MARINElife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Ensemble’ Tilbury-Bilbao 16-21 October 2018

Carol Farmer-Wright and Robin Langdon; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Day 1 - Tue. 16th. Weather dry, sea-state 2-4. Visibility poor, improving to good.
Day 2 - Wed.17th. Weather intermittent light rain, sea-state 2-4. Visibility poor improving to good.
Day 3 - Fri. 19th. Weather dry, sea-state 3-5 dec. 3 later. Visibility moderate improving to good.
Day 4 - Sat. 20th. Weather dry, sea-state 2-3. Visibility good with glare at times.
Day 5 - Sun. 21st. Weather dry, sea-state 2-1. Visibility moderate owing to haze.

Marine Mammals
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 2
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 417
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 4Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 240
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 7
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 8

Auk sp. 32
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 129
Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica 1
Common Gull Larus canus 3
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 11
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 2
Gannet Morus bassanus 837
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 329
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer 1
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 839
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 15
Guillemot Uria aalge 20
Gull sp. Laridae 588
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 43
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 12
Larus sp. 2
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 3
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 1
Razorbill Alca torda 7
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 201
Shearwater sp. 4
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 5

Terrestrial Birds on migration
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla 3
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 1
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs 3
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita 1
Finch sp. 1
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis 9
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinereal 1
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 2
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 3
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis 11
Passerine sp. 6
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii 2
Rock Dove / Feral Pigeon Columba livia 1
Starling Sturnus vulgaris 123
Wader sp. 6
Wagtail sp. 1

Our survey was to begin early on Tuesday morning. We met up at Tilbury and arranged to board the ship on Monday afternoon. We spent the remaining daylight hours on the bridge trying to spot the Beluga Whale currently in the Thames, sadly it remained elusive.

Survey Day 1 - Southend to Chichester

Tilbury Oct 18_Map 1

Our survey began as we neared Southend-on-Sea. The sightings were initially dominated by Great Black-backed Gull. There are several Seal haul-outs off the north Kent coast and, with a favourable tide, three sandbanks between Herne Bay and Margate resulted in a count of almost 230 Seals.  By the time we reached Deal on the approach to the Dover Straits we started to see Herring Gull, Kittiwake and Gannet. Some avian migrants were recorded including a small charm of Goldfinch and a solitary Meadow Pipit. In the early afternoon Robin spotted a Harbour Porpoise, our only cetacean sighting of the day. Gannet were seen throughout the remainder of the day with an occasional sighting of a Great Skua and gulls surrounding a couple of fishing vessels that we encountered.  The days survey ended when we were due south of Hayling Island.

Day 2 - Brittany to the Northern shelf break

Tilbury Oct 18_Map 2

When we reached the bridge, we had just rounded Brittany and we were now heading south.  The conditions were a bit misty.

We have to thank the Gannet and Great Shearwater for our first sightings of cetacean.  There was a couple of large groups all swirling around and on closer inspection dolphin were spotted.  They were most likely Common Dolphin but they were too interested in feeding and did not give us a good look at them.

There was a period of a couple of hours where there was continuous light rain but at around 14:00 it stopped and within a few minutes the Common Dolphin started pouring into the bow of the ship. Over a period of about 20 minutes over 200 attempted the joy of a bow ride.  No other type of cetacean was spotted that day.

Common Dolphin Carol Farmer Wright 03

Common Dolphin (Carol Farmer-Wright)

The vast bulk of the birds were Gannet and Great Shearwater but a few migrating terrestrials were also seen. There was a pair of Juvenile Pied Wagtails that joined the ship at 9:30. The last time they were seen was just before we finished at 18:20 so we presume Bilbao now has a couple of new residents. 3 Blackcaps also joined the ship for a while as well as a couple of Meadow Pipits.

Pied Wagtail Carol Farmer Wright

Pied Wagtail (Robin Langdon)

Our third day was spent in Santurzi, unloading and loading the new cargo bound for the UK and Western Europe so no surveying was possible.

Survey Day 3 - The Abyssal plain to the Continental shelf

Tilbury Oct 18_Map 3

We left Santurzi at 3 am in the morning. By 7.30 am there was sufficient light to begin our survey for the day. At the time we were over the abyssal plain with more than 4000 meters of water below us. Bird sightings were initially slow, with only a few Gannet and a single Great Shearwater appearing in the first 5 hours. The only other birds seen during the day were a Chaffinch, 3 Little Gull, 1 Meadow Pipit and a Guillemot. Whilst travelling we hoped to encounter some of the whales that frequent these deeper waters, sadly they did not make an appearance. Our first cetacean sighting of the day occurred just as we were leaving the deeper water on the shelf break, just before the continental shelf. A small pod of Striped Dolphin attempted to come in to bow ride. As soon as they realised that they had left their charge too late, they slowed down and turned away only 150 meters from the ship. We hoped that we would see Common Dolphin again on the shelf and we were not to be disappointed. In a period of 50 minutes we encountered at least 93 Common Dolphin, some kept their distance feeding, the remainder came in to bow ride from all forward angles. A great way to end the days survey.

Survey Day 4 - Brittany coast to Cherbourg peninsula

Tilbury Oct 18_Map 4

This was a day of one extreme to another.  We went Dawn till Dusk, Sunrise to Sunset, Long lulls to many animals.

We were into the English Channel after rounding Brittany the previous night.  We looked out to see strange entities floating on the surface, that turned out to be large rafts of seaweed.  We saw these several times throughout the day.

As far as cetaceans go we saw both Common Dolphin and a small group of Bottlenose Dolphin.  They mainly stayed away from the ship but a few did come into to attempt to ride the bow.

Most disappointingly after our dinner at about 16:30 our most common sighting was bits of plastic.  We did stick it out to the bitter end with the hope that as there was a clear line of sight to the setting sun we might see the green flash as it finally sets.  Alas no flash was seen. (The Bitter End is an old naval term meaning the last part of a rope or final link of chain. The end attached to the vessel, as opposed to the "working end" which may be attached to an anchor).

Survey day 5 - Dover Strait to Tilbury

Tilbury Oct 18_Map 5

Today was to be our last day of surveying. We started our survey as we approached the Strait of Dover, just west of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

In Autumn there is quite often a haze over the sea, this continued throughout the day, limiting our visibility near the horizon. There are shipping lane rules that have to be obeyed over this very busy part of the Channel. Permissions have to be sought to cross from the northbound lane off the French coast, to the River Thames approach where the London Port Authority (LPA) pilot would join us.

GBB Gull Carol Farmer Wright 01

Great Black-backed Gull (Carol Farmer-Wright)

As we moved North towards the Thames we evidenced some of the avian migrants flying to the UK to winter, Starling, Wagtail and Chaffinch being among them. Pelagic birds encountered were primarily Gannet, Great Black-backed Gull with a few Guillemot, Razorbill and Herring Gull making an appearance together with a Black-throated Diver.

Four hours into the survey we encountered a small group of Harbour Porpoise, but we were unable to see the seal colonies off of the Kent coast owing to the tide being in. We did however see seals hauled out further up the Thames as we approached East Tilbury, a small group of 5 animals, Harbour and Grey Seal were enjoying the autumn sunshine.

We hoped to see the Beluga that had been around Gravesend before our survey ended, however the LPA pilot advised that it had been seen further up the Thames near Greenhithe earlier that morning and we were to dock about 2 miles short of the area it had been encountered. The pilot also advised us that the Beluga was first seen by the LPA in July near Shell Haven further down river.

Ensemble_Adrian Shephard

Ensemble in the Thames (Adrian Shephard)

As the captain started to manoeuvre the ship onto the berth, we thanked him and made our way downstairs to collect our belongings before departing the ship.

Our thanks go to JR Shipping, Captain Oleg Pyatnytskyy, his Officers and crew together with John Brown the Tilbury agents for enabling this survey to go ahead.

Carol Farmer-Wright and Robin Langdon, Research Surveyors for MARINElife