MARINElife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Enforcer’ Tilbury-Bilbao 22-26 May 2018

Carol Farmer-Wright; Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather
Day 1 - initially cloudy, sea state 3-1 with good visibility.
Day 2 - sunny and dry, sea state 3-1, moderate swell, good visibility.
Day 3 - early low cloud, visibility good to moderate, sea state 1.
Day 4 - mainly cloudy, sea state 1-4 moderate visibility.
Day 5 - continual sea fog, sea state 3-6 visibility moderate to poor.

Summary of Sightings
Marine Animals

Basking shark Cetorhinus maximus 3
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 13
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked)  Delphinus delphis 62
Cuvier's Beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris 3
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 1
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 8
Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas 7
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola 1
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 20
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 7
Unidentified Seal sp. 60
Unidentified Whale sp. 1

Seabirds
Fulmar  Fulmarus glacialis 38
Gannet Morus bassanus 314
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 130
Guillemot Uria aalge 14
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 54
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 27
Larus sp. 227
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 30
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 28
Razorbill Alca torda 1
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1
Tern sp. Sternidae 14

Terrestrial Birds
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 5
Duck sp. 4
Dunlin Calidris alpine 1
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis 11
House Martin Delichon urbicum 3
Rock Dove / Feral (Racing) Pigeon Columba livia 99
Sand Martin Riparia riparia 3
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata 1
Swallow Hirundo rustica 3
Swift Apus apus 3

This was to be my very first survey from Tilbury to Bilbao and would prove interesting as only small parts of the Kent and Sussex coast get surveyed by MARINElife regularly so there were bound to be some surprises. I arrived at Tilbury on Monday afternoon and was taken to the Enforcer as she was mooring up. I was welcomed on board by the first officer and taken to my cabin to unpack before dining with Captain Oleg Pyatnytskyy. The ship was due to sail early the next morning, so I set my alarm and retired to bed.

Day 1 Tilbury to Swanage

Travelling along the Thames estuary with calm seas was joyful. Immature Herring Gull were the first birds recorded, searching for food in the centre of the river. Within the first hour I recorded my first marine mammal, a Grey Seal, resting on the surface of the water. Two hours later the ship was turning south towards the busy Straits of Dover. A low rocky outcrop in the sea near Deal was to prove to be a rewarding location. Here sixty or more seals were hauled out enjoying the warm weather. A further Grey Seal was seen shortly afterward and then sightings stopped for four hours until we were off the Sussex Coast. Here the seas became mirror calm, a blessing for surveying as the mammals become easier to spot. The down side was seeing so much rubbish floating on the seas surface, including inflated balloons and two full plastic waste sacks. On the positive side eight Harbour Porpoise were seen before the light failed and I retired to bed.

Herring Gull Graham Ekins 06

Immature Herring Gull (Graham Ekins)

Day 2 Brittany coast to North Biscay

I arrived on the bridge at sunrise looking forward to travelling south into Biscay later in the day. Container ships are useful vehicles for avian migrants and during the day a pair of Collared Dove, three House Martin and a Spotted Flycatcher were all seen on the vessel. The day was spent recording Gannet, Fulmar, Great and Lesser Black-backed Gull and an occasional Manx Shearwater. No marine animals were recorded until 13 hours after the days survey began. An Ocean Sunfish passed the vessel, swimming vertically in the water column instead of its usual horizontal position. By 7p.m. the ship reached the continental shelf break, an area where I hoped to see more marine fauna. Imagine my delight when the huge dorsal and tail fin of a Basking Shark came into view, one of three animals seen within the last half hour of the days' survey.

Basking Shark_Carol FW

Basking Shark (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Day 3 Southern Biscay

Southern Biscay is always interesting and a virtually mirror calm sea enhanced the opportunity of seeing marine mammals. The view was initially impaired as the lack of breeze meant that sea fog had descended overnight. The sun, being strong at this time of year, soon started to burn some of this away though some mist remained as the ship headed to Bilbao.  The four hours I spent surveying covered part of the abyssal plain with water over 3000 metres deep, to the coastal areas of less than 100 metres. Eight groups of dolphin were seen, Bottlenose, Striped and Common Dolphin; the latter came in to bow-ride, other groups appeared intent on feeding and ignored our passage through their waters.

The highlight of the morning was watching a Fin Whale passing close to our vessel on the port side. The captain and I were able to hear the animal exhaling. Birds were few, the most seen were Gannets and Great Black-backed Gull interacting with a group of feeding Bottlenose Striped Dolphin. As the ship approached the port I left the bridge to catch up on some sleep.

Fin Whale 04 Carol Farmer Wright

Fin Whale (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Day 4 Southern Biscay to the French Continental Shelf

A quick turn-around in Bilbao meant that the Enforcer was heading back north by 3am BST on the Friday morning. I started surveying at 5.15 am when we were sailing in 3200 metres of water heading north into a deeper section of Biscay. At these depths Cuvier's Beaked Whale can be encountered as they return from their forays hunting for squid in the canyons. I was not to be disappointed as I had recorded three Cuvier's within thirty minutes. As we travelled north we encountered more than eight groups of Common Dolphin, the majority were able to come in to bow ride. One group left it too late and could be seen playing in the wake at the back of the ship. My last two sightings of the day were to be of Pilot Whale on the northern continental shelf break, swimming majestically along. Only 25 birds were seen the whole day, Gannet and Great Black-backed Gull in the majority. Three and a half hours later I left the bridge to rest before my last day of surveying.

Pilot Whale 01 Carol Farmer Wright

Pilot Whale (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Day 5 The English Channel from Falmouth to Eastbourne - Ready …..Steady….Stop!

Today was to be a day of sea fog and surprises. The fog stayed around all day and it was weird being able to see blue sky above, but mist limiting visibility ahead to no more than one nautical mile for the majority of the time. Again, some avian migrants decided to rest on our ship, three Collared Dove spent most of the day with us, sheltering from the stiff breeze that tried to blow them from the top of the containers. No cetaceans were seen at all as the sea state rose to force 5 and 6 with a 2 metre swell that would have hidden anything other than a fast swimming dolphin from view. Just after 1pm a large flock of birds were seen flying ahead of the ship on the starboard bow. They turned out to be a flock of Racing (Feral) Pigeon that had been released from Fougères earlier in the day and were making their way back to their respective pigeon lofts in the UK. In all I counted 99 of these birds over two and a half hours. Half a dozen decided to have a quick rest on the ship and their two-coloured leg rings could be seen. They stayed only briefly, dwarfing their Collared Dove cousins before continuing their journey home. The strong breeze resulted in sighting of Fulmar and Gannet. As the visibility had not improved by late afternoon I left the bridge to compile my sightings before  disembarking the ship early the next morning at Tilbury.

Fulmar Carol Farmer-Wright 03

Fulmar (Carol Farmer-Wright)

My thanks go to J R Shipping, Captain Oleg Pyatnytskyy, his Officers and Crew for making me feel so welcome aboard the Enforcer; thus enabling MARINElife to discover more about Biscay and the English Channel.

Carol Farmer-Wright, Research Surveyor for MARINElife