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PELTIC 2021 update 14 - 30 October

29 October

We started the day offshore – about 45km southwest of Skokholm – with the transect running to the southeast towards the north Devon coast and finishing just north of Hartland Point. It wasn’t calm by any stretch of the imagination but the sea state five seemed like it after recent days. There was enough cloud to protect us from the glare at the start and it seemed like there were quite a few birds around, particularly Gannet and Kittiwake. We had only just got going when the CEFAS scientists decided they needed to sample the fish biomass below us, so we broke off for an early trawl.

Photo 1: Gannet

When we stopped for the trawl and had a chance to scan around us it was amazing how many birds were out there, hundreds of Gannet (photo 1) searching the ocean for fish, there weren’t any feeding aggregations, just birds spread out wherever you looked. Kittiwake and auks could also be seen flying to and fro, strangely we hadn’t been able to see that number of birds whilst we were on transect and hoped they stayed until we restarted.

We were relaxing on the bridge, as we were off-transect, although still keeping an eye on the sea and I was amazed when I caught sight of a fin rolling through the swell. With attention now fully focussed we caught sight of a small, low blow and then the back and dorsal fin of a Fin Whale for just the briefest of views. We had one more similarly brief sighting and it disappeared, a bit of a frustrating sighting – more so because it was off-transect.

Photo 2: Guillemot

We restarted the transect a couple of hours later and miraculously virtually all the birds had disappeared, which was perhaps just as well, as it would have made recording a nightmare. There were still a good number of birds though, including Guillemot (photo 2), which out-numbered Razorbill today and Kittiwake (photo 3). However, birds of the day were four Great Northern Divers, our first for the survey this year.

Photo 3: Kittiwake

This transect usually delivers large numbers of Common Dolphin and today was no exception. We saw over 200 animals seen over 13 encounters throughout the day. Between us we’ve seen thousands of Common Dolphin but you just can’t help feeling cheered when you see a pod of dolphins leaping enthusiastically towards the ship (photos 4 & 5), they really are something else.

During the afternoon we passed close to the south of Lundy, which rather fortuitously had a shower cloud and rainbow hanging over it (photos 6 & 7). The shower clouds continued to build as the afternoon continued and were getting quite large and threatening late on (photo 8).

Tomorrow is Celtic Deep day, in the past THE place to see Fin Whale but it failed to deliver last year – what will tomorrow bring?

30 October

Bright skies and seeing the sun at dawn – we’d forgotten what that looks like. Fortunately, the first of the two halves of transects we’re running today is to the northwest so we’ve got the sun behind us. The wind was relatively light too, a mere force five, so sea conditions were pretty good for spotting whale blows.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any on this leg, though we did see a lot of Common Dolphins (photos 9-11), about 180 animals in eight encounters, including one pod of at least 120 dolphins. One or two were extremely well marked, much darker grey than normal with a dark line running back to the pectoral fin – very striking animals.

Birds were numerous enough with a good number of Gannet, Guillemot and Kittiwake (again) with bird of the day being a lovely close fly by from an Arctic Skua.

We had an hour and a half transit over to the next transect which was also a whale-free zone, in fact apart from a couple of pods of Common Dolphin there appeared to be very little life above the surface at all.

We turned to the southeast to head down our second transect which meant we still had good viewing conditions with excellent visibility and well scattered clouds. Sadly, this transect turned out to be whale-free too, so a second no show year for whales in the Celtic Deep. It’s a little frustrating because we know that observers on the Irish research vessel Celtic Explorer saw lots of Fin and several Humpback Whales on the west side of the Deep just a couple of weeks ago, along with tuna and birds such as Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater. This has often been the case in the past so it presumably means there’s better feeding over on the Irish side.

We may not have seen any whales but we did see loads more Common Dolphin, probably about 240 in 15 different encounters. As with this morning we had some superb views of them leaping towards us in some beautiful late afternoon light (photos 12-13).

Photo 14: Puffin

Bird-wise it was more the same as this morning, with the addition of quite a few Puffin (photo 14), the first time we’ve seen them in any number since the transects south of the Isles of Scilly. We also managed four Storm Petrels flitting about searching for food. I’m always amazed to think of these swallow-sized birds (they weigh about 20g) battling stormy seas as they head south towards the west coast of Africa and they fact they can do that for 35 years or more.

Photo 15: Dutch trawler Zeeland

On our way we passed the 113m Dutch trawler Zeeland (photo 15) heading out to the west, this was the first sighting of one of the big Dutch trawlers this year, we usually see them in Lyme Bay but they were all up off the northern isles this autumn.

Photo 16: sunset - the first for ages!

For what seems like the first time in ages we also had a decent sunset (photo 16). Unfortunately, that’s our lot for at least 24 hours as the forecast is for force ten winds in our area tomorrow so we’re going to head up to Bideford Bay overnight and spend Sunday at anchor to see out the worst of the weather before restarting on Monday.

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