Posted by: orcaweb | May 20, 2015

Plentyful porpoises and bottlenose beginnings!

14/05 – 20/05 2015

After a successful morning (mentioned in last week’s blog), the luck did not continue through to the evening. After all, I couldn’t expect to see the minke whale twice in one day!

The Friday morning approaching Holland proved to be quiet as well, but I did manage see two harbour porpoise breaking the surface about 100 m from the ship. As they were close by, I succeeded in capturing the moment one of them broke the water’s surface, creating a splash, whilst glimpsing its back and dorsal fin. It is very difficult to capture more than this on camera, especially when the sea is not too flat.

Harbour porpoise surfacing

Harbour porpoise surfacing

I also saw some birds during the course of the morning including a swallow which almost flew into me as it attempted to fly inside the ship, but banked quickly realising there was a dead end due to the closed door, and fluttered away back out to sea. These birds winter in Africa and come to Europe for the summer to breed.

Swallow

Swallow

Lots and lots of terns were also seen – among them were arctic and common Terns. On ‘Bird Island’, an unused bunker base, I saw the usual shelducks as well as some oystercatchers flying around. There was another addition to the normal bird species here, and this was a white duck following a mallard duck around. The white duck is likely to be a mallard duck subspecies that has been bred for domestic use and so would be classified as a domestic duck, despite supposedly living in the wild! The evening was quieter, despite the very flat sea only revealing the occasional bit of white water. In the ORCA centre though I was joined by Newcastle residents, Jordan and Amy for a game of porpoise snakes and ladders, who regularly come aboard for the DFDS Mini cruise trip.

Domestic duck

Domestic duck

A pair of oystercatchers

A pair of oystercatchers

Saturday morning approaching Newcastle brought sunny skies but lots of white caps and long waves making it very difficult to see any cetacean activity. Needless to say no cetaceans were seen. However, something rather unexpected floated past the ship – highlighted by the presence of a few gulls and a fulmar. I noticed that they were showing an interest in something that was floating at the surface. The shape and size pointed towards it being a seal. My suspicions were confirmed once I took a closer look at my photos, also revealing that it was unfortunately dead.

An unfortunate encounter with a dead seal and floating next to a fulmar

An unfortunate encounter with a dead seal floating next to a fulmar

Its cause of death is unknown, but some seals die of disease (such as phocine distemper), starvation (from lack of food), or other means such as a build-up of toxic chemicals like agricultural pollutants or PCB’s. Another possible cause of death is entanglement in fishing gear which is estimated to kill 1-2% of seals less than a year old. It was about 1-1.2 metres in length (using the Fulmar’s size to compare), so it was likely to have been a young animal. Juveniles are also more vulnerable to death than adults. Therefore, the cause of death could thus have been any of the aforementioned or another cause. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative is thus an important step in reducing these potential hazards. ORCA collects data of any fishing debris that is seen during our surveys. The data is then passed on to the World Animal Protection (WAP) who launched the campaign. You can also do your part for the campaign! If you see any discarded fishing gear either on shore or at sea (net, rope, fishing line etc.), you can record this and send a picture along with your location to WAP’s website and contribute to marine conservation. Click here for more information about this campaign.

The evening deck watch brought much better luck with two white-beaked dolphins! A reasonable number of people were able to see these, which meant that I could award them with a certificate as evidence for their sightings. Later, many people came to visit the centre, all interested to learn what wildlife could be seen from the ship. Some children very artistically drew the wildlife they wanted to see on the blackboard. Brother and sister Lieve and Casper also visited the centre and were very eager to learn about the wildlife of the North Sea.

Blackboard cetacean art

Blackboard cetacean art

Leive and Casper

Leive and Casper

Three Swiss girls were especially interested in the marine life in our oceans as they were unaware of what wildlife could be seen at sea due to living in a land locked country. They were very happy then when the next morning they joined me for the sunrise deck watch and saw two harbour porpoises! Here is a picture of Lisa and Tamara with their father showing off their harbour porpoise sighting certificates.

Lisa, Tamara and their father after seeing harbour porpoises

Lisa, Tamara and their father after seeing harbour porpoises

Sunday morning approaching Holland brought two porpoises into view as well as a pair of migrating swallows, flittering just above the waves.

The evening return brought no luck cetacean-wise, just the standard array of sea birds. I did notice however a halo of iridescence around the sun – technically called a circumhorizontal arc or ice-halo formed by refraction of the sun. The colourful halo of light was too large a circle to capture in one photograph. Also some fishing debris and random other debris – rubbish – including a floating wooden crate and a balloon. Discarded fishing gear and plastic debris is very harmful for marine animals, especially porpoises. An estimated 3,000-8,000 Harbour Porpoises are killed every year in the North Sea due to entanglement in fishing nets and ingesting plastics can cause blockages in an animal’s digestive system. Therefore, the more we reuse, reduce and recycle plastic, the more we can lessen the impact on marine mammals.

Circumhorizontal Arc around the sun

Circumhorizontal Arc around the sun

Fishing Debris

Fishing Debris

Monday brought an avian visitor than Rachael had familiarised herself with previously – a collared dove! I saw it flying around the ship and managed to catch it on camera.

Collared dove

Collared dove

Despite this, it was a rather miserable day for cetacean spotting. That didn’t deter the passengers who visited me throughout the morning, who were often braving the cold winds and rain, making it feel rather wintery for the middle of May! Needless to say, no luck cetacean wise – but plenty of guillemots, some gannets razorbills and a shearwater in the distance.

Razorbill

Razorbill

In the evening, the sea state worsened to 5 but this didn’t stop us encountering two harbour porpoises making their characteristic splash as they roll at the surface.

One Puffin was seen briefly before disappearing amongst the waves. At the end of the deck watch I went back to the centre to open up for children’s activities. However, seeing as it was a quiet day on board with only a handful of children, I stood looking out of the window whilst awaiting visitors. To my surprise a pair of dolphins were fast swimming through the water making large rhythmical splashes. Without my binoculars to hand I could not safely identify these as white-beaked dolphins, their size could have led them to be bottlenose dolphin or even Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

On Tuesday I woke up to high waves and much more white water, much of it blowing in big streaks with some spray making it a very difficult sea state 7.

The evening was an improved scene, but still less than ideal. Surprisingly, I was still able to spot a pair of porpoises near the ship – once again catching the surfacing splash on camera. The evening in the centre proved quiet with many passengers celebrating DFDS’ 20th Anniversary with a special event occurring on board in the Seven Seas restaurant and Columbus Bar.

Harbour porpoise

Harbour porpoise

The last morning of my two week rotation brought reasonable viewing conditions and many promising signs of activity. There were frequent bursts of birds, some sat on the water in groups, others dipping into the water to feed and most recognisable of all, the occasional diving gannet. Eagerly waiting for some cetacean activity, I notice a pair of skuas sat floating by on the water, yet much different to the more commonly seen great skua- these were pomarine skuas! These are passage migrants likely migrating to breed in Northern Eurasia.

Pomarine skuas

Pomarine skuas

As the ship was approaching the mouth of the Tyne, a small fishing boat caught my attention as well as the flock of birds feeding behind it. Suddenly a splash highlighted to me that were was some cetacean activity and then confirming this, seconds later some large dolphins appeared out of the water – bottlenose dolphins! These large animals can reach up to 4 metres in length and these certainly were larger than 3 metres – definitely larger than the average size. As we approached, the dolphins seemed to notice, and the changed their direction to come right towards us. We got a brilliant view of them as they swam close to the ship, porpoising out of the water. Porpoising is the behaviour where dolphins leap out of the water briefly before submerging and doing this in a regular pattern to move through the water. I was really excited to see these, as they are only seen occasionally in the area. Even more so to see that at least 40-60 passengers who had joined me on the observation deck had seen these as well.

IMG_3951 Bottlenose

Bottlenose dolphins

Bottlenose dolphins

This also means that Rachael and I have now seen four different cetacean species since the Wildlife Officer season started in mid-March, including: harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and bottlenose dolphins. This was a fantastic way to end my rotation, leaving Rachael with some exciting things to look forward to hopefully! I’ll be back again in 2 weeks, bye for now!

If you would like more information on ORCA, please visit the website.  You can also become a member or donate to help support our vital research.

– Ruth

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