to 6.

We set sail just before 13:00 UK time.  The spotting conditions were challenging with a reasonable swell and a sea state of 6 after leaving the port.  The conditions made it tricky to get the pilot off so he stay with us till we reached the shelter of Lyness Bay where he disembarked on to a launch and then he had a two-hour taxi ride back to Liverpool.

There were not large quantities of birds until we reached the shelter of the bay where large numbers of Kittiwake and Guillemot could be seen.  The only large quantity seen outside the bay were a group on Gannet living up to their name feeding round a fishing vessel.

Kittiwake Graham Ekins 07

Kittiwake (Graham Ekins)

The survey continued until the sunset in the hope of spotting some cetacean but alas none were seen, but tomorrows another day…

Tuesday 3rd October

… it's amazing how little life there seems to be in the Bristol Channel.

Meanwhile 8 hours earlier it all started very differently.

I got to the bridge a little before 7 am, before the sun had risen.  I got there early hoping there may be a nice sunrise.  It was still a bit gloomy to start the survey, so I was chatting to one of the crew members when out of the corner of my eye I spotted two silhouettes of dolphin heading away from the bow of the ship.  Presumable they had come into the ship to bow ride.  I had not started recording yet but the omens were good.  I could also see the odd Guillemot resting on the surface, this was going to be a good day.

I started at 7:30am and the sightings came slowly.  A few Guillemot and Kittiwake. There was even a Pied Wagtail that briefly landed on the ship before taking off again.  I continued to see the bird occasionally for the next couple of hours so must have found a perch out of sight somewhere on the ship.

45 minutes into the survey the first sighting of cetacean.  Two Common Dolphin came into the ship for a quick bow ride, an adult and juvenile.  Was this the start of the flood?

Common Dolphin Rick Morris 02

Common Dolphin (Rick Morris)

We were heading into the sun which made the spotting a little trickier.  It seemed as the sun moved off to the starboard side, the ship would turn to follow it.  The bird sightings got fewer and fewer and there were no more cetaceans spotted.  Not even a piece of chocolate cake brought up by the cook seem to do the trick.  As we approached the Severn Bridge, we took a right turn to head into Bristol dock and all I could conclude was "it's amazing how little life there seems to be in the Bristol Channel".

Interesting fact:  Bristol has one of the largest tidal flows on anywhere in the world.  It can vary by more than 30 feet meaning ships that were moored here in the past were beached at low tide, so had to be made of sturdy construction and the goods in the holds had to be securely stowed.  Hence the origin of the phrase 'Shipshape and Bristol fashion' meaning in good seamen like order.

Wednesday 4th October

Well after yesterday's excitements what was today going to bring?

We got underway by 8:30am and within minutes we had some bird sightings.  Quite a few Black-Headed Gull in their winter plumage.  There was also the odd Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull.  But then the sightings dried up again.  It seems they really did not like the Bristol Channel, well at least while I was looking.

Around about 11:00 I spotted a group of 3 Great Skua sitting on the water, they flew up as the boat passed.  No doubt they were discussing what they were going to do for lunch being as there were no birds around to pinch it from.

As we moved further down the channel there were a few more bird sightings, mainly of single Gannet.  There were no cetaceans spotted though there was a tantalising glimpse of something just in front of the boat that disappeared before it could be identified.

I was beginning to wonder if all my pre-survey training had done any good.

So, what lessons have we learnt over the last couple of days? Beware of omens foretelling of great things to come and chocolate cake does not help spot dolphins, though it does not hinder either.

Thursday 5th October

Thursday saw us crossing Biscay.  The weather was calm, a good day for spotting cetacean.  It started well with two sightings of Common Dolphin in the first 5 minutes of the start of the survey.  But then there were no more seen until almost 16:00 when another group of Common Dolphin was seen swimming away from the ship.

At about 18:45 I was just deciding if I should wrap up the survey for the day or go on until 19:00 as the light was starting to fade.  My deliberation was nicely over ruled by a group of 6 Bottlenose Dolphin coming into the bow.

BND Peter Howlett 16

Bottlenose Dolphin (Peter Howlett)

There had been a steady flow of birds spotted up until about 11:00 when they too dwindled in number.  It seemed it was a day of 'G' birds as the vast majority were Gannet, Great Shearwater and Great Skua.  The 'G' party only being spoiled by a single Fulmar and Sooty Shearwater as well as few unidentified shearwaters.

Great Shearwater Martin Gillingham 0 1

Great Shearwater (Martin Gillingham)

There was a good number of immature Gannet amongst those seen.  There were a couple determined to get the count up as the re-appeared every 10 minutes or so as they made a wide circle round the ship.

The Captain pointed out how lovely the sun light looked as it shone down in shafts through the clouds.  For someone who presumable had been at sea for many years it was great to see how he was still getting enjoyment from nature.


Sunbeams (Robin Langdon)

Saturday 7th October

The conditions were better than on the way down.  Starting off with a sea state of 2 but reducing to 1 for a long period.  You felt if there was anything out there, you were going to see it.

After a day's rest in Bilbao I was hoping for better things on the return journey.  It started slowly but just before 9:00 something broke the surface near the ship.  It did surfaced 3 times but only just breaking the surface so was not able to decide what it was, possibly Tuna or may be Shark.  But at least there was something out there!

Just following this, the first confirmed sighting of a couple of Striped Dolphin.  There was then a steady flow of a sighting every 40 minutes through the morning.  After lunch when the sea state was at its best the sightings started to increase.

Striped Dolphin 4

Striped Dolphin (Mike Bailey)

With the conditions so good, it was possible to pick up sightings at greater distance.  This in itself brought other issues as the sun was behind which you would think was good.  However, this glinted off the cetacean making it difficult to identify them at distance.  What's this I hear you say, near perfect conditions and the Brit is still complaining about the weather.

Just after lunch there was a mad few minutes.  A Fin Whale crossed in front of the ship, followed by another whale coming directly at the ship.  This made it difficult to identify.  Just at this moment the 2nd Officer pointed out another group that turned out to be Pilot Whale, I presumed the unidentified one was also a Pilot Whale.  Just as I was trying to write this down, a pod of Common Dolphin came in on the bow followed by some Striped Dolphin crossing the bow.

Pilot Whale Adrian Shephard 03

Pilot Whale (Adrian Shephard)

The sightings continued through the afternoon and into the evening.  The final count for the day was 31 sightings which totalled 409 animals.  On the way down crossing virtually the same sea there was 4 sightings with a total of 19 animals.  The conditions were not very different.  So where were they on the way down?

As for the birds again there were not many around.  Up until 13:00 only 5 birds had been seen and one of these, a Black Redstart, was a stowaway on the ship that would appear periodically through the day.  I think Ireland, our next port of call, is going to get a new visitor.

Black Redstart_Robin Langdon

Black Redstart (Robin Langdon)

There quite large groups of Gannet and Great Shearwater seen throughout the afternoon.  These were mainly sitting round waiting for something to happen.  I had noticed that when the Gannet flew close to the water because it was so calm there was a reasonable reflection.  I decided to try and photograph this to show how calm it was.  However, the Gannet were not playing ball as they were all on the port side of the ship.  One passed in front of the ship again going to the port side so I decided to follow.  When I got to the port side, the Gannet I was following had joined up with a number of other Gannet and also a number of Common Dolphin in a bit of a feeding frenzy.  This now took my attention.

Gannet Carol Farmer-Wright 11

Gannet (Carol Farmer-Wright)

So, what have we learnt today?  Well Brits always complain about the weather, good or bad.

Sunday 8th October

On getting to the bridge before sunrise, Captain Gornev informed me I had just missed some dolphins coming into the ship.  I had intended to start the survey at 7:30 but had to start 5 minutes early as the Captain had spotted yet more dolphin.

We continued to spot dolphins through the morning, the Captain spotting many of them first.  Then just after 9:00 the captain shout "whale blow".  This turned out to be a Minke whale that surfaced near the ship a few minutes later.

Minke Tom Brereton 01

Minke Whale (Tom Brereton)

The conditions through the day got better and better.  It went from a sea state 2 and 1 metre swell at the start of the day to 0 sea state and no swell by 13:30. Also it was overcast, so it produced a flat light, better for spotting than sun and less strain on the eyes.  You felt that if any cetacean stuck its head above the parapets it would be spotted, however these conditions only lasted an hour.

There were still however quite a few seen later and the perfect conditions returned at the end of the day as we approach Dublin and a number of Harbour Porpoise were spotted.  So not a bad day for the cetaceans.

The birds had the best day so far.  These were mainly Guillemot and Gannet sitting around on the calm sea.  A reasonable number of Kittiwake were spotted but only a single each of Manx Shearwater and Great Skua.

We arrived in Dublin just before 6 pm.

Monday 9th October

We left Dublin at 17:30 so there was only time to do a very short survey of just over an hour.  There were quite a few juvenile Herring Gull flying around the ship and Black Headed Gull resting in the water.  No Cetaceans were seen and the survey was wrapped up just before 7 pm.

I left the ship the following morning to head off for another survey from Heysham to Belfast.  I thanked the Captain and his crew for looking after me so well. Particular thanks to Oscar the cook who will be leaving the ship very soon so would be the last time I saw him, he is off to warmer waters.

Robin Langdon; Research Surveyor for MARINElife