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Dover-Dunkirk survey 24 February

Driving down to Dover, we watched impressive cumulonimbus thunder-clouds building over the Channel.  Stopping on the Western Heights above the port, we admired a dramatic view of heavy rain showers out over the straits, with mixed feelings about the good sea conditions but definite promise of very heavy rains.

Dover (Helen Swift)

Check in at Dover was smooth, as always, and enjoying the sun, we watched the Jackdaws seeming to play on the air above the cliffs and dreamed of the day when Chough might join them, should the planned reintroduction in this area go ahead and be successful.

Shortly after boarding, we were welcomed to the bridge by Captain May and his friendly team of officers. As always watching the Captain and crew manoeuvre the ship out of port we marvelled at the skill involved especially given how busy these waters are and the effects or current and wind. We started recording as soon as we had left the Dover breakwaters and immediately encountered a range of seabird species, including Gannet, Razorbill, Guillemot and Larus gull species, while a single Red-throated Diver was spotted by Tom. A male Grey Seal was soon seen beginning our mammal sightings for the survey.

While it wasn’t quite four seasons in one day, we were kept busy with recording effort data due to the highly variable weather conditions we encountered on this survey. Sea state, visibility, and precipitation – all of which can impact on the ability to spot wildlife – varied markedly throughout. Thankfully, glare – which can also impair ability to spot creatures – did not occur on this survey due to heavy cloud cover throughout.

Auk flock (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

It is remarkable how different surveys can be from one month to another and after doing a January Dover-Calais survey dominated by gulls, this time it was the turn of the auks to dominate. Auks were seen in considerable numbers throughout the survey, with particularly high concentrations on the French side of the Channel over the sandbanks and shallows east of Calais. Flocks of considerable size were seen either in flight or resting on the water. In some places a distant scan with binoculars would pick up near continuous flocks as far as we could see. Interestingly, some of the birds were still in their non-breeding (‘winter’) plumage, while others were already in their breeding (‘summer’) plumage, and yet others were in-between (‘transition’ plumage). Given the time of year and large concentrations of auks, we suspect these birds were in the process of migrating back to their breeding colonies.

'I2' Gannet - approx 2 years old (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

While the majority of Gannet seen on this survey were adults, it was interesting and heartening to also see some younger birds, ranging from the ‘I2’ to ‘I5’ stages. We are, sadly, all too aware of the impact bird flu has had on Gannet numbers and so it was nice to see some that have been successfully raised despite these difficult years. These birds begin life with a mainly dark brown plumage, but get more pale feathers with every moult, until they have transitioned to their predominantly white adult plumage after about five years.

Kittiwake were also relatively numerous and included both adult and juvenile birds – the juveniles identifiable by a striking black ‘M’ pattern across the upper wings.

Harbour Porpoise and seals were also seen on this survey…mainly by Tom. Time after time, Tom would spot something and, more often than not, it would disappear before I was able see it too, resulting in me becoming exponentially more irritated with every marine mammal sighting.  As the survey drew to a close, I was feeling frustrated and somewhat incompetent for having failed to spot a mammal for myself. And then I finally redeemed myself, when I spotted a Harbour Porpoise that had popped up just ahead of the ship…which was missed by Tom.

We would like to pass on our sincere thanks to Captain May and the crew of Dunkerque Seaways for accommodating us to carry out this research and making us feel so welcome.

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


Outbound: wind S 3-6, cloudy with intermittent rain of variable intensity, visibility highly variable, from excellent to poor (>20 to <1 km)

Return: wind SW backing NW 4-6, overcast with intermittent light-continual heavy rain, visibility highly variable, from excellent to poor (>20 to <1 km)

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals

Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 2

Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 4

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2

Cetacean sp. 1



Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 1

Gannet Morus bassanus 155

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 11

Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1

Great Skua Stercorarius skua 2

Guillemot Uria aalge 43

Herring Gull Larus argentatus 13

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 175

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 3

Razorbill Alca torda 194

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 1

Shag Gulosus aristotelis 1

Gull sp. 3

Larus Gull sp. 36

Auk sp.  370

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