Posted by: orcaweb | July 17, 2017

Whales, waves and white-beaks

Another week in the North Sea and if I’m honest with you, you would not have thought it was the middle of July as the weather has included plenty of fog, grey skies and drizzly rain that soaks your skin before you’ve had a chance to notice. None of this however deterred our brand new intern, Beccy who has maintained a great amount of enthusiasm whatever the weather.

Beccy joins us from the sea side town of Troon on the South West coast of Scotland. She is currently studying Ecological and Environmental science at the University of Edinburgh and already has a wealth of amazing wildlife encounters under her belt. Having undertaken many exciting projects all over the world including Turtle conservation in Greece and Elephant welfare projects in Sri Lanka. I only hope her experience in the North Sea will be just as memorable for her.

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Beccy on the look out for wonderful whales and dolphins

Due to the poor weather conditions it was a couple of days before Beccy experienced her first sighting of a harbour porpoise in front of the ship, albeit an extremely brief glimpse. Being extremely enthusiastic Beccy was keen to learn all about the bird life of the North Sea. After seabird ID training, armed with new identification skills, she very quickly picked up on some of our most popular species including the gannets, gulls, fulmars and cormorants.

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A gannet searching the seas

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A herring gull

As usual, the weekend was quickly upon us and Saturday morning sailing back to North Shields started with a sighting of two harbour porpoise. After an hour or so of plain sailing I then heard a squeal of excitement from Beccy who was pointing frantically ahead of the ship. From Beccys clear description, the size of the splash and the reaction of passengers out on deck with us, it was clear that what we had seen was a very sneaky minke whale. Beccy was grinning from cheek to cheek for the rest of the day.

Sunday brought with it the calmest sea of the week but it was still joined by a heavy fog and lots of rain. Joining us on deck that evening was a great future naturalist, Yan. Yan was 10 years old and travelling with his family who were on their way to Scotland for a holiday. Already having a keen interest in bird life and after thoroughly enjoying our evenings wildlife talk Yan had expressed his wish to see guillemots in the wild. I only hoped that the next morning we could make his wish come true.

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A group of Guillemots on the water

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A male Guillemot and his chick

Arriving out on deck to a windy Monday morning it wasn’t long before we were joined by our new friend Yan and his family. Luckily within seconds there were guillemots everywhere, some sitting on the water and other flapping past the ship frantically. An added bonus soon came when I spotted 3 dark fins breaking the surface of the water. white-beaked dolphins, swimming in the direction of North Shields. Even with the white water around us, everyone out on deck could see the tall dark dorsal fins as the dolphins skimmed the waters surface. A great start to a new week!

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Wonderful white beaked dolphin

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Please join us again next week when Beccy will be telling you all about her experiences as a Wildlife Officer and what life at sea is really like.

Thanks again,

Lucy

Posted by: orcaweb | July 11, 2017

Magnificent minke and the power of good thoughts

In my last blog I contemplated writing about how I’m still waiting for my first minke whale sighting. But then I decided against it, as I kind of didn’t want to jinx it and also because I thought I should just have patience – after all that’s what wildlife watching is all about. And then on Monday, starting this shift’s second week on board I actually did see one!!! And what a marvellous sighting it was! I was very very happy.

That day the sea was beautifully calm, being almost as flat as a mirror. We usually stay out on the observation deck for an hour and this hour was unfortunately coming quickly to an end. So I was contemplating whether to go back inside to open the centre again or to stay out a little bit longer, as these were really fantastic spotting conditions. Plus, I had seen a couple of porpoise earlier and a lot of seabirds. So it didn’t take long to reach a decision – I kind of had a feeling that I should stay out a little longer.

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Beautiful calm sea and perfect spotting conditions

I thought that I was ready and prepared to see a minke whale now and tried to hold on to these positive thoughts and ‘welcoming’ attitude. And maybe these thoughts did indeed help, because a few minutes later I saw a beautiful minke whale appear. It really was amazing. I could see a perfect dive sequence in this beautiful calm water. First I saw the sharply pointed snout breaking the surface, followed by the blowhole and back with the dorsal fin visible. Then the back and tail stock began to arch until this lovely rorqual whale disappeared under the surface again. This was not very far from the ship at all and both passengers and I could clearly see this minke whale. It was fantastic! (I apologise for the lack of a photo, but I was too excited to think about that.)

In this lovely weather we could also enjoy many bird sightings over the next few days. Although it’s possible to see gannets nearly every day on our route, I’m still fascinated by these birds. Ranging from a blackish body in the first winter to blackish with many white spots to pure shining white plumage when adult, these birds are just a beautiful sight to behold. Also, this week we could again see many tiny guillemots, accompanied by an adult bird, sitting on the water surface and then diving as the ship approaches. I also saw puffins, manx shearwaters and terns.

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Three gannets of differing ages

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Cute tiny guillemot

This week was also very exciting for 48 Denbigh Community Primary School children, whom – together with their six teachers – I welcomed here on board. They were all very excited to be away from their parents and home, and to actually spend two nights on a ship! These children in the age of approximately eight to ten years old took part in a Wildlife Watching Study Trip, which we organise for school classes. Our lovely ORCA wildlife centre provided a unique setting for them to learn about whales and dolphins here in the North Sea. Of course we also spent a lot of time out on the observation deck to actually spot some of this amazing wildlife. Although unfortunately I didn’t have any cetacean sightings during their time on board, the kids still had a great time and according to their spotting sheets they saw many, many whales and dolphins – so maybe I just missed them!

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Grey seal saying hello

One sighting I had this week that was not amazing at all was a gigantic, floating spiderman balloon. Unfortunately we are quite used to seeing pieces of rubbish and often balloons floating on the water surface – which causes huge problems to the marine environment and all its inhabitants. But this one shocked me even more, because it was just so big! Polluting the North Sea – this spiderman really was no superhero. Quite the opposite! Balloons can hurt or kill countless animals, as balloons entangle animals or block their digestive tract, when they mistake them for food and it them. Sadly, the results of the Great British Beach Clean last year also showed an increase of balloon related litter up over 50 % on 2015.

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Gigantic spiderman balloon

As always, I can’t quite believe that my two weeks on board are already coming to an end. I certainly enjoyed my time here in the North Sea, especially the last week with the lovely weather and the awesome minke whale sighting. Now I hope that my colleague Lucy and our new placement Rebecca will have a fantastic time as well and spot many more minke whales – fingers crossed!

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Beautiful sunset

Until next time,

Julia

Posted by: orcaweb | July 4, 2017

Tiny guillemots in the big North Sea

This fortnight on board the DFDS King Seaways didn’t really start with very good weather. And despite Lucy’s wishes for me to have a nice week of sightings, unfortunately I did not see many cetaceans. The sea often was quite rough and stormy and it was raining, too. More than once I was a bit surprised to find that it’s the end of June and then beginning of July already, when I looked at the calendar.

Nonetheless, I was fortunate enough to see a few white-beaked dolphins and the occasional harbour porpoise during this last week on board. And as of Friday evening the North Sea did calm a bit – which made me really hopeful to get a few more sightings – and I could enjoy a bit of sunshine.

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Some much needed sunshine

Although the sightings didn’t increase immensely, I had a fantastic deck watch on Saturday evening because of the wonderful bird life I saw. I was joined by several passengers out on the observation deck, all keen to spot some whales and dolphins. Instead we saw a lot of gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars. But what really excited me was that we saw the first guillemot chicks of the season, on the water accompanied by their parents. So cute! At first passengers and I couldn’t see any birds and were wondering where these chirping sounds came from. But then I quickly realised that these must be the little guillemots that had left their nests. After a while we then spotted these tiny birds sitting on the water surface.

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Adult guillemot with tiny chick

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Beautiful juvenile kittiwake in the sky

Guillemots spend almost the entire year out on the open sea and only come on land for nesting. You might remember that both Lucy and I visited the Farne Islands recently where we saw huge breeding colonies of guillemots and other seabirds. Guillemots usually lay one egg on a bare ledge of a cliff and it’s from there that the young chicks jump onto the water after about two to three weeks after hatching – without even being able to fly yet!! So although they are not fully fledged yet they make their way onto the sea where they are joined and fed by their parents for some time.

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Adult guillemot at Farne Islands

Another special guest during that deck watch was a great skua, which we don’t get to see that often. We saw it right ahead of the ship and apparently it had caught something on the water surface. Unfortunately it dropped the item as the ship approached and I couldn’t see what it was. But as this large bird was really close to the ship it was really exciting to observe it.

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Great skua

This week the presentations I gave in our ORCA Wildlife Centre on board were really well visited as well. Often there weren’t enough chairs and passengers had to stand or sit on the floor to listen to the presentation. Next to the information about our most commonly sighted species – harbour porpoise, white-beaked dolphin and minke whale – people are always fascinated by the amazing facts about the blue whale. Just to name a few: a new born blue whale weighs almost three tonnes, the size of an adult blue whale’s heart is about the same size as a small car and the tongue is comparable to the weight of an African elephant!

So the first week of this fortnight on board brought some exciting bird sightings and now I hope for some more whales and dolphins! I’m still waiting for my first minke whale, so I’m really looking forward to spotting one soon, hopefully. I hope you are all enjoying summer and have some fantastic wildlife sightings as well!

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A faint rainbow over the North Sea

Until next time,

Julia

 

Posted by: orcaweb | July 3, 2017

Stormy, but exciting, North Sea!

Welcome back to another week on board the DFDS King Seaways with your ORCA Wildlife Officers in the North Sea. The beginning of the week was literally electrifying. After almost tropical conditions in previous days we awoke on Wednesday to a magnificent storm. Despite the sun having risen early that day the sky was black for our morning deck watch with thick dense clouds, it almost felt like the night time was still upon us. Then the rumbling began and it wasn’t the rumble of Wildlife Officer stomachs!! Thunder was spreading through the sky and we could tell that we were sailing right towards it as the sounds became louder and louder. Then, a flash, the sky was illuminated. Fork lighting reached down to touch the seas surface off on the horizon. This went on for some time and many passengers were as mesmerised as we were, everyone trying to get that lucky shot of the huge forks with their cameras and phones.

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Rough North Sea

That evening, although the storm had passed there was still a strong easterly wind and the sea state was a high six, meaning white caps everywhere we looked. Fortunately the evening was not without cetaceans though as 3 white beaked dolphins sped towards the ship in perfect formation, definitely in a rush to get somewhere, and they were gone as quickly as they were seen.

The bad weather continued and worsened through Thursday with no sightings in the morning or that evening. Up until this point I had done really well with the weather as I had experienced many mirrors on the waters surface. I think now was my turn to experience the North Sea at its wildest.

By the end of the week we had a handful of extremely brief white beaked dolphin sightings to speak of. Luckily we were visited whilst in port by the excitable year four students of Grace Darling Primary School. The children were greeted on board by the DFDS mascot, Jack the Pirate Parrot and received a full day of activities in the ORCA centre as well as a tour of the ship, visiting the bridge where the captain allowed the bright bunch to sit in the best seat in the house, the captains chair! Lucky them! Schools in the North East of England are welcome to join the ORCA team on board for a day of learning and discovery about the wildlife of the North Sea. If your school or community group would like to join us (no passports required!) then please contact us at wildlifeofficer@orcaweb.org.uk we’d love to have you as our guests.

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Students of Grace Darling Primary School enjoying the KING Seaways

The weekend continued to have terrible weather with strong winds, rain and a lively sea state. Despite this, many species of birds could be seen regularly flying over the water’s surface. Several times large groups of gannets could be seen flying high and then diving in a feeding frenzy. This behaviour usually indicates cetaceans activity but unfortunately no whales, dolphins or porpoises would be seen below the feeding birds, most likely engulfed by the foamy waves.

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A beautiful gannet

I leave this week hoping that the unusual weather leaves us soon and that Julia has a nice week of sightings. Perhaps on our joint crossing together we will be blessed with our usual good luck flat sea which always seem to occur when we sail together. We will keep our fingers crossed. Until next week, thanks again for stopping by.

Lucy

Posted by: orcaweb | June 20, 2017

Paul finds his porpoise in life

This week I am joined by our second placement of the season, Paul, after saying a fond farewell to Lexie, wishing her all the best with the rest of her studies. Paul is currently studying Wildlife Conservation at Liverpool John Moores University and has a keen interest in the natural world. Paul had stated that he was really looking forward to seeing our beloved harbour porpoise in the North Sea so I was hopeful that our first deck watch would give him this opportunity.

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Our second intern of the season, Paul with his friend Harry the harbour porpoise

It was looking good as we didn’t have to wait long to see some Gannets diving in a feeding frenzy not far from the mouth of the River Tyne.

Birds are a great indicator of whale and dolphin activity due to the fact that they often feed on the same fish species. When we see gannets dive feeding in this way, we make sure to keep our eyes on the water in the hope of some fins above the surface. This time however we were not so lucky and we finished the evening with no cetaceans to speak of.

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Always a favourite, a beautiful gannet

The next morning, as we approached Holland our first mammal sighting was not a cetacean but in fact a common (or harbour) seal. This is one of the two species of seal we see regularly on the crossing, the other being the grey seal. Seals can easily swim between Holland and North Shields, taking time to rest and feed on the rich fish stocks the North Sea has to offer on the way. It wasn’t long after this that Paul finally got to see his favourite species, the harbour porpoise. Three swam close by the ship, leaving a row of ripples in their wake.

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A Grey Seal at the surface

Thursday came around rather quickly and we were extremely pleased to greet our fellow wildlife enthusiast friends Delta Safari back on board. You may remember that 2 weeks ago they had shared a rough crossing with Julia and Lexie, thankfully for all, the weather had improved greatly for this trip and we were happy to have them all outside on the observation deck. Being keen bird watchers, the group all had eagle eyes and were extremely helpful in spotting many species.

The start of the weekend gave us all exactly what we’d been waiting for, a calm flat sea. Not quite a mirror but close enough, we saw many white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoise as we sailed back in to North Shields. Usually once we arrive, I often feel rather sad as I know this means the end of the deck watch and time to knuckled down with some of our administrative tasks. Luckily Delta Safari had other plans for us.

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Delta Safari on the observation deck

After disembarking as quickly as we could, donned in our rather fetching Delta Safari caps (made entirely of recycled plastics!!) we boarded our coach and made our way to the Farne Islands. I had been to the Farnes once before with friends for a boat trip and loved it, this time we were not only taking the boat trip around the island but also getting off on one of the islands where many bird species are currently nesting. Almost immediately after stepping food on the island we were all attacked from above by extremely protective Arctic Terns. Some were still incubating their eggs whilst others already had their chicks. After making our way out with our ears still attached, we then came across a mass gathering of puffins, some resting, some scurrying in and out of burrows and others fighting off black headed gulls who were trying to steal their afternoons catch of fish.

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A Puffin seen on the Farne Islands

We also saw European shags, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, all with fluffy babies close by. I feel I could write an entire blog post about this visit to the Farnes but I must continue with our week because things really were starting to hot up from the decks of the DFDS King Seaways.

When we returned to our home from home, the King, we were delighted to see that the sea was wondrously tranquil, perfect for spotting whales and dolphins. With the elated Delta Safari team by our sides we spent the evening spotting several white-beaked dolphins racing towards the ship as well as many harbour porpoise. The next morning again was also filled with many harbour porpoise as we sailed back into the port of Ijmuiden and said ‘tot ziens’ to Delta Safari.

Sunday started off with a nice treat of lots of seals (common and grey) and harbour porpoises, many of whom were accompanied by their calves. By that evening, the sea had become a mirror and within seconds of being out on deck we were seeing small groups of harbour porpoise in the brilliant sunlight.

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A harbour porpoise caught in the sunlight

I end this week feeling very grateful for the wonderful sightings, the beautiful weather and our wonderful friends who have joined us throughout the week.

Come back next week for further updates from Paul to see how he’s getting on with life at sea.

Lucy

Posted by: orcaweb | June 13, 2017

A Fierce Finale in the North Sea

My final week on board the King Seaways got off to a stormy start. Following days of beautifully calm weather, providing us with loads of sightings, we received days of such rough weather that unfortunately meant deck watches were not even possible.

The rough weather began whilst leaving Newcastle on Monday evening. It was calm enough that we were able to carry out a deck watch, yet the waves were too large to lead to any sightings. This was the first deck watch that I carried out on my own, and I ended up being drenched in rain! I’ve also been lucky that it has taken me three weeks to be rained on during a deck watch.

My hopes for carrying out a deck watch the next morning were high, but I found myself disappointed when we discovered that the Observation Deck was shut. We were hoping that the bad weather would pass, but soon realised this was not the case.

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Some gulls flying along with the ship

Before we set sail from Ijmuiden on Tuesday evening we were aware we would likely be in for a rough journey. Within the harbour walls, where the water is normally calm, the sea looked very rough.

As soon as we passed through the walls, the ship began to sway!  Julia found this very exciting! It was my turn to give the presentation that evening, and there were moments that I had to lean on the wall to ensure I didn’t fall over!

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Stormy weather out at sea

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Me (Lexie) on the Observation Deck during the storm

It was a relief to find calm sea and an open Observation Deck on Friday morning, and we stayed out as long as possible to make the most of the deck watch. We were pleasantly greeted by calm seas again that evening, and noticed some splashes in the distance. The splashes were moving along in a line as if being produced by an animal, but despite me looking through binoculars and Julia taking photos, we did not see anything! However a few minutes later I very briefly saw a harbour porpoise on the other side of the ship.

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The mysterious splashes!

Although the sea has calmed down considerably, unfortunately we haven’t had any more sightings. An ORCA survey team came on board for a return crossing, and saw a few dolphins the first day.  However, we need to always remind ourselves that no sightings is still really vital data – it’s still useful to know that the animals aren’t there..as well as when they are!

I have really enjoyed the past four weeks, and am going to miss being on board. I have learnt so much since being here, and have seen a huge amount of wildlife. I have progressed from being overwhelmed by all the new facts I heard in the presentation on my first evening to being able to give that same presentation myself.

Despite having really enjoyed myself in general, I have a few particular highlights. My first highlight was the evening during my second week where the sea became a mirror and we were constantly seeing cetaceans. I appear to have been right when I said during my last blog that I didn’t think I would experience another evening quite like that. Despite this, we did have a few very good days last week. The ship hit a patch of lovely calm seas lasting about three days, and during just one of those days we saw 40 harbour porpoise alone! We also saw numerous white-beaked dolphins which was very exciting. Unfortunately we have not yet seen anymore minke whales, which is a shame as I wanted to see one breach before I got off the ship, but there’s still time to see that!

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Lovely calm seas spotted from the Observation Deck

Another highlight of mine was our trip to the Farne Islands. I am amazed by how many birds we saw, as I hadn’t quite comprehended how many there would be. It was remarkable seeing the cliffs completely covered in birds. The trip gave me the opportunity to get up close to many birds, witnessing not just one nesting bird but in fact thousands, including many puffins which I had never seen before! What really excited me, however, was when an arctic tern decided rather than just pecking me on the head it would sit there for a good five minutes!

 

Overall, I have had a fantastic four weeks. I am really glad that I decided to take part in this experience, and hope that the next three placements have a wonderful a time – just like I have had.

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A beautiful sunset to bring an end to my amazing four weeks on board

Lexie

Posted by: orcaweb | June 5, 2017

Exciting times here in the North Sea

At the end of May, I embarked for another fortnight on board the DFDS King Seaways. It is unbelievable how time flies by, as we are now already in our 11th week of this year’s Wildlife Officer season! As I had met our first trainee, Lexie, for only one day when she first embarked I was really looking forward to go on board again and run our wildlife activities together.

On my first day back on board – on the shared crossing with my colleague Lucy – we had a wonderful deck watch. In fact we always seem to do. I think our shared crossings bring us luck! That evening we enjoyed several harbour porpoise sightings and counted 9 of these small cetaceans by the end the day.

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Harbour porpoise mother with calf

Later during the week we were again blessed with amazing deck watches, as we had fantastic spotting conditions. The sea surface just showed a few ripples or was even as calm as a mirror. That meant we saw a lot of harbour porpoise and white-beaked dolphins. One time we even had such nice and clear waters that we could actually see a porpoise underneath the water surface. Amazing! At the end of this week we had seen 54 harbour porpoises, 14 white-beaked dolphins and one grey seal in total.

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Harbour porpoise in clear water

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A lovely white-beaked dolphin breaking the water’s surface

On Friday, we met with the Dutch wildlife watching group Delta Safari, who came on board for a mini-cruise, arriving back in Ijmuiden on Sunday morning. It was really nice to meet the group leaders Marco and Eva, and Lexie and I really appreciated that they offered us to join them on their bird watching trip to the Farne Islands. Of course Lexie and I were absolutely thrilled to go with them!

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Julia & Lexie amazed by the birds!

What a day it was! We had an absolutely fantastic time. Starting in the harbour of a little town called Seahouses we first enjoyed a boat tour around the Farne Islands, which lie just off the coast of north-eastern England, and then spent an hour on one of the islands. Both from the boat and walking on the little marked pathways where walking is allowed, we could see thousands of nesting seabirds. We could see the beautiful puffins with their blue, red and orange coloured beak, floating on the water surface, diving, sitting on top of steep cliffs, walking quite awkwardly on the grassy slopes and flying above the water with amazingly swift wingbeats!

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A beak full of sandeels!

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Beautiful puffin

We could also observe an incredible number of guillemots both swimming and diving in the water and filling up the cliffs so that there is hardly any rock for you left to see. The guillemots were also joined by razorbills, kittiwakes and shags – all nesting along the steep rocky cliffs.

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Birds everywhere you look!

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Busy breeding colony

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Majestic guillemots

On the grassy patches on top of the island, there are many arctic terns and a few sandwich terns to admire. These ground nesting, incredibly noisy birds can be quite aggressive and will defend their nests viciously! You need to brave yourself for walking along the path with quite a lot of terns flying around and at you, shrieking in your ear and pecking at your head – not to mention that it is really advisable to wear a cap, as this protects you from their sharp beaks and the bird poo that is likely to fall onto your head!

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Arctic tern

We also saw grey seals, popping their head out of the water or resting on the rocky surface; we hope that some of these grey seals might come to visit us during our deck watches on board the King Seaways later on this week!

Eider ducks, oystercatchers, black-headed and black-backed gulls. To sum up, it was an absolutely amazing experience for both Lexie and I, and just an incredible sight to take in. We both couldn’t stop smiling and were just absolutely awed by all these amazing creatures in such high numbers! So a huge thank you to Delta Safari for making it possible for us to join them on this exciting trip!!

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Grey seal resting on the rock

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Feeding time for the little shag chicks

After the excitement we had on Saturday, we were again greeted by a lovely calm sea, which resulted in a lot of sightings of harbour porpoise and white-beaked dolphins. This was also thanks to the many group members of Delta Safari that joined us on our daily deck watch. It is just great having so many eyes looking out for wildlife, as we could spot much more cetaceans like this – especially as these keen bird watchers have well trained eyes!

Something that caught Lexie and me by surprise was the lovely sunny and really warm weather we found on Sunday morning, when we arrived out on the observation deck. Instead of having to wear quite a number of layers, as we usually do, we actually conducted our marine mammal survey with only wearing a shirt. Looks like warm weather has finally caught up to us here in the North Sea!

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Sunny times out on the observation deck

This week has brought us some amazing wildlife encounters, both on board the ship and during our trip to the Farne Islands. I really enjoyed having our first trainee Lexie on board. She is doing really well and has now delivered several presentations to passengers and also conducted surveys on the observation deck on her own. I hope she will enjoy her last week of her placement and I hope that we will have some more exciting sightings during the week to come!

Until next time,

Julia

Posted by: orcaweb | May 30, 2017

A Fantastic Fortnight!

My name is Lexie, and I have just completed my second week on board the DFDS King Seaways as a Trainee Wildlife Officer. I am a third year Zoology student at the University of Southampton, and decided to apply for this placement following an email from a lecturer, and was really excited when I was offered the first placement of the season! I have really enjoyed my time on the ship so far, and have learnt so much, ranging from identifying seabird species to using the Logger in which we record survey/deck watch data on.

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A herring gull flying over the ship

The week started with us sailing into Newcastle on Monday morning. The sea was calm and there was little wind, however, unfortunately no cetaceans were seen. As the water around Newcastle has led to many dolphin sightings in the past, and we had seen the first minke whale of the season there the week before, we were hopeful we might have an active watch. However by the time evening rolled around and we got out on deck, the sea had become choppy with lots of white water present, only birds were seen. Despite there only being 600 passengers on-board, many visited the ORCA centre and it was nice to see so many people interested in the work that we do.

Sailing into Ijmuiden on Tuesday morning we were fortunate to have lovely calm seas but again the cetaceans were nowhere to be found. This weather continued into the evening with calm seas and a warm breeze. The combination of the calm seas and being near the Dutch windfarms meant we were hopeful we would see some harbour porpoises. Unfortunately we didn’t spot anything, despite being accompanied by some eagle-eyed passengers. Regardless of the lack of marine life, it was refreshing to see an absence of balloons and other litter floating in the sea! Later that evening, some passengers visited the ORCA centre from Florida, and showed us amazing videos of bottlenose dolphins which were a lot skinnier than the ones found around the UK due to the warmer weather.

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A flock of birds feeding at sea

Whilst sailing through the waters around Newcastle, Wednesday turned out to be a fantastic day for sightings! We were out on deck early by 7:30am, and were quickly rewarded with a sighting of three harbour porpoises. However, that evening things were about to become much more exciting! The sea was so calm it was what we would describe as a mirror, allowing us to see harbour porpoises, white beaked dolphins, grey seals, common seals and a minke whale in addition to lots of seabirds! We were out on deck for three hours until it became too dark to survey anymore, but during those three hours there were so many sightings I could hardly keep up with it all on the logger! I am only halfway through my placement, but I doubt I will witness another deck watch as impressive as that!

Thursday morning we were joined by many passengers who were also hoping to catch a glimpse of something following the excitement of the night before. The sea remained calm, but we did not spot anything, continuing into the evening with a calm sea yet lack of sightings. In addition to spotting no cetaceans, I also saw very few birds which makes me wonder if perhaps the fish have moved out of the area, as on Wednesday evening we saw lots of birds as well as lots of cetaceans.

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Herring gulls looking out to sea as we sail into the port of Ijmuiden

Friday became yet another day with a lack of sightings. The sea started out rough but calmed down before approaching the harbour walls of North Shields. By the evening the sea had become very rough, and it seems Lucy’s weather forecast prediction was spot on! On Wednesday evening as we sailed through the blissfully calm waters, Lucy informed me that water this calm is often followed by stormy weather about 48 hours later. We only surveyed for an hour, and like we expected saw nothing. Despite the lack of wildlife, Friday was still an enjoyable day. Whilst docked in Newcastle we did lifeboat training, which involved watching a lifeboat being launched and travelling in one along the River Tyne! I’d never been in a lifeboat before and had always wondered how they fit so many people in, but I can now see that they are much larger inside than I originally thought. Whilst out on the evening deck watch, I had a passenger show me a video of a group of orcas they had seen from the coast in Scotland, meaning I was able to see at least some cetaceans, even if they were in video form.

Despite temperatures reaching 30 degrees in Ijmuiden on Saturday, we had yet another day with no sightings. Sunday morning we managed to break the trend of having no sightings by seeing many large splashes in the distance, but sadly didn’t manage to identify the species.

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The windfarms off the coast of Holland

I have really enjoyed my past two weeks on board, and have learnt a lot from Lucy. I feel I have made a lot of progress, and last night I gave my first presentation which ended up being in front of quite a crowd! I am looking forward to my next two weeks with Julia, and with half term having begun I am expecting the ship to get a lot busier.

Lexie

Posted by: orcaweb | May 22, 2017

Wildlife Officer Placements begin in the North Sea!

This is my favourite time of year to be a Wildlife Officer! Not only do sightings generally start to increase as we creep towards summer, but we now start our Wildlife Officer Placement programme where lucky participants join myself (Lucy) and Julia on board for four straight weeks to learn all about the wildlife of the North Sea, life on the open ocean and what it takes to be a Wildlife Officer.

Having done a similar four week placement with ORCA myself 2 years ago I am really excited to pass on everything I have learnt over the past few years to our excited new recruits. This week we are joined by Lexie.  Lexie is currently studying Zoology at the University of Southampton and after successfully getting through our application and interview process she is now a member of the crew on board the DFDS King Seaways.

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Lexie, this years first intern out on deck

Despite not seeing any cetaceans on her first ever deck watch, the following morning we were welcomed by a beautifully calm flat sea. This meant that Lexie was able to catch her first glimpse of a couple of harbour porpoise as we sailed towards Ijmuiden and just as we passed through the windfarms that hug the Dutch coast we also saw a very large grey seal, swimming along at the surface.

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Windfarms off the Dutch coast

Thursday, something quite bizarre but also very exciting happened. Just as we were discussing with passengers out on the observation deck the variety of species that we can see here, there was a huge splash directly ahead of the bow. A large animal had clearly just breached out of the water and all that remained was a huge puddle of foamy white water. With everyone on deck discussing what exactly they had seen it became apparent that a Minke whale was the culprit. Minke whales migrate through the North Sea heading to Arctic waters in the summer to feed in the cold nutrient rich waters. One couple even said they saw long lines running down the whales white underside. These are the rorqual pleats that these baleen whales use to help them feed on shoals of small fish. Exciting and frustrating all at the same time, this was our first official Minke whale sighting of the year and it was so quick we almost didn’t see it happen at all.

The next few days were rather choppy and a ferocious sea state 9 and high winds meant we were unable to survey. Just in time for the weekend the seas calmed once more and we were hopeful that on our sail into Newcastle we would catch a better glimpse of another Minke whale. Despite there being plenty of bird activity including gannets, kittiwakes, terns, gulls and fulmars there was not a cetacean in sight that morning.

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A black-backed gull

After the vanishing Minke whale we had a few quiet deck watches where even with relatively good conditions we didn’t see a lot, there were very few birds as well as cetaceans and I was starting to think that perhaps the fish had moved elsewhere temporarily, taking the rest of the wildlife with them. One thing we were seeing a lot of though were balloons! I couldn’t believe it, in less than 7 days we had seen over a dozen different balloons floating on the seas surface, many of them far from the coast. It saddens me that from a moment of happiness these single use items find their way into the ocean and cause severe harm to many species of marine animals. Balloons, just like all other plastics leach harmful chemicals into the water. Even worse, once they burst they sink through the water and are often ingested by whales, dolphins and birds as well as fish and turtles, who mistake them for a tasty treat. They do not biodegrade, they never go away, leaving behind a deadly trace of that once happy moment. Please reconsider when thinking about buying balloons for loved ones or using them for promotional events or memorials. There are much less harmful ways in which to celebrate.

On Sunday after a lovely day exploring Amsterdam with Lexie we went outside for our evening deck watch and it almost felt as though we had been transported into the southern hemisphere, well maybe not quite! The sea was flat and the sun was shining high in the sky, there was very little wind and we could feel the warmth of the sun on our skin for the first time this season. It was glorious. With these fantastic conditions we were lucky enough to see a harbour porpoise swimming fast ahead of the ship. There were several passengers with us due to the warm weather and the calm seas meant that they all got to see this speedy cetacean before the ship sailed onwards towards the horizon.

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Sun on a calm North Sea

As Lexie completes her first week on board she has really come on leaps and bounds, proving she is a quick learner, she is already using our Logger to record weather conditions and sightings as well as speaking to the centre’s visitors about all the things she has learnt so far. I have no doubt she will achieve much more in the coming week and will be excited to tell you all about it in her first blog post next week.

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Lexie explaining the sightings board

Thanks again for stopping by and please do visit our website for all the latest whale and dolphin news from the ORCA team.

Lucy

Posted by: orcaweb | May 15, 2017

Some special guests this week

It’s week 8 for the North Sea Wildlife Officers!  On Monday morning I disembarked the ship to meet a group of 50 students from Newcastle University, who boarded the King Seaways to learn about North Sea wildlife.  These students are taking courses in Marine Zoology, Marine Biology as well as Marine Biology and Oceanography.

Students learning about North Sea Wildlife in the main bar on board the DFDS King Seaways

As – together with the university staff and the photographer accompanying us for the visit – we counted 55 people, the ORCA wildlife centre wasn’t big enough to accommodate us all. That’s why we had to move to the main bar area of the ship where the students could follow the presentation on a big screen. After delivering the presentation about ORCA, our main projects and scientific surveys that we do, I proudly showed the students our wildlife centre. As usual, the wildlife artefacts, such as the skulls of bottlenose dolphin, grey seal and harbour porpoise, were very popular. Then, we moved to an outside deck of the ship to spot and identify some of the bird species. Unfortunately we quickly had to say goodbye to each other, as they had a very tight schedule and a busy programme ahead of them during their field week. It was nice having them on board and I hope they enjoyed their visit!

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A flock of gulls

After this busy afternoon having the students on board, I had a lovely evening with some very eager passengers who attended the main talk of the evening on the wildlife of the North Sea. Equipped with some binoculars they were also keen on joining me for the scheduled deck watch. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to spot any cetaceans that day.

I have met a lot of fantastic passengers this week, who keep telling me about their amazing adventures. For example, I had the pleasure of meeting a nice Scottish man, who’s now retired and is doing sightseeing tours with his boat, where he also spots lots of different whales, dolphins and porpoises! I also had other interesting conversations with a nature photographer – who’s living half the year in Scotland and the other half taking photographs of the northern lights in Sweden – and someone managing nature reserves in Scotland!

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Two lovely guillemots

One evening I had a few Dutch visitors attending the presentation, so I gave it a go to actually deliver the talk in Dutch. With a little bit of help from my lovely audience I managed to tell them all about the amazing wildlife you can find here in the North Sea. Although I had to switch back to English at some point, as new passengers joined us, this was definitely fun! This week I also met a very eager young boy and his family, and he was already quite an expert in marine wildlife!

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Eager passengers

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Adult and juvenile herring gull ready for take off!

On Friday afternoon, an ORCA survey team came on board to conduct a marine mammal survey from the bridge of the King Seaways.  Such survey teams consist of ORCA members who also train to become Marine Mammal Surveyors! They kept watch from the bridge after we left port until sunset and the following day, and from sunrise to arrival in port. Although the visibility was poor that first day due to fog, the team managed to spot several harbour porpoise – and so did I! Luckily we had less fog on Saturday and very good spotting conditions, as the sea surface was really calm. This brought them, me and some passengers some more sightings of harbour porpoise!

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This week’s ORCA survey team

You might remember Ruth (second from the right), as she was a Wildlife Officer in the North Sea 2 years ago!

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Not ideal spotting conditions…

On Sunday morning I had to say goodbye to the lovely survey team. It’s really great that there are so many ORCA volunteers who take part in these offshore surveys, as they collecti vital data about marine mammals, and therefore identifying important areas for these animals. If you are interested in becoming an ORCA member and in training to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor, you can have a look at our website www.orcaweb.org.uk! Taking part in surveys can be an amazing opportunity to help cetaceans and to see some fantastic wildlife!

Although their last survey on Sunday ended with no further cetacean sightings, we could enjoy some nice bird sightings when the survey team joined me on the observation deck, as we approached our landing spot in North Shields. Next to observing the cormorants drying their feathers on a fence, we could also see a beautiful male Eider duck swimming in the water.

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Cormorants in North Shields

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A beautiful male Eider duck

Monday morning, during my deck watch, I was surprised by a slightly unusual visitor – a collared dove. Shortly after landing on the guard rail of the ship, it took off over the water together with another fellow dove. Apart from this and some other bird sightings I couldn’t spot any whales or dolphins. So now I hope that my colleague Lucy and our first placement Alexandra, who will come on board tomorrow, will have a lot of fantastic sightings the next two weeks, as my fortnight on board has already come to an end. I’m looking forward to meeting Alexandra and hope she will have a great time with us!

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A coloured dove visiting the ship!

Until next time,

Julia

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