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PELTIC 2021 update 15 - 2 November

31 October

Sheltering in Bideford Bay while the seas are whipped up by 40-50 knot winds offshore was definitely the right decision, we could see a lot of white from the safety of our anchorage. Even then, later in the day we were rolling quite heavily as a large swell washed into the bay.

Photo 1: part of the gull roost

There was little to be seen during the day, although there had been plenty of birds around when we arrived at 05:00. I happened to be awake and looked out of the porthole in my cabin and was surprised to see hundreds of gulls sat on the water. This required further investigation and a quick visit to the bridge showed that there were 2-3000 gulls roosting on the sea around the Endeavour, you can get a sense of it in photo 1. I’m assuming we rudely intruded on the roost rather than them following us in.

Photo 2: Clovelly at dusk

The only interest on shore was the quaint village of Clovelly, which is famous for its one very steep, cobbled street running from top to bottom (photo 2). The forecast is for the wind to ease so we should be away early tomorrow morning to get back to work.

1 November

We left the shelter of Bideford Bay around 06:00 and headed south to start inshore on our first transect (the aim today was to cover the inshore halves of the two transects we covered on the 30th). It was immediately apparent that there were a large number of Kittiwake and auks on the move with flocks of both constantly passing us – if this carried on as we went offshore it would be busy.

Photo 3: auk flock

By the time we started the transect the passage of birds had slowed a little but we were still recording many flocks of 15-25 auks (photo 3 is from earlier but gives you the idea) and the same with Kittiwake, it’ll be interesting to see what the totals are like once the data is entered.

It remained pretty busy until the end of the line and we then settled down for an hour and a half transit to the next one. The CEFAS scientists got one over on us when one of them spotted whale blows – we had been looking, honest – the animals were three or four kilometres away so we couldn’t say for sure whether they were Fin Whale or not but it’s likely they were. There were also hundreds of birds feeding along a line several kilometres long and about two kilometres west of our route.

From water samples taken in the area overnight the CEFAS scientists were able to say that the birds and whales were feeding along a front in the sea – an area where stratified water (top layer warmer than bottom) meets mixed water (uniform temperature top to bottom). The cold water at the bottom of the stratified layer releases nutrients towards the surface and there is a massive surge in the production of phytoplankton which in turn feeds zooplankton which draws in fish which draw in the birds and whales.

Unfortunately, our transect was heading southeast away from the front and hence away from all the bird and cetacean activity. We did at least get to jam quite a few sightings into the first 30 minutes, with 70 or more Common Dolphins seen and yet another whale. Once again we had frustratingly brief views and not enough to clinch it as a Fin Whale but again it’s likely it was.

Photo 4: Kittiwake

The rest of the transect was pretty quiet for birds and cetaceans with just a couple of other Common Dolphin encounters and relatively few birds, mainly Kittiwake (photo 4), auks and Gannet.

Still, the transect we’re running tomorrow is just 28km southwest of the one we’ve just done and it’s likely the front will carry on towards it, so who knows, maybe more Fin Whales tomorrow.

2 November

What a difference a day makes, we woke to light force three-four winds from the west-northwest and well broken cloud with a bit of colour at sunrise (photo 5). Throughout the day, however, there was a ring of large, menacing shower clouds encircling us (photo 6), which occasionally passed our way, one producing an impressively intense rainbow (photo 7). We were starting offshore and heading southeast back in towards the coast and thankfully there was enough cloud to keep the light conditions ideal for surveying.

Bird recording was brisk and it soon became apparent that this transect was Puffin alley – we recorded 98 by the end of the day (photo 8). Otherwise, birds were much the same as usual, although I find it difficult to resist getting a shot of a juvenile Kittiwake when it presents itself (photo 9).

It was also a bit of a Common Dolphin alley too, with a 20-minute period producing in excess of 300 animals, they were widely spread but just continuous (photo 10).

Photo 10: Common Dolphin
Photo 11: Fin Whale

We hadn’t managed a Fin Whale so far but that was to change when we broke off the transect for a trawl – once again Fin Whales popped up while we were off transect! We started with two very distant animals that could only go down as probable Fins then moved on to an individual at about 1500m which was definitely a Fin Whale (photo 11). We then had a break of about 40 minutes without sightings when blows appeared around 1000m off to port – by this time we were tantalisingly close to restarting the transect but not close enough. This was a group of five Fin Whales, we even had three surfacing at once on occasion and two of the animals appeared quite small so may have been juveniles. Though distant you can just make out the distinctive white right side of the jaw in one or two of the photos as they broke the surface (photos 12-17).

Photo 18: Trevose Head

Unfortunately, we had left them behind once we restarted the transect and the rest of it was rather quiet. The transect finished close inshore just south of Trevose Head (photo 18) and we turned around to head back up the transect to conduct a late trawl. As we were heading back a group of dolphin came into the bow – Bottlenose Dolphin – why couldn’t they have done that while we were on transect. There were about 15-20 animals but they proved difficult to get a photo but Emma managed to get a couple of good ones (photos 19 & 20).

Photos 19 & 20: Bottlenose Dolphin (Emma Neave-Webb)

Back out offshore to start tomorrow – would it be too much to ask for a Fin Whale on transect?

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