UK/Ireland - Bilbao

Sightings Archives: June 2019

MARINELife Survey Report: ‘Encounter’ Liverpool-Portbury-Bilbao-Liverpool 2nd – 9th June 2019

Posted 12 June 2019

Rob and Jane Petley-Jones; Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Marine mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phoceana 3
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 513
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 42
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 163
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 30
Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus 1
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 5
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 9

Sunfish Mola mola 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 51
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3447
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 4
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 5
Gannet Morus bassanus 1061
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 5
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 24
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 27
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 40
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 15
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 77
Little Tern Sterna albifrons 2
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 86
Puffin Fratercula arctica 154
Guillemot Uria aalge 238
Razorbill Alca torda 27
Auk sp. 107
Large gull sp. 125
Large Shearwater sp. 2
Tern sp. 1
Petrel sp. 2

Terrestrial Birds
Mute Swan Cygnus olor 2
Canada Goose Branta canadensis 4
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 15
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 2
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 2
Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta 1
Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula 1
Curlew  Numenius arquata 2
Swallow Hirundo rustica 2
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba 1

Day 1 Liverpool - 2 June

Weather: Mostly calm seas and fair weather; deteriorating to rough sea with big swell on last day.

After leaving our car at the Seaforth Dock car park Jane and I were given a lift in the port bus to the MV Encounter late in the afternoon, where we were warmly welcomed by the entire crew who were just sitting down to their supper, it being ship's time - an hour ahead!

Captain Arie Bruins sat with us while we ate our tea and chatted about the ship, his time as a seafarer, and the fact that this was to be his very last sailing as Master, as he retires when we get to Bilbao!  What a privilege to be part of his final voyage.  He has plans for his retirement and we wished him well with a hope that he will enjoy his as much as we do ours!  He has a small vessel, so the sea will still beckon.

After a tour of the bridge with First Officer Barend, we even had a look inside the emergency lifeboat and Jane even went inside this - just like in 'Captain Phillips', she said!  We spent the evening watching the Mute Swan and few gull in the dock, settling into our cabins, and preparing for an early start tomorrow morning.

The ship will leave Liverpool at 01.30 and we should be off Anglesey by dawn and on our way down the Celtic Sea toward the Bristol Channel and a late call into Avonmouth.

Guillemot Rob Petley Jones 04
Guillemot (Rob Petley-Jones)

Day 2 Anglesey-Avonmouth - 3 June

Weather: Moderate SW wind, sunshine, excellent visibility; Sea state 5 in Celtic Sea, decreasing to 2 in Severn Channel.

We got to the bridge just after sunrise with Anglesey away to port, and with a moderate swell and sea state ahead.  Bird activity was steady throughout the morning and early afternoon, with numbers of GuillemotRazorbillGannet and Fulmar passing by.  Manx Shearwater numbers were steady with the occasional raft of sitting birds, but Kittiwake were few and far between.

The ship was moving at quite a pace through the advancing swell so watching from the bridge was quite a challenge, but Arie explained that the ship was moving at full speed all day so as to catch the evening high tide at Avonmouth - if we did not get there in time it would mean a 12 hour delay there getting into the dock!

Grey Seal Annette Dutton 13
Grey Seal (Rob Petley-Jones)

As we passed to the west of Pembrokeshire and the islands of Skokholm, Skomer and Grassholm (white with its nesting Gannet colony - thankfully beyond 2km so no need to count them!) bird activity became intense, with large numbers of Puffin rafting on the sea or flying by in hurrying flocks, and the first of the day's two Grey Seal was spotted here.

We also had the pleasure of watching the lovely cadet training ship The Royalist battling north through the heavy swell!  A good day for finding out if your stomach is up to sailing!

As we turned into the mouth of the Bristol Channel, the swell thankfully decreased.  Rather surprisingly so did the bird sightings, with only the odd Gannet and Fulmar and a single Harbour Porpoise to keep us on our toes while the ship steamed up towards Avonmouth.

Jane and I are regular travellers on the M5 and know several the landmarks of this part of the West Country, so it was strange to see the two Severn Crossing bridges, Brean Down, and a very distant Glastonbury Tor from the different perspective of the sea.  The pilot came on board at Cardiff and we had a fascinating passage between Flatholm and Steepholm and then on to Avonmouth late in the evening.

Day 3 Avonmouth - Land's End - 4 June

Weather: Initially calm in Bristol Channel with sea state 0-1; increasing to 3 in Celtic Sea with frequent rain showers; later clearing to sunny conditions with infrequent showers

The Encounter left Avonmouth at 10.00 and entered the Bristol Channel through the rather tight lock!  A bit of a squeeze but Captain Bruins remained calm and collected - clearly, he has done this many times before!   The tide was falling fast and the exposed mudflats has a few feeding Curlew and Shelduck, and there was a bit of excitement occurred when one of the Shelduck flushed an Avocet and chased it around for a short while before both birds settled down to feed again.

The passage down the Bristol Channel was surprisingly quiet, with very few birds and only one Harbour Porpoise, which popped up briefly off Barry Island.  We were briefly visited by a solitary Ringed Plover, but this flew on when it realised there was no food on the containers.  An unusual piece of flotsam was also recorded - a plastic mannequin!  We were left wondering how such an item came to be floating up the Bristol Channel.

Our life became suddenly much busier the moment the ship turned south off Hartland Point where, with a rain-shrouded Lundy in the distance, the steady progression of Manx Shearwater began.  These birds were rarely out of view for the rest of the day and we were delighted to record increasing numbers every minute as we approached the seas off St Ives, where there was a very large gathering of Manx Shearwater and Gannet, feeding on an extensive shoal of fish.

Common Dolphin Steve McAusland 04
Common Dolphin (Steve McAusland)

This area also provided us with excellent views of three separate pods of Common Dolphin as the excited animals came in to bow-ride in front of the ship.  We even had to stop counting the shearwaters to record the dolphins' antics!

Teatime was special, as the crew had laid on a surprise retirement party for Captain Arie, and we were delighted when we were invited to attend.

The crew clearly have great affection and respect for Arie, and the First Officer, Barend, gave a touching speech about the man he has worked with for many years.

Day 4 Ushant - Central Biscay - 5 June

Weather: Moderate swell calming to 1; Sea state 2-3; sunny and excellent visibility all day.

We began a very long day of recording just after dawn and were entertained for the first two hours by nothing other than loads of Gannet!  All age classes were present and there were several groups of diving birds.  We mused on the mortality rates of the young birds and were especially intrigued by their ability to dive successful without breaking apart!  How do young Gannet learn how to dive safely?

One threat to Gannet of all ages must be the plastics which pollute our oceans, and this was brought home to us as a lovely adult Gannet flew by, with a large piece of plastic clearly caught in its beak.  Not much hope for this lovely creature.

Gannet Rob Petley-Jones 10
Gannet with plastic (Rob Petley-Jones)

It was just one such feeding group of Gannet which brought to our view the first of the very many dolphins we were to see during the day.  Not long afterwards, the sea burst into life with a very large pod of mixed Common Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin appeared away to port and began a classic dolphin-charge towards the bows.  In the end we assessed numbers to be about 350 Common Dolphin, with a further 50 Bottlenose Dolphin accompanying them.  The sea was alive with joyful beasts all trying to take advantage of the ship's bow wave and wake to have some fun!

Although bird activity was very quiet from late morning until dusk, there were some good moments.  A flurry of Storm Petrel just before lunch were a delight - how do these tiny birds survive out on the ocean? - while a very perplexing bird was the long-winged graceful petrel which defied identification as it flew into the midday glare.  A possible Pterodroma species?

At last we picked up the first of many Fin Whale blows, and the rest of the day was one of recording these magnificent animals as they passed the ship in a seeming endless procession.  We had some excellent views of several animals, with one just metres from the port side as we performed a rather strange 360 wide turn!  Barend, the First Officer, told us they were testing their compass, but it was all very confusing for the Fin Whale and several groups of boisterous Striped Dolphin who did not know which way to leap!

Fin Whale Rob Petley Jones 01
Fin Whale (Rob Petley-Jones)

A single very distant low sideways blow indicated the presence of a Sperm Whale, but no other blows were seen so this must remain only a possibility.  Almost the last bird of the day was a Balearic Shearwater which flew past in brilliant sunshine, showing its rather grubby-looking underparts - not at all like the very dapper Manx Shearwater of yesterday.

The Fin Whale blows continued until just before sunset when we finally left the bridge, exhausted after 14 hours recording but thoroughly satisfied with the excellence of the day.

Day 5 Santurtzi - 6 June

Weather: Sunny and calm

The Encounter docked at Santurtzi port at 0500 so there was no opportunity to look for marine wildlife on the approach to the port.  Instead we had a leisurely breakfast, collected out shore passes from Barent, and made our way out into the wilds of Northern Spain!

Sawfly Orchid_RPJ
Sawfly Orchid (Rob Petley-Jones

The walk up the Serantes hill from Santurtzi is a must for anyone interested in wildlife.  This expedition has never failed us yet, and today was no exception.  We encountered several orchid species, some not to be found in Britain, and a good number of butterflies moths and bumblebees.  The sun shone us all day except when a large shadow passed over us - we looked up to see a Griffon Vulture eyeing us up as potential tea!

Griffon Vulture Rob Petley-Jones 01a
Griffon Vulture (Rob Petley-Jones)

Returning to the Encounter late in the afternoon we met the new Captain, Niels Johannes, while we were having tea.  He explained that a short but vicious storm was due in Biscay in the next 18 hours, with predicted waves of 9 metres!!

He then said the ship will take a different route back to Britain, by sailing along the Spanish coast towards Finisterre and then heading north behind the receding storm, where waves will only be 3 metres!  Tomorrow should be an interesting day!

Day 5 Wildlife seen on Serantes Hill - Butterflies
Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius
Large White Pieris brassicae
Small White Artogeia rapae
Clouded Yellow Colias crocea
Pale Clouded Yellow Colias hyale
Cleopatra Gonepteryx cleopatra
Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas
Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus
Brown Argus Aricia agestis
Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus
Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus f. ceronus
Camberwell Beauty
Large Tortoiseshell Nymphalis ploychloros
Peacock Inachis io
Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
Painted Lady Vanessa cardui
Fritillary sp.
Marbled White Melanargia galathea
Tree Grayling Neohipparchia statilinus
Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina
Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus
Speckled Wood Pararge a.aegeria
Wall Brown Lasiommata megera
Red-underwing Skipper Spialia sertorius
Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon
Small Skipper Thymelicus sylvestris
Large Skipper Ochlodes venatus

Day 5 Wildlife seen on Serantes Hill - Birds
Griffon Vulture Gryps fulvus 4
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus 2
Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 4
Stonechat Saxicola torquata
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti
Crested Tit Parus cristatus

Day 5 Wildlife seen on Serantes Hill - Orchids and plants
Heart-flowered Orchid Serapias cordigera
Sawfly Orchid Ophrys tenthredinifera
Yellow Bee Orchid Ophrys lutea
Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera
Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis

Day 6 South Biscay to Mid Biscay - 7 June

Weather: Sea state 9 decreasing slowly to 5; Sunny with some showers early on; Wind force 8 falling to 5 later.

With the force 10 winds of Storm Miguel lashing the Bay of Biscay into a frenzy with a 9 metre swell in the north, Captain Johannes very wisely decided to take a westerly route along the coast of Northern Spain for number of hours before turning north with the worst of the storm racing away to the east.

We got on deck (no breakfast for us - delicate tums!) to see the snow-capped Picos de Europa rising magnificently to the south while the Encounter battled through equally mountainous seas, almost as white as the mountains with spray, with waves from the 5 metre swell crashing into the bow in steady progression.

Any recording was going to be very difficult today, but we pressed on counting the numbers of Gannet - mostly boisterous juveniles and immature birds of various ages - and the small numbers of Yellow-legged Gull which joined the ship to cruise in the updrafts from the wall of containers.

Long hours without any sightings of any wildlife, and then a flurry of activity all at once!  A couple of groups of Striped Dolphin came leaping in to bow ride in front of the ship.  These animals thoroughly entertained the First Officer Barend and the Cadet Matthieu, who were both eagerly getting into the swing of cetacean recording!

Sunfish Rob Petley-Jones 01a
Sunfish (Rob Petley-Jones)

A Sunfish passed along the starboard beam, lying flat on the sea until it flipped into an upright position and wiggled its fins, before flopping back like a pancake to lie flat on the surface again.
Shortly afterwards, another mystery petrel - long thin wings and pale -showed itself very briefly between the rolling peaks of the swell.

The view was far too brief to allow any identification, but we had been hoping that a by-product of the storm might have been to delivery of some of the Atlantic rarities like Fea's Petrel.  Frustratingly we will never know what this bird was, but could it have been….?

Day 7 Ushant to St George's Channel - 8 June

Weather: Sea state steady 3; Sunny and excellent visibility.


The horrible Storm Miguel long past and sunshine all day meant we had perfect watching conditions for the crossing of the English Channel from Ushant towards Cornwall.  A brief flurry of activity from a few of the Ushant Common Dolphin and a small number of passing Balearic Shearwater was followed by a rather long period of few observations, so we just watched the sea and sky, and counted the ships heading up and down the Channel and mused on where they were bound and what cargoes they were carrying.

It was not until early evening, when the Cornish coast appeared as a shadow on the horizon, that we started to see bigger numbers of birds, with increasing numbers of Manx Shearwater and Gannet flying north.  As we sailed past Land's End numbers of these birds as well as of Fulmar increased, and we were pleased that we had seen at least some birds after what had been a rather quiet day.

Just as we were contemplating whether to stop surveying after 12 hours of observing, we had to get our wits together fast as a feeding mass of Gannet and Manx Shearwater came into view.  Amongst the wheeling and diving birds we could see a pod of Common Dolphin feeding on the fishy bonanza!  Jane took charge of monitoring the dolphins while I did my best to count the mass of birds, and we sank back near to exhaustion as the spectacle passed into the wake of the ship.

Manx Shearwater Adrian Shephard 02
Manx Shearwater (Adrian Shephard)

Then…. another feeding frenzy of birds and dolphins as active as the first.   More frenetic counting and observing, and then sinking back even more exhausted!

Then…another two feeding flocks and pods!  Our pens were red hot on the record sheets, and the thoughts of aching backs, knees and feet were firmly put away as we captured the scene for the records.

We finally left the bridge close to physical breakdown, but fully satisfied with an amazing hour of watching the spectacular marine wildlife we so love.

Day 8 Hollyhead Island - Liverpool - 9 June

Weather: Sea state 2-1; Sunny and excellent visibility.

A lovely morning at sea welcomed us to the bridge as the Encounter was rounding Holyhead Island into Liverpool Bay.  Plenty of Gannet, Manx Shearwater and Kittiwake activity entertained us throughout the steady cruise towards Liverpool, but it was not until the Liverpool pilot had been picked up that we recorded the first mammals with single Grey Seal and Harbour Porpoise, while the pilot pointed out a group of loafing Harbour Seal on a sandbank.

The Encounter finally docked in Liverpool after lunch - a really tasty meal provided by the ship's cook Mark - and we left the very friendly Encounter family after a really good week.

Our thanks to JR Shipping for their support in allowing this exciting and productive survey to continue, and particular thanks to Captains Arie Bruins and Niels Johannes and the great crew of the Encounter for their warm welcome to their happy ship.  Particular thanks to First Officer Barend van Winden who really made us feel part of the ship's family, and for his enthusiasm for the wildlife we showed him.  He has all the makings of a fine marine wildlife observer!

Rob Petley-Jones and Jane Petley-Jones, Research Surveyors for MARINElife