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Dover-Calais survey 16 March

We were somewhat apprehensive about travelling to Dover today due to the M25 being partially closed, however, a change to an earlier departure for the survey today very fortuitously meant we avoided delays. Arriving in Dover the weather was quite a contrast to our survey last month; instead of the dramatic stormy skies of February we were greeted by sunshine and a beautiful calm – perfect conditions. We had allowed plenty of time for the journey down and so enjoyed watching Buzzards displaying over the western heights as we waited to go down to the port – surely a sign that spring was on the way.

Harbour Porpoise (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

Once aboard and out of the harbour, conditions were just as good as they had seemed from the heights. Sea state was only 1 and the only slight negative was a little glare. Almost as soon as we cleared the harbour, one of the crew spotted a Harbour Porpoise ahead of us, though sadly we were not able to get onto it quick enough to see ourselves. We kept watching though and had our own, a pair just a minute later, doing a nice slow surface in front of us that gave us both good views.

Birds were scattered about today in singles or small groups, with quite a diversity but no big flocks or feeding groups. Highlights of the birding on the outbound leg were two Common Scoter resting together on the sea (unusual in that we normally see them here only in flight and usually in much larger groups) and a Red-throated Diver that popped up right in front of the ship and very close in, giving us beautiful views for a few moments before it flew. Gannet were scattered around sometimes obviously searching for fish and occasionally diving, but without any major feeding frenzies.

Red-throated Diver (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

As we got towards mid-channel bird activity picked up a bit and, sure enough, soon we had Harbour Porpoise again with three more sightings, bringing our Harbour Porpoise count to five for the survey so far. As ever, views were brief - just tantalising glimpses of fin and back as they surfaced, black amidst the silvery wavelets. Another slight lull followed before the shallows of the approach to Calais brought another three Harbour Porpoise in two sightings. With conditions so good, this was easily living up to our hopes.

No seals were seen during the outbound leg of the survey but in Calais harbour, as usual, Common Seal were hauled out on the beach, I suspect enjoying the quiet of the undisturbed beaches within the harbour security area.

The return was quite a contrast to outbound. Six Shoveler flying west shortly after leaving Calais were a slight surprise, but the main birds for the return were a constant stream of Gannet all heading westwards. We saw no more cetaceans but had a few seals. Over the ships radio we could overhear messages relating to a fishing vessel fishing in the straits and given we could not see this to our east and noting the Gannet heading west, we wondered if the fish (and fisherman) were somewhere westward, potentially with the Gannet heading in to join them and maybe the cetaceans too. Sadly, whatever was going on was outside our view and we could only speculate.

Our thanks to the Captains and the crew of Côte de Flandres for making us welcome and looking after us throughout the survey.

Helen Swift and Tom Forster, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)


Outbound: E 1-3, sea state 1-2, sunshine with some high cloud, very good visibility.

Return: wind 1 becoming S 4, high cloud, very good visibility


Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals

Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 8

Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 1

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1

Unidentified Seal sp. 1



Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 16

Common Gull Larus canus 11

Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 2

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 2

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 2

Gannet Morus bassanus 173

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 14

Guillemot Uria aalge 20

Herring Gull Larus argentatus 19

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 37

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 2

Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 2

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 6

Auk sp. 7

Diver sp. 3

Gull sp. 9

Larus Gull sp. 11

Terrestrial birds

Shoveler Spatula clypeata 6

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