Posted by: orcaweb | June 17, 2015

Minke whales are moving in!

10/06 – 17/06 2015

After all the excitement shared on last week’s blog, I was excited to be seeing more and more marine life due to both the improving weather and apparent increase in food arriving in the area with the summer months! The first deck watches however did not reveal any cetacean life. Cetaceans are dolphins, whales and porpoises as this is the collective name for all three types of marine mammal. There are 88 different species in the world today with 6 different species regularly seen in the North Sea. Perhaps tomorrow would have more luck in seeing some of these.

I was more hopeful for the deck watch returning into Newcastle on the morning of the 11th. The beautifully flat sea conditions with no white water made it very easy to spot activity. At 8:30 a harbour porpoise surfaced just next to the ship for a couple from Australia/Netherlands to see. Almost half an hour later a bottlenose dolphin was also seen breaking the surface near the bow. We were slowly ticking the species off the list when 20minutes later a grey seal was seen spy hopping at the surface, watching the ship go past.

Harbour porpoise

Harbour porpoise

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Grey seal spyhopping

Grey seal spyhopping

We were hoping to add minke whale to the list of morning sightings but I have yet to see all of these species in one deck watch! However, now into the peak months for cetacean spotting (June, July and August), I am hopeful that this can become a reality soon! On the approach in the Tyne, a pair of puffins were spotted by a crew member Moira, who sometimes joins me after finishing her morning shift. A long line of common scoters were also spotted as we awaited any more marine mammal movements.

Puffins

Puffins

The evening deck watch proved to be equally if not more exiting!! Normally in a day, one deck watch proves to me more eventful that the other but today was extra special, emphasising the abundance of food now arriving for the summer months. Despite the slightly choppy sea state 5, three different species were seen. The first sighting was highlighted by an enormous splash out towards the horizon. This was most definitely a whale of some kind breaching. However, without a closer look I could only assume it to be a minke whale, being the most commonly seen whale in these waters. However two years ago a humpback whale was seen, so it would not be impossible to be another whale species such as this. Not long later, three distinct surface splashes were seen to the port side of the ship, small in shape and inconspicuous. Managing to capture these on camera, I was able to see their triangular shaped dorsal fins and clarify these as harbour porpoises.

The final and most spectacular display of the evening however was seen directly in front of the ship. A gannet hovered in the air for a few seconds and before we knew it, the gannet had dived in the water with a mighty splash. All those on deck had all eyes and binoculars on this bird in the distance. We saw it take off from the water and hover above in the same position as before, once again prepared to dive. A millisecond later, what followed will be forever engrained in my memory…just as we as we were following this gannet with our binoculars, a large dolphin high jumped clear out the water just below! Since we were already watching the area with our binoculars, this gave us all a beautiful view of its mighty leap! The next few minutes were a display of these two dolphins skimming through the water at quite a speed, creating large splashes upon surfacing. My pictures reveal through their splashing that due to their very tall dark dorsal fins and pale saddle patches behind their dorsals, that these were a pair of white-beaked dolphins! We had been missing these over the past few weeks, with bottlenose dolphins and porpoises stealing the show.

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White-beaked dolphins skimming the surface

One particularly excited passenger was 10 year old Johanna from Denmark! She had never seen dolphins before and because she had joined me for the whole hours’ deck watch, she had been lucky to see both the porpoises and white-beaked dolphins! Naturally, I gave her the certificates to celebrate her success! Johanna also joined me in the centre afterwards for the ORCA centre treasure hunt and a game of porpoise snakes and ladders.

10 year old Johanna showing her sighting certificates

10 year old Johanna showing her sighting certificates

Later, in the ORCA wildlife centre I was joined once again by my deck watch companions who stayed on deck whilst I did some activities inside with Johanna. They gladly informed me that another small cetacean (porpoise or dolphin) had been seen at the bow of the ship. Also, as the evening progressed, the sea flattened to a clear sea state 2 with many birds being visible from the windows of the ORCA centre, including large flocks diving into the water, symbolic of the abundance of food below. Therefore, after the evening of activities, I ventured to the Bridge to meet the new Captain as well as have an extended search for wildlife. My efforts were not in vain, as over a period of 20 minutes, numerous flocks of birds were seen frantically diving into the water. One of these was more popular with bird life at 22:05 so I watched the area closely. Low and behold, a minke whale surfaced right next to the large flock of birds! This view from the bridge left me ecstatic, encouraging me to stay until the sun went down, viewing the beautiful sunset in the process.

Many gannets feeding on the water at sunset

Many gannets feeding on the water at sunset

The morning deck watch arriving into the Netherlands provided much the same flat conditions. However, only birds were seen with many gulls species entering the mix as well as some arctic terns, oystercatchers and on bird island, an abundance of small fluffy grey birds – gull chicks! One large black backed gull was also seen carrying an item of food back to the island (probably for its chick), and upon closer inspection this food item appeared to be a small flatfish of some kind! Speaking of chicks, during meet and greet, speaking to passengers as they board about the ORCA activities on offer, I noticed something on top of the air bridge! In the previous week I had noticed a pair of herring gulls taking it in turns to bring materials for a nest, and then upon another inspection I noticed three small eggs in the nest. Today they were no longer eggs but tiny hatchlings. I saw them stumble forward on the air bridge with the guidance of their parents. Throughout the meet and greet I saw one of the parents bring back a lovely regurgitated meal for them to devour.

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Black backed gull transporting its catch (a flat fish) back to its chick

Great black backed gull chicks on 'bird island'

Great black backed gull chicks on ‘bird island’

Newly hatched (less than a week old) herring gull chicks on the air bridge in Ijmuiden!

Newly hatched (less than a week old) herring gull chicks on the air bridge in Ijmuiden!

The next morning brought little luck but a few birds including a 1st/2nd year gannet. I was however joined by Delta Safari a wildlife watching group based in the Netherlands and was interested to hear about their previous encounters with wildlife.

Delta Safari

The crowds on the observation deck – photo taken by Delta Safari

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Ruth (left), Eva (Middle) and Marko (right) from Delta Safari after their welcome talk in the ORCA wildlife centre

The morning of the 13th arose with Delta Safari helping to view any wildlife, meaning a crowd of 40 strong were on the observation deck even before other passengers joined us. Thus, I was hopeful that nothing would go amiss with so many eager eyes on the ocean. It was a rainy and foggy start to the morning, but the sea was flat as hoped. It was a slow start however with only a few gannets being seen and then the odd one diving into the water.

Diving gannets

Diving gannets

With the fog starting to clear, 2 harbour porpoises were caught a glimpse of by Delta Safari on the port side of the ship. However, it was when a family came outside with their 2 children asking to see orcas and otters at 8:24, that the mother pointed into the distance to see a splash. It was a white beaked dolphin breaching! There were two individuals, with one continually breaching about 5 times in a row. What luck!

Breaching white beaked dolphins in the distance

Breaching white beaked dolphins in the distance

That was not the end of our morning however as over the next 45 minutes four more pods were seen and even closer. There was a pod of 3, and then a few minutes later a pair were seen swimming side by side. This pair are believed to be a male and female as their dorsal fins displayed a marked difference in size and shape. The male had a much taller dorsal fin and also a higher contrast between his white flank markings. Males also have a thicker tail stock which can be seen when they jump out of the water as in the photo below.

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Male (left/behind) with a much taller dorsal fin and also a higher contrast between his white flank markings and black body. Female (front/right) with smaller, more curved dorsal fin

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Male white beaked dolphin with thick tail stock

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White beaked dolphins near the front of the ship

White beaked dolphins near the front of the ship

There was thus much excitement this morning with so many dolphin sightings and many people to see them. One pod of 6 even swam right up to the bow of the ship and we could clearly see their pale markings as they swam underwater. Roef Mulder caught a fantastic photo of three swimming in a line.

White-beaked dolphins

White-beaked dolphins taken by Roef Mulder

The final sighting that morning after we sailed past the walls into the river Tyne, was a lone grey seal, totalling 7 marine mammal sightings in one morning and 17 individuals! What a morning!

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Leaving Newcastle brought once again flat conditions and a wide range of sightings! The 13th was anything but an unlucky day I have to say! Before I even made it to the deck watch (due to delivering a 30-minute presentation in the ORCA centre), delta safari recorded having seen some white beaked dolphins, some either white-beaked or bottlenose dolphins breaching in the distance and as I ventured onto the observation deck 2 harbour porpoises surfaced!

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Harbour porpoise in front of the ship

Harbour porpoise close up

Harbour porpoise close up

Over the course of the evening, many more harbour porpoises were seen, some very close to the bow of the ship, others further away with just their dorsal fins visible. We also saw some more white-beaked dolphins in the distance, again with 2 of the 4 breaching regularly. However, minutes before the end of the deck watch we also encountered a minke whale! This was very far out to the horizon but its large size (up to 10 metres) and the flat calm conditions meant it was clearly visible and certainly a minke whale. I only managed to capture its dorsal fin however before it sank below the surface.

White beaked dolphins

White beaked dolphins

Retiring to the ORCA centre to engage with passengers and run children’s activities, I still had one eye looking out the window. At one point I noticed a large flock of birds on the water so I followed it with by binoculars, but nothing surfaced. At the end of Delta safari’s deck watch the leader of the group, Marko joined me in the centre to inform me that 2 more minke whales had been spotted! One amidst a feeding frenzy of birds on the port side of the ship (unfortunately the opposite side to the ORCA centre windows) and another ahead. The photos below were taken my Roef Mulder, a returning passenger and avid photographer.

Minke whale taken by Roef Mulder

Minke whale taken by Roef Mulder

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Minke whale amongst many birds in a feeding frenzy – photo taken by Roef Mulder

What a fantastic day! Just as dark was setting in, I made a brief visit to the bridge and within 15 minutes, saw some more porpoises and a pod of white beaked dolphins directly behind a minke whale! Needless to say the 13th June has been the best day sightings-wise so far!

The sailing in and out of Holland was never going to be as exciting as the day before. However, a couple of porpoises were seen on the morning deck watch as well as one more on the departure journey. Some gulls (adult and juvenile) spent a lot of the deck watch soaring above the ship. All of a sudden though, three dived down. The young one came up with a long fish, causing a bit of a squabble between the older individuals.

Juvenille great black backed gull after catching a long fish

Juvenille great black backed gull after catching a long fish

With high hopes for another bustling morning of sightings on the 15th coming into Newcastle, I was up bright and early to see what would come my way. A grey seal and some brief harbour porpoise sightings started the day as well as an appearance of a Manx Shearwater.

Manx shearwater

Manx shearwater

Eagerly waiting, it was not until 8:58 am that some white-beaked dolphins appeared! They were a pod of 5 individuals with a young individual in their midst who breached as we sailed past them. What a lovely sight! One more porpoise was seen before we arrived into Newcastle.

Young white beaked dolphin breaching

Young white beaked dolphin breaching

Young white beaked dolphin breaching out the water

Young white beaked dolphin breaching out the water

Leaving Newcastle I was patiently watching the sea with a reasonable sea state 3. It was almost at the end of the deck watch however when I was feeling let down with the lack of sightings. Just before I turned my back I saw a very large animal surface just a few hundred metres away from the ship. It was MINKE WHALE! By the time I shouted whale, it had sunk below and I could just vaguely see its grey/brown colouration underwater beneath the surface. What a great encounter. I was far too excited however to get a photo of this event.

On the deck watches on the 16th arriving and leaving Holland, Curlews were seen on both deck watches with their very long curved beaks.

Curlew

Curlew

Gulls also swarmed around a trawler ship not far from the entrance to Ijmuiden and some gulls were carrying small flat fish. A cormorant was also seen diving underwater and returned to the surface with a small fish as was a gannet out at sea directing in front of the ship.

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Gulls and gannets with fish

Gulls and gannets with fish

Harbour porpoises were seen on both deck watches, with a total of 9 seen that day! The return journey provided heavenly viewing conditions with a sea state 0! It was like glass and any little dorsal fin, however small such as from a porpoise, could easily be seen. Much marine debris was also visible in these conditions including some balloons, milk cartons and a plastic bottle.

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Three harbour porpoises creating ripples

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plastic bottle on the mirror calm conditions

A plastic bottle on the mirror calm conditions

During the last morning  into Newcastle, the last deck watch of my 2 week rotation I saw two minke whales! One at the beginning of the deck watch and only a few hundred metres from the ship – and unfortunately despite the great view and it surfacing 4 times, I realised that I did not have the SD card in the camera! Not long after a lone harbour porpoise surfaced on the starboard side though and late a white beak dolphin appeared right next to the bow, clearly seen underwater before it began bow riding.

White-beaked dolphin underwater

White-beaked dolphin underwater

Finally the last sighting was another minke whale! This time I was able to capture a picture, finally a decent photo!

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Minke whale

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Minke whale

I now end my rotation and hand over to Rachael, who in her time off completed the 1 mile Great North Swim to raise money for ORCA! It is not too late to celebrate her fantastic time of 42.5 minutes! You can donate at www.justgiving.com/Rachael-Forster3/ or you can complete your own swim fin challenge.

To support our charity you can also donate, become a member, or train to become a marine mammal surveyor. Or for more information view our website.

We also have a photography competition! For more details click here.

I look forward to being back on board at the beginning of July!

– Ruth

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