Summary of sightings:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 2
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1
Common Gull Larus canus 7
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 7
Gannet Morus bassanus 78
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 6
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 125
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 14
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 18
Gull sp. 31
Larus sp. 64
Skua sp. 1
Shearwater sp. 1
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 1
It was great to be back on this route and we were welcomed onto the bridge enjoying the fascinating sight of the ferry manoeuvring out of the port. It is always deeply impressive the skill of the Captain and crew manoeuvring such a large ship in such relatively narrow waters. As soon as the ship had finished manoeuvring out of port, we began surveying and were greeted by the usual mix of Herring Gull and other large gulls.
Sadly, one species was noticeable by its absence with no Gannets seen until an hour out from port. After the losses to bird flu at the gannetries last summer we had half-expected this, but it was sad to have our fears confirmed. A nice mix of different gull species of various ages kept us on our toes with identifications but though the calm seas looked perfect for spotting cetaceans everything seemed quiet.
As often on this route we needn’t have worried and once south of the shipping lanes my eyes played tricks on me as I spotted what I initially thought was a fishing float looking remarkably like a seal, only to realise that was because it was a Grey Seal resting in the water. Tidelines streaked the sea, and we began to hope our luck had turned. The reduced Gannet numbers may have hindered our cetacean spotting as they are normally highly reliable pointers to cetacean activity but in their stead, Herring Gull stepped up to the mark. Noticing a flock of 13 actively feeding Herring Gull in a tideline, Helen spotted a Harbour Porpoise rapidly heading in towards the feeding and giving us good views.
Dieppe was sweltering under the same heat as England and so once ashore we confined ourselves to a stroll to a fantastic patisserie near the harbour for some Macaron and Tarte Normande. Singing Black Redstart (heard though not seen) was the wildlife highlight for the town.
Departing Dieppe, we were greeted by amazing mirages weirdly distorting the coast. To seaward the mirage effect was less obvious until you looked closely and realised you could not truly distinguish the horizon nor see ships that should be visible nearby according to the instruments. Estimating visibility became challenging as it began to rapidly drop with weird effects such as a group of distant Gannet that had been low to the water, flew upwards and then vanished, blurred and hidden by mirage. A little further north than the porpoise on the outbound leg I managed to get a brief view of a Harbour Porpoise that popped up right in my binocular view before vanishing again. In classic porpoise style it was a case of quietly popping up for a few seconds then smoothly vanishing.
Gannet gave us some close views as we headed back with several choosing to make close fly-bys of the bridge. All of the adults getting close enough for us to see their eyes showed the black irises (rather than the usual pale blue) which is now thought to indicate that the Gannet is a survivor from infection with bird flu. Only some of the Immature Gannets (that presumably would not have been at the colonies last year) showed blue irises. We really hope the worst is past for the Gannets this year.
Unlike many surveys in which bird activity drops into the evening, this time activity kept up and we had a lot of very active feeding groups of gulls including lots of Kittiwake in the waters south of Beachy Head. Although we searched hard, we couldn’t spot any more cetaceans.
Our thanks to Captain Jaunet and the crew of Seven Sisters 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: Dry and sunny, hazy later, sea state 2-3, some glare until the haze built-up
Return: Dry and sunny with significant haze and mirages, sea state 2, port-ahead glare.