MARINELife Survey Report: JR Shipping ‘Encounter’ Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 30th November – 9th December 2018

Robin Langdon and Jenny Ball; Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 143
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 13
Unidentified Whale sp. 2

Tuna sp. Thunnus sp. 1

Marine Birds
Auk sp. Alcidae 25
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 17
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Eider Somateria mollissima 17
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 400
Gannet Morus bassanus 86
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 13
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 2
Guillemot Uria aalge 158
Gull sp. Laridae 1176
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 48
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 153
Larus sp. Larus sp. 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 43
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3
Razorbill Alca torda 8
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 154

Land Birds
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 3
Starling Sturnus vulgaris 150

The Encounter was a new ship to both of us (though both Robin and I had surveyed on her sister ship the Endeavour), but after a warm welcome from Captain Bruins, we were soon very much at home.

Saturday 1st December - sea state 2, rain showers

Leaving Liverpool on Friday evening, we had to wait till the following morning to begin our survey, on the way up the Clyde, and it dawned just a little damp and murky. We didn't see many birds during the three hours or so of recording, but had several sightings of Harbour Porpoise, the last of which was a group of three, just after Cloch Point.

View of Ailsa Craig Jenny Ball
View of Ailsa Craig (Jenny Ball)

A change in the ship's unloading/loading schedule meant a second day in Greenock.  Robin carried on with his coding work for the MARINElife data entry system, and I went into Glasgow on the train, to visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art in front of which stands the famous statue of the Duke of Wellington, now with an officially approved traffic cone on his head!

Duke of Wellington Jenny Ball
Duke of Wellington (Jenny Ball)

Monday 3rd December - sea state 2-4, sunny

An early departure on Monday, and our survey began as soon as it was light, however we struggled all day with the bright sun, low in the sky and making it difficult to look ahead. Most birds were seen in the couple of hours after lunch: a blizzard of gulls was accompanying a fishing boat back up the Clyde, and then we saw a surprisingly large number of Fulmar, strung out over a couple of hours. They were in several groups of up to around 30, milling around, cruising alongside the boat, sweeping up and down in front of us... we only saw three small groups of cetaceans, the first two were Harbour Porpoise and the third probably was too, though we were well out into the Irish Sea where they are less common.

Fulmar Graham Ekins 04
Fulmar (Graham Ekins)

Tuesday 4th December - sea state 2-3, showers

Watching the sun rise from my cabin on Tuesday, I could see a flock of gulls circling round the ship, and they were still there 20 minutes later as it became light enough to identify them as Lesser Black-backed Gull. We also had a small group of Kittiwake accompany us for a while, but those were the only significant birds all day.

Mid-afternoon, the Chief Engineer was telling Robin that as there were some fishing boats nearby, this might be a good place to see dolphins, when "There they are!" he cried, and sure enough, there were dolphin approaching from all sides, heading for the ship and disappearing into the bow wave. There were nearly 100 animals seen, with a good number of juveniles, over the course of 10 minutes or so - an exciting interlude in an otherwise quiet day on the bridge.

Common Dolphin Adrian Shephard 07
Common Dolphin (Adrian Shephard)

We arrived in Bilbao on Wednesday morning just after breakfast, so no time for a survey. This was Robin's 8th trip to Bilbao, but unbelievably his first opportunity to get ashore: the MARINElife data entry system must have plenty of bells and whistles by now! He went to see the spectacular Guggenheim museum and I visited the old city, the Casco Viejo. What a great backdrop to a day off in the autumn sunshine!

Thursday 6th December - sea state 2-4, clear

Twenty four hours after our arrival, we were off again, with conditions good for surveying. During the early part of the day, we were accompanied at first by a group of Yellow Legged Gull, then as we sailed further offshore, by a mixed group of Gannet and Lesser Black-backed Gull. There were immature birds of both species, and we enjoyed watching the two 2nd year gannets carry on quite an animated interaction!

YL Gull Graham Ekins 02
Yellow-legged Gull (Graham Ekins)

For the rest of the day, birds were very few and far between, though we did see a few Kittiwake and a lone Manx Shearwater.

Mid-morning, Robin saw a distant whale blow, and although we saw another three blows, the animals were moving away from us and we didn't even catch a glimpse of their shapes. Later on, what Robin in retrospect thinks was probably a Tuna flung itself half out of the water, but otherwise, the southern Bay of Biscay seemed to be a quiet place.

Friday 7th December, sea state 5-7

By Friday morning, the forecast gale was starting to make itself felt, and sea conditions for surveying were hampered by the waves and spray. Visibility however was fine, so we spent the day spotting the occasional Kittiwake, amazingly acrobatic in the wind, but there were few birds around. Once again, we were outdone by the crew: this time the Chief Officer saw the only dolphin of the day!

Saturday 8th December - sea state 6

We reached the bridge on Saturday to the happy news that the Captain was as good at spotting dolphins as his officers: he had already seen four, and it wasn't even properly light! Robin and I were ready to hang up our binoculars, but thankfully we saw plenty of Common Dolphin for ourselves, with ten separate sightings throughout the day as we sailed across the Bristol Channel and up the coast of Wales.

Sunrise Jenny Ball
Sunrise (Jenny Ball)

We learnt that wherever in the world a ship is crewed by the Dutch, Saturday is always special: lunch features a hearty green bean soup, followed by apple and cinnamon pancakes. Everyone tucked in with enthusiasm, and so did we! It was a good end to an enjoyable survey, and we are grateful to JR Shipping Management, Captain Bruins and his crew for allowing us on board, and for their interest in the work of MARINElife.

Robin Langdon and Jenny Ball; Research Surveyors for MARINElife