MARINELife Survey Report: ‘Encounter’ Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao-Liverpool 7th – 13th July 2019

Steve McAusland; Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Weather conditions for the whole time at sea were calm and sunny with occasional clouds

Summary of Sightings
Marine mammals
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 6
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 192
Cuvier's Beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris 1
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 31
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 36
Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas 2
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 3
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 7
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 8

Auk sp. Alcidae 15
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 11
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 2
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 4
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris borealis 52
Eider Somateria mollissima 11
Fulmar  Fulmarus glacialis 24
Gannet Morus bassanus 997
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 56
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis 1
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 380
Gull sp. Laridae 261
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 103
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 14
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 13
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 1394
Puffin Fratercula arctica 2
Razorbill Alca torda 4
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 30
Tern sp. Sternidae 2

Terrestrial Birds
Swift Apus apus 1
Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula 1
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 2
Pigeon sp. Columbidae 6
Gadwall Anas Strepera 8

On Saturday the 6th of July 2019, I made my way to Liverpool docks where upon I joined the JR Shipping Container ship the MV Encounter. I was welcomed aboard by the ship's Captain Niels Johannes. Niels introduced me to some of the crew and showed me my cabin and the more important areas of the ship i.e. the galley and the bridge. The second most important crew member was Marc the ships cook who over the period of time I was onboard produced the most enjoyable breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I turned in quite early as the ship was leaving at 10.30pm and I wanted to be on the bridge as early as possible.

Encounter Steve McAusland

Encounter (Steve McAusland)

Day 1. The 7th of July 2019 - Liverpool to Greenock (Scotland)

I was on the bridge at 05:00am in time to see the Isle of Man from the starboard wing looking rather gloomy. Soon the gloom cleared and we enjoyed a beautiful warm sunny sail to Greenock. The further north we went the more sea birds could be seen and as we passed by Ailsa Craig the number of Gannet went off the scale!

Isle of Man Steve McAusland

Isle of Man (Steve McAusland)

Continuing to sail north we soon past the Isles of Arran and Bute and as the Firth of Clyde narrowed the first Harbour Porpoises were seen a total of 14 individuals were observed, however, I'm sure there were more that I didn't see.

As we arrived in Greenock the Captain manoeuvred the ship to our berth in the port and here we stayed until Monday, unloading some of the containers and then loading more that were bound for Bilbao. Looking around the quay I came across a few Black Guillemot rafting in the early evening sun.

Black Guillemot Steve McAusland 01

Black Guillemot (Steve McAusland)

Day 2. The 8th of July 2019 - Greenock to Bilbao (Spain)

Departing from Greenock at 10:00am our journey to Bilbao was under way, again Harbour Porpoise were seen, this time 20 individuals, plus a Grey Seal and the first Minke Whale of the survey.

Harbour Porpoise Steve McAusland 01

Harbour Porpoise (Steve McAusland)

Day 3. The 9th of July 2019 - Greenock to Bilbao

An early start at 06:00am the view from the bridge was absolutely stunning the weather was perfect! Today was to turn out to be the day that I would see the most dolphins ever! Both Common and Bottlenose species were seen, plus two more Minke Whale.

Minke Whale Steve McAusland 01

Minke Whale (Steve McAusland)

Passing Lundy Island, albeit 50 miles to its west was noted and as Lands End was spotted off the Port side the number of Dolphin increased. By 09:30am the seas colour had changed to aquamarine with only a few Cirrus clouds above, perfect conditions for Cetacean surveying.

By 19:00pm the French coast was many miles off our Port side and by morning we would be in the Bay of Biscay.

Day 4. The 10th of July 2019 - Bay of Biscay to Bilbao

Again, an early start, 05:30am, but wow, the first of 15 Fin Whale we recorded, these huge majestic mammals are second only in size to the massive Blue Whale! More Common Dolphin were spotted throughout the day, however the strangest thing that happened on this day was that not one single bird was spotted in the whole days survey.

Fin Whale Steve McAusland 01

Fin Whale (Steve McAusland)

We arrived in the port of Bilbao that evening and we stayed there until Friday.

Day 5. The ship was in port.

Day 6. The 12th of July 2019 - Bilbao to Liverpool

The ship slipped its berth at 04:00am and I was on the bridge at 06:00am to see the sun had risen over the starboard beam. Today turned out to be the best day of the survey with the following cetacean's species recorded, Fin Whale, Long Finned Pilot Whale, Common and Striped Dolphin and Cuvier's Beaked Whale.

Not long after a lunch break I returned to the bridge and watched a very large gas tanker as it moved north on our port side, moving at a faster rate than that of ours, suddenly I saw a whale blow, then another, two Fin Whales were surfacing in front of the tanker, I was concerned to say the least as I thought they would be hit by the ship bow! Thankfully they moved to the ships starboard side and were out of danger. They were quite a distance from our ship, however close enough to almost witness whale strike and a strong coffee was needed following this experience.

A few hours later the most beautiful sight was observed as two Fin Whale surfaced alternatively.

Fin Whale Steve McAusland 03

Fin Whale (Steve McAusland)

During the day the crew deployed a "Continuous Plankton Recorder" which was towed for a measured time from the stern of the ship, the Captain and crew were happy for attend the launch etc. This survey has been conducted by a number of ships since 1931!

Plankton recording Steve McAusland

Plankton Survey (Steve McAusland)

Day 7. The 13th of July 2019 - Bilbao to Liverpool

Plenty of birds recorded and many Common Dolphin on the last full day of surveying. The final leg of the journey was done through the night.

Day 8. The 14th of July 2019 - Liverpool

We arrived in Liverpool in the early hours on Sunday and as the ship was gently manoeuvred in to the lock and then towards the quay, I spent these last two hours chatting the Captain, and talking about my time onboard etc. I have to say; I've learnt so much about life at sea on a merchant ship rather than a ferry. The crew were superb and I thank Niels Johannes and his First Mate Thymen Bouma for their hospitably and for supporting MARINElife.

Lastly, as the Encounter finally came to rest at the quay, a Harbour Porpoise was spotted from the bridge within the dock, a superb way to end a brilliant survey!

Steve McAusland; Research surveyor for MARINElife