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Met Office survey 24 May-1 June

Robin Langdon, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity no: 1110884, reg company no.: 5057367)


Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals

Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 62

Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 192

Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 2

Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 7

Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 84

Unidentified dolphin sp. 10

Unidentified seal sp. 1

Unidentified whale sp. 2

Seabirds

Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris borealis 2

Dunlin Calidris alpina 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 89

Gannet Morus bassanus 549

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 1

Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1

Guillemot Uria aalge 10

Herring Gull Larus argentatus 48

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 111

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 67

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 104

Swift Apus apus 1

Larus sp. 2

Gull sp. 214


24th May – Heading for Gascoyne buoy

Due to Covid restrictions we joined the ship on the 21st but did not sail till the 24th so After a few days in a bubble everyone was keen to get this trip started. This was a Met Office trip to go and service a number of buoys. First leg was heading for the Gascoyne buoy, a French buoy in Biscay.


The James Cook set sail around 8:30 and I went to the bridge just before 11 am as we passed the Needles. Due to Covid I had not been on a survey for over 2 years so it was a bit like starting all over again. On my climb up to the bridge it got me thinking, why the bridge is called the bridge.


Well ships were traditional steered from the quarter deck. However when paddle steamers came along this presented an issue as the view was somewhat obstructed by the paddles. The captain could have climbed on top of the paddle housing but access was needed by the engineers to inspect the blades. In the interest of efficiency a ‘bridge’ was built between the two paddle wheels, this started the bridge in the most literal sense and became the ships bridge as we know it today.

Gannet (Robin Langdon)

I slowly got into the swing of things again and remembering what I needed to do. Birds passed the ship in small numbers, thankfully. All the old favourites were there with Gannet, Herring Gull, Fulmar and Manx Shearwater. There were only very few auks and Kittiwakes seen.


It was a few hours before the first cetacean. A group of dolphin were seen a little way off the ship probably feeding. A couple more groups of Common Dolphin were seen later that day so a nice start.


There was even a couple of bits of fosforescent cloud later that evening to enjoy.


So what have we learnt today:

· Don’t go on a paddle steamer with no bridge, the captain cannot see where he is going

Fosforescent cloud (Robin Langdon)

25th May – Continue heading to Gascoyne buoy

This was an early start. I made my way up to the bridge at just before 5 am to find I had forgotten to allow for our travel west in getting the sunrise time, it was still pretty dark when I got there and to add to this it was overcast – I could have had an extra hour in bed.

Sightings were fairly sparse, Gannet being the most regular passer-by. This continued through the day for the birds.

Common Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

No cetacean turned up until after lunch when a pod of Common Dolphin headed into the bow. A Sunfish was also spotted and recorded only to be struck off later as we no longer collect Sunfish data, Ahh well it least it got a mention in the blog unless the editor cuts it out.

As we got deeper into Biscay whale blows were seen, with both Minke and Fin Whales coming within 500 metres of the ship.

Fin Whale (Robin Langdon)

Then just before 8pm the waters broke. There were groups of both Common and Striped Dolphin coming to the ship. A number of whale blows out in front of the ship. At one point I was trying to write down two separate whales and a pod of dolphin. During this commotion a single Gannet, the first in a long time flew through but was never recorded as there was too much other stuff going on and by the time that was all under control I was not sure exactly what time the Gannet had passed. That should tide me over till tomorrow when we start again.

Striped Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

Tide over - At first glance, this would seem to be an obviously nautical term. Today it means to make a small bit of something, usually money, last until a supply comes in, as in borrowing some money to tide you over till payday. However, the meaning has changed over the years. Once upon a time, ships could only move under sail power or, in the absence of wind, float along with the tide called a tide over. One could say the floating would tide the ship over until wind came again to move it along.


So what have we learnt today:

· If you want to get mentioned in dispatches wait till there is nothing going on

· Sunfish need to be nice to the editor to get a mention (Editor – they really are just as interesting as anything else - below is a picture of a 4 metre adult from the Pacific, ones seen in the NE Atlantic are considerably smaller, usually less than a metre across)

Sunfish (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

26th May – Heading for Brittany buoy

We arrived on the buoy at about 4 am so no early morning survey required. For this one they had to lift the old buoy out of the water, disconnect it from the mooring chain and then deploy the new buoy back into the water. Luckily the conditions were really nice for doing this. While they were changing the buoys I spent a couple of hours on the deck seeing what was around. The sea conditions were very good but in that time I only spotted 3 birds, 2 I4 Gannets and a Whimbrel – I was a little taken aback when it landed on the deck for a short while.

Whimbrel on deck (Robin Langdon)

Taken aback - A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.

We set sail at about 3pm after they had successfully changed the buoy. Conditions were excellent with a sea state of 0 with a 2 metre swell. In the next 6 hours the lack of birds continued, a group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls being the only birdlife seen. There was also a distinct lack of ships so we must have been well in the back of beyond.


There were a couple of dolphin sightings soon after we set sail but then they went quite. Then slowly around 5 pm more started to appear. At one point I was straining to see a group of dolphin 1000 metres ahead of the ship through my binoculars when the captain pointed out it was easy to look at the ones 50 metres away just coming into the bow, I had to agree. Bottlenose, Striped and Common Dolphin were all seen and photographed. Various whale blows were seen, most thought to be Minke.

Striped Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

So what did we learn today:

· Always listen to what the captain tells you


27th May – Arriving at Brittany Buoy and heading to K1 buoy

We were due to arrive at the next buoy around 7am so I decided it was not worth getting up for a short survey so opted for the lie in. As quoted by Julie Roberts in Pretty Women, “Big Mistake”. We did not arrive until 8am and during that period lots of dolphins were seen by Phil the officer on the bridge coming into bow ride. Ahh well you can’t win them all.


This was the Brittany buoy. They had to deploy a new buoy and retrieve the old one from the water. This took most of the day eventually setting sail for the next buoy, K1, at 6pm.


Not a great deal was seen in the 3 hours before it got dark, just A few Gannet and Fulmars. A small group of dolphin were briefly seen, most probably Common Dolphin but not seen clearly.

So what have we learned today

· The early bird catches the worm


28th May – Heading to buoy K1

Determined not to make the same mistake as yesterday I was going to get up for dawn whatever any one said. So just after 5:30am I was at my station. Unfortunately no one told the cetacean. We arrived at buoy K1 just after 8am. In that time no cetacean were spotted.

There were a reasonable number of Gannets and Fulmars. There were quite a lot of sub-adult Gannet, more than I have seen on previous trips.


The technicians had a tricky operation to perform on the buoy. They had to lift it out of the water, stand it upright on the deck and then change the top section before releasing it back into the water. They had tried this on dry land but never on the back of a rocking ship. There was a bit of head scratching but once a plan was formulated it all went smoothly. Just as well as they have to perform the same operation on the next buoy, K2.


You can tell we had been there a while because a couple of House Martins decided to set up home above the bridge, only leaving when we moved off from the buoy. I guess they will have to find another home – I think nesting material might have been tricky to find.

We set off at about 4:30 pm. By now the sea state had worsened to a 6. The swell had reduced from the previous 2 metres to about a metre. This meant spotting was going to be challenging.


No cetacean were spotted by 6pm when I went down for my dinner. Yes, you guessed it, when I returned to the bridge Phil the bridge officer informed me 2 minutes after I left a group of dolphins came into the bow, was it going to be one of those nights.


I needn’t have worried as there were a number of sightings later on. One group of about 50 Bottlenose Dolphins came towards the ship. There was also a group of about 10 that spent almost 10 minutes on the bow riding and going back and forth under the ship.


On the bird front it was mainly Gannet and gulls. This was the first time on this trip I got a full house on Gannet bingo in one session (seeing all ages of Gannet – J,I2,I3,I4,I5,A). I took just under 2 hours to achieve this. Not bad but not as good as a previous trip were it was achieved in about 45 minutes.


What did we learn today:

· Never leave your post, have your meals brought to you


29th May – Heading for Celtic Sea buoy

We got to the K2 buoy at just after 6:30am. I did do a short survey but not a lot was seen. Conditions were not great with the rising sun streaming in on the starboard side – don’t us Brits always have something to complain about when it comes to the weather. This is the furthest west I had ever been on the sea.


There were still two House Martins with the ship. The two which had appeared while we were at buoy K1 seemed to leave when we set off. It’s quite a coincidence to think that two more appeared, so they must have stayed with us over night.


The crew had a similar job to do on this buoy, get it out of the water, change the top and put it back in again. This they did quite a bit quicker than the previous day so by 3:15pm we were off again. We were now headed for the Celtic Sea buoy, otherwise called Candyfloss. This buoy had broken free some years before but they wanted to try a retrieve the mooring.

Conditions were reasonable with a sea state of 3 and only 1 metre swell. However, no cetaceans were spotted.


It was a similar story for the birds. In the 6 hours up till sunset there were only 22 sightings of birds. These were mainly Gannets, Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters. There was also a Dunlin that flew round the ship for about 45 minutes presumable looking for a landing spot. Later a Turtle Dove found a roost on the crane, not counted as it never came forward.

Hopefully better luck tomorrow when the conditions are supposed to be even better.


What did we learn today

· If you will call a buoy Candyfloss it is bound to break free


30th May – Arrival at Celtic Sea buoy and heading to E1 buoy

We were not due onto the buoy until just after 8am so I was up on the bridge by 6am to start the survey. Conditions were better, now the sea state was 2 and the swell had almost gone.

No cetaceans still but my first Great Skua. Apart from that it was the normal Gannets and Fulmars.


For this buoy they were trying to retrieve the mooring. This one had a quick release mechanism on it so they attempted to use that first. But it had been down there more than 8 years so this was a bit of a long shot. When this did not work they needed to try and locate the mooring more accurately and attempt to snare it with a line. To find it we went back a forth in transects while they pinged the seabed to get a fix on it. On the first transact we went directly over it so we did one at 90o just to confirm. They then made a few attempts to snare the mooring but with no luck. They now had a better fix on where it was so they would send a ship back at a later date with an ROV to go down and secure a line to it to bring it up.


While we were performing the transects a couple of Sand Martins appeared and landed on the ship, again not recorded as not seen while we were moving. This was potentially the third lot of martins. Wonder what it is they like about this ship?

Sand Martin (Robin Langdon)

By just after 1 pm we were off again. This time heading for buoy E1 which is about 20 miles off Plymouth. They needed to change some of the sensors on the buoy.


Sea state was 2, virtually no swell and the sun was behind us, so this was going to be a great day spotting. If anything sticks its head above the parapet it would be seen. Unfortunately everything was keeping its head low.


After a few hours I did eventually spot two Common Dolphin but even these were not keen to be seen. Their position being given away by diving Gannets. It had almost been two days since I spotted the last cetacean.


As for birds, yes you guessed it. Mainly Gannet and Fulmar. I did see a Kittiwake, the first since day one. There were a couple of groups of feeding Gannets, the first being quite large with about 100 birds, couldn’t see any cetacean with them but they were quite a distance from the ship so it was difficult to see.


Long shot - In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy. A 24-pounder long gun, for instance, was considered to have a maximum effective range of 1200 yards, even though, under the right conditions, a ball might travel some 3000 yards. Similarly, a short, stubby 32-pounder carronade’s lethality faded fast beyond 400 yards. Thus, the odds were against a hit when one fired a long shot.


What have we learnt today:

· Follow the Gannets to find the dolphin

· 8 years is a bit long for quick release


May 31st - Heading to E1 and home

The day went well for the Met Office technicians. For this buoy they had to board the buoy rather than bring it aboard the ship. The other buoys had a small length of chain which was then attached to rope that went down to the mooring on the bottom. This one had chain the whole way down so would have been too heavy to lift out. They donned there survival suits and cross by boat to the buoy. All sensors were change with no issues. Apparently this is how the used to service all the buoys. After a few changes of plan we set sail for Southampton just after 2pm. We had to get to the pilot by 8:30 the following morning so there was no rush.


The conditions were similar to the previous day with no swell and a se state of 3-4. Around 4pm Phil, the officer on the bridge, pointed out a group of birds feeding. On close inspection cetaceans could be seen amongst the diving Gannets. It was not possible to identify as they were quite some way from the ship but they looked like dolphin and a number of them. The normal array of birds were seen with plenty of Gannets, Fulmar and Manx Shearwater. I even saw a few Guillemot, none having been seen since the first day.


Then around 8:30 pm there was a fabulous end to a great survey. Ewan, the officer on the bridge, pointed out some splashing off the port side. Taking a closer look it was obviously a group of dolphins. About a mile in front there was another group. Ewan offered to take the ship over to them but there was no need as they had spotted us.

Common Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

We were only doing about 5 knots and what I thought was only a few dolphin turned out to be many more. Both groups we had seen on the port side came in. Also some we had not seen came from the starboard side. They came in circling the ship, jumping and diving. You could hear them as they came to the surface with what sounded like a dog yapping. This went on for about 30 minutes.

Common Dolphin (Robin Langdon)

By the time that had finished it was time to finish the survey. So Ewan turned the ship towards the setting sun so we could watch it go down. Sounds like an end to a Hollywood film.

Hollywood ending to the survey (Robin Langdon)

What have we learnt today:

· Dolphins bark

· Everyone loves a Hollywood ending


I would like to thank all the scientists and crew on the ship for making me welcome. Thanks to the Captain, Jim and the officers Ewan, Phil and Declan for helping me with some spotting on the bridge. To the Met Office scientists, Adrian, Pete, Steve, Kokob and Joe thanks and please invite MARINElife again if the opportunity arises. Also to Paul the Purser and his very twin brother Paul the chief and the rest of the kitchen staff, Jane, Mike and Kevin for keeping me well fed. Hopefully they will help me off the ship as I am sure I have put on lots of weight. Kevin thanks for letting me use your quiet space.

The buoys serviced during the survey (Robin Langdon)

All in all a great survey. Plenty of sightings and for the Met office they had a better than 90% success rate which they were more than pleased with.

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