MARINELife Survey Report: ‘Endeavour’ Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 18th March – 24th March 2019

Robin Langdon and Nuala Campbell; Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 23
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 83
Cuvier's Beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris 2
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 5
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 3
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 8
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 15
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 34
Unidentified Whale sp. 1

Basking shark    Cetorhinus maximus 1
Tuna sp. Thunnus sp.    2

Marine Birds
Auk sp. Alcidae 44
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 2
Carrion Crow Corvus corone    6
Common Gull    Larus canus 31
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 6
Fulmar    Fulmarus glacialis 11
Gannet    Morus bassanus 595
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 55
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 19
Guillemot Uria aalge 94
Gull sp. Laridae 1064
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 29
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 131
Larus sp. Larus sp. 246
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 74
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 81
Passerine sp. Passeriformes 26
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii 1
Puffin Fratercula arctica 2
Razorbill Alca torda 3
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 4
Shearwater sp.    Shearwater 1
Skua sp. Stercorariidae 8
Swan sp. Cygnus 2
Wagtail sp. Motacilla sp. 3

Arrival: Liverpool
Waiting for the journey to begin…
As we waited for the mv Endeavor to load at Liverpool the glorious sunset was enhanced by the spectacle of a starling murmeration over the port lock, swans and geese heading for a relatively quiet evening roost and cormorant and gulls picking up a late supper before a night's sojourn.

Sunset through porthole
Sunset in Liverpool (Nuala Campbell)

The fascinating cranes loading the containers onto the ship reminded me of my grandson's Transformer toys made large, and the skilled coordination between the ships crew and the dockers carried on into the evening until our departure just before midnight.

Day 1: Liverpool - Greenock
Gannet Robin Langdon 02
Gannet (Robin Langdon)

Our route took us from Liverpool via the Irish Sea then up through the Firth of Clyde to Greenock. The cloud cover was extensive, and more so on the port side. The Scottish coastline dipped in and out of visibility, but still we saw Gannet, Guillemot and gull species. The Captain, ship Master Gornev, and bridge crew were welcoming and happy to point items of interest out to us, especially the workings of the coffee machine, which was a blessing!

By 10:00hrs Ailsa Craig was spotted, an iconic Gannet breeding roost, but it faded into the mist by 10:30hrs, though the coastline was clear and we logged Gannet commuting to the isle and out to sea.

Highland Sculpture at Port
Port Sculpture (Nuala Campbell)

Robin was the first to identify Harbour Porpoise off the starboard side, but my own first Harbour Porpoise ID came at 11:20hrs in sync with the Captain who saw it too. I still get a kick seeing these sleek swimmers, and this individual was gracious enough to slowly cruise though my field of vision. Gannet, Auk and gull species continued to be identified, and when the Pilot joined us at 12:30hrs to guide us through to Greenock, we added Crow, Cormorant, Shag and a single Kittiwake to the tally.

Just as we began to consolidate our findings for the shift at 14:00hrs, the Captain alerted us to the Grey Seal moving out to sea as we moved into the docking area, a fine aperitif to the day.

As the ship was loaded in Greenoch I watched a beautiful dawn, snow-capped distant mountains) and the port waters silvery mirrors, with the clouds rolling in like a feather duvet. There were Eider ducks, Black Guillemot and a resident Grey Seal lifting its head for a breath before diving back beneath the calm water.

Day 2: Irish Sea
At the start of day 2 we were still in port until 13:00.  The weather was interesting moving from quite thick fog to being able to see to the horizon.  There was even a small glimpse of blue sky.  Though not enough to constitute a nice day according to my Gran.  As she always told us "It's a nice day if there is enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor's trousers".

On the marine mammal front there was a single grey seal as we left the port.  This was the same seal we had counted on the way into the port and also seen a couple of times while moored.  Presumable a resident.

While in port we had seen a few Eider ducks so we were hoping to see some of these when leaving as none had been seen while surveying.  Alas none appeared.  There was also a distinct lack of gannets.  We pass right by Elsa Craig, a large gannet colony without seeing any.  A few did appear after the island but still not many.


Day 3: Celtic Sea and Western Approaches

Rainbow - NC

A beautiful series of rainbows illuminated the Celtic sea, though we were not tempted to dive for the fabled pot of gold. Shortly after midday, just off the Scilly Isles, I had my first sight of a Common dolphin bow riding, just a single individual, but it thrilled me to see the creature in the wild.

In the early afternoon, as we started to cross the mouth of the Channel, Robin the Team Leader pointed out two Puffins, skittering out of the ship's path, another first for me. A minute later a Great Skua did a fly-by, so maybe these were part of the 'pot of gold' reward!

I managed to see a Grey Seal, surface then gracefully dive under the bow of the ship, and later Robin spotted a second Common Dolphin catching a wave along the starboard Bow. Despite remnants of the mist and fog, we logged Great Skua, lots of gull species, Kittiwake, Gannet, Guillemot and Fulmar; it proved again that no day is without plenty of marine life to add to our data sheets.

Day 4: Bay of Biscay
The sea conditions were not quite as good as they had been the evening before but still not bad.  The main issue was the sun.  There were no clouds in the sky and with the ship heading south we had to contend with the sun all day.

This was to be a day of 'Firsts'.

Striped Dolphin RL
Striped Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

It was the first day of spring on the twenty first of March.  It was my sixty first birthday and the first birthday I had spent on a ship.  It was Nuala first sighting of Stripped Dolphin and any whale in the wild. It was also almost the first time the cetacean count would exceed that of the birds on a survey I had been on.  It was only a large group of gannets and other gulls sitting around as we approached Bilbao that finally brought the bird count up.

On the cetacean front we saw three separate groups of whale blows.  Judging by the blow these were most likely Fin whales.  We had pods of Common, Stripped and Bottle-nosed dolphins.  The pod of about a dozen Stripped slowly swam passed the ship giving us a good view and even getting some identification photos of them.  As we approached Bilbao there was a group of Bottle-nose dolphin splashing around ahead of the ship.  To add the species count there were a couple of Tuna leaping from the water outside Bilbao.

The birds were a bit of a no-show.  We did not see the first one until we had been surveying for over an hour.  We did see a number of Passerine sp. And we suspect we may have double counted some of these as they would re-appear every now and again so we think they may have been finding a resting spot somewhere on the ship.  One landed on the containers so we were able to get a good look and identify it as a White wagtail.

So what did we learn today?

  • It's good to be first
  • It's a lot sunnier in Bilbao than it is in the UK

Day 5: Southern Biscay
As the Endeavor left Bilbao, the coastal cliffs revealed the folds and drapes of a prehistoric uplift of seabed mudstone, eroded now into the rolling hills and crags of the land of the Spanish Basques, and we set off through the green seas and into the Bay of Biscay.

The deeps of the bay soon turned blue, and there were many groups of Striped and Common Dolphin who came to check the ship out. The Common Dolphin came to bow ride, and the Stripped to shoot across the bows, some in pods of a score or more.

Basking Shark RL
Basking Shark (Robin Langdon)

Robin identified several Cuvier's Whale, and we were overjoyed to spot a Basking Shark. Very few birds were to be seen once we were out into the deep blue, but so many dolphins showed that there was plenty of marine life to be identified. A most productive day.

Finally, as the sun set into a milky sea, like a blood orange it sank into the port side horizon and another observation day ended.

Day 6: Northern Biscay
Today was never going to be as good as yesterday.  We were now up into northern Biscay, passed where you normally see the whales.  The sea state was reasonable but most of the day it was overcast, finally ending in fog.

Common Dolphin Robin Langdon 01
Common Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

Only 3 small pods of dolphin were spotted during the day and this despite the excellent window cleaning that took place.  There was another sighting but as it was only very brief, we could not decide if it was cetacean, shark or tuna.

The first officer told us we should have been up on the bridge around 5:30 am as quite a few dolphin came to the ship to have a bow ride.  The Following morning a while after we left the bridge a large group of dolphins came into the bow.

We were accompanied from first getting to the bridge by a group of Lesser black-backed gulls.  The number in the group ranged from about 12 to 20.  They stayed with us until 11:30 when their stomachs got the better of them and headed off to a passing fishing boat.  There was a group that came up behind us a couple of hours later which could have been from the original group.  They only stayed for 10 minutes before heading off to yet another fishing boat.

There were long periods of the day when nothing was seen.

Day 7: Irish Sea

Dawn rose with a waning Gibbous moon still in the sky and we made our way to the Bridge for our final day of observation. The coast of Wales and the Isle of Angelsea were beautiful in the morning light and we passed the Skerries lighthouse, there were clear skies to the coastline, the clouds were low, rolling cumulous and though we logged many Skua and Auk species, no cetacean were spotted until we began the run past the wind farm arrays.

Liverpool Tug Boat
Docking (Nuala Campbell)

The Pilot boarded at about GMT 11:30, and again I was impressed by the excellent collaboration between the Pilot boat crew and the ship's crew. As we rode towards Liverpool we sighted two Harbour Porpoise and so accompanied by many Common Gull we finally came into the lock and safe harbour.

For my first long voyage with MarineLife and the Endeavor I was delighted to have had the privilege of observing and logging such a variety of species. I was also impressed with the potted plants grown by the crew, the Captain told me they were from orange pips reclaimed from a previous First Officer and tenderly nurtured by the officers.

A massive thanks to all the officers and deck crew of the Endeavor for their friendly welcome, I hope to meet them again on further survey voyages. Thanks also to Robin, the MarineLife team leader who has supplied wonderful images of our many species of marine creatures and has helped hone my identification skills.