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7 October - Whales and what might have been

We’re at the start of transect 14, the much anticipated transect that takes us out to the Celtic Deep and traditionally a good transect for Fin Whales, and the weather conditions are reasonable. The morning is relatively quiet, a steady trickle of Gannets to record and the occasional encounter with small groups of Common Dolphin. However, great excitement at 09:13 when I see a Cory’s Shearwater (photo 1 & 2) which glides gracefully back and forth through the recording area before drifting away. This is the first time I’ve seen one on a Peltic survey and I think it’s a first for the survey full stop.

Photos 1 & 2: Cory's Shearwater

I have to say it’s not totally unexpected as there have been exceptional numbers in the Celtic Sea, English Channel and SW approaches since early August but as the autumn has gone on numbers have dropped and I was a little concerned that the chance to get them on the Peltic may be slipping away – fortunately, I needn’t have worried. Cory’s breed in the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic islands and move north during early autumn (along with Balearic Shearwaters) and are seen in varying numbers in the SW each year – usually tens or maybe just into the hundreds but this year there have been many thousands.

Photo 3: Great Shearwater

We broke off transect mid-morning for a trawl, which allowed time to observe (without recording) and taking photos. On this occasion there were a few birds about, best of which were a couple of Great Shearwaters (photos 3 & 4) that came into the trawl. There were huge numbers seen on survey last autumn and I thought it was going to be years before I saw them again but there have been good numbers in the SW again this year and, like the Cory’s, they’ve hung around. Unlike Cory’s the Great Shearwaters we see breed in the South Atlantic and spend our summer up in the North Atlantic. These are likely non-breeding birds (breeding birds will almost certainly be back on their territories by now). It’s not often the two species occur in large numbers in the same year, so this year has been special.

Photo 4: Great Shearwater

Bird flu has once again been having an awful impact on breeding seabirds around the UK this summer, although thankfully Gannet don’t seem to have been impacted as badly as last year. It was heartening to see research from Bass Rock showing that birds with dark eyes (bird flu caused haemorrhaging) had recovered from bird flu and had paired up as normal. I had already got photos of birds with dark eyes on this survey but today I got a photo of one with one normal eye and one dark (photo 5). Interestingly, it was only on looking at the photo that I realised that it had damage to its left wing (the side with the dark eye). It looks like a collision with a trawl wire or something like that, whilst this can happen to a bird with normal eyesight it could suggest that this bird’s vision is impaired.

Photo 5: Gannet with one dark eye and wing injury

We’ve seen very few gulls at the trawls so far this year, so it was nice to see this splendid juvenile Great Black-backed Gull (photo 6). Unlike gulls, we’ve been doing well for Sooty Shearwaters and there were more at the trawl today (photo 7).

Photo 6: Great Black-backed Gull
Photo 7: Sooty Shearwater

We had been back on transect for an hour or so when one of the CEFAS scientists spotted a whale blow ahead, we didn’t see it again until it was off the beam (still c800m away) but we got a glimpse of back to confirm it was Fin Whale. While looking at these animals (it turned out there were two) I saw blows away in the distance near the horizon (likely some 2-4 nautical miles away). Amazingly, as I watched they just kept appearing in rapid succession, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, there were a minimum of 12 and possibly as many as 20 animals present, in a fairly tight group. The striking thing was that the blows were powerful but low and bushy and very unlike a Fin Whale blow – were they Humpbacks? Sadly, we’ll never know as we were heading away from them, and they were already way too far off for a hope of a glimpse of animal.

Photos 8 & 9: Common Dolphin

The transect remained busy with numerous encounters with Common Dolphins (photos 8 & 9) and more Cory’s, Great and Sooty Shearwaters, including a mixed flock of Sooty and Great that took off as we approached (photo 10). The transect ended with a total of 25 encounters 138 Common Dolphin, plus the whales – transect 14 had lived up to its billing yet again.

Photo 10: Great & Sooty Shearwaters

As we crossed over to transect 15, we ran into sea fog, so dense that you could barely see beyond the bow, if this continued there’d be no surveying on the next transect! The fog wasn’t deep though and the sunlight through the fog caused a lovely fogbow (photo 11).

Photo 11: Fogbow

Miraculously, the fog cleared just as we turned on to transect 15 and we managed to get in an hour on transect before it got dark. It may only have been an hour, but we had 21 encounters with 85 Common Dolphin and birds were quality over quantity with 12 Cory’s Shearwater out of a total of 27 birds. A great way to end a great day.

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