Posted by: orcaweb | July 15, 2015

Plentyful Porpoises, a few Minkes and a Pilot Whale!

09/07 – 15/07 2015

Well and truly into the summer now, myself and Jake (an ORCA intern who introduced himself on last week’s blog) were excited to witness what the North Sea had in store for us. However, a slightly high sea state compared to previous weeks, meant that there was a pic and mix of success in the way of sightings. We did however, manage to catch a glimpse of a puffin before it dived below on our first deck watch out of Newcastle. Last week we saw our first shark of the season! Sharks act very different to dolphins, with only their dorsal and/or tail fin poking through the surfac.  They often rest motionless at the surface or swim very slowly through the water – very different to fast moving dolphins!

Spot the puffin as it passes the ship

Spot the puffin as it passes the ship

With Jake on board offering a helping hand, we were able to continue deck watches past the scheduled hour in the evening and have one person running activities in the ORCA centre.  The other stayed on deck watch in hopes of seeing more cetaceans. In the centre one evening I was joined by the Cox family who drew some fantastic whale drawings with their mum.

Fantastic whale drawings in the ORCA centre by Danielle and Cox

Fantastic whale drawings in the ORCA centre by the Cox family

With little success at the start of the evening sightings-wise, I was a little apprehensive that we would see any cetacean life. However, just as I closed the centre for the evening I joined Jake for the final minutes of the deck watch to be told that he had just seen a lunge-feeding minke whale! And only a few hundred metres from the ship! I couldn’t believe it! Often we see minke whales amongst a flock of feeding birds, but to witness the actual lunge-feeding behaviour (where they open their massive mouths stretching their throat pleats to engulf a large amount of water filled with their food) is quite a rarity! I’m sure that will be a sight for Jake to remember. Luckily Jake was not the only one to see this, as a few passengers were still out on deck.

The next morning however brought choppy waves and a high swell meaning that it was difficult to spot any underwater activity coming into Holland. I did however spot a seal which was swimming through the water, almost mistaking it for a porpoise! On the return journey the sea calmed down to a lovely sea state 2 giving us a beautiful view of the sea.

Spy-hopping seal

Spy-hopping seal

The calm seas continued for our deck watches on the 11th bring views of 10 harbour porpoises and a lone seal seal spy-hopping as the ship sailed past. Spy-hopping is the behaviour that some marine mammals do to look above the water, effectively just their heads are showing above the surface.

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Porpoise at the front of the ship

Porpoises at the front of the ship

A grey seal spy-hopping

A grey seal spy-hopping

We also saw a great skua – a bird that we have been seeing in a similar place most departures out of Newcastle. Also, we have been seeing an increase in manx shearwater sightings too!

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Great Skua

Great Skua

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Manx shearwater

It was the deck watch in the evening that really excited us though, as not long into the deck watch an unusual black shape was seen half spy-hopping and half swimming through the water as it transversed the water in front of the ship about 800 metres away. This unusual animal, was not only unusual to look at displaying a very blunt, rounded black head (much much larger than a seals), but it was behaving completely different to any other cetacean we had encountered in the North Sea. The mystery creature surfaced three times, with the third time rolling a little more forward to display the top of its dorsal fin. At this moment I acknowledged that it was actually a species of dolphin that I was witnessing and that the only thing it could have been was a pilot whale! A very unusual sighting for the North Sea! Pilot whales though, seem to be vulnerable to disorientation and stranding, as they are frequently found to strand in their numbers. You may have heard of the 21 Pilot Whales on the Isle of Sky that had become stranded in May or the pod of pilot whales that were seen off the Norfolk coast unexpectedly just last year, therefore it wouldn’t be impossible to occasionally see them in the North Sea even though it is rare to see them there. In fact, the previous day, a volunteer for the Sunderland Lifeboat Station had reportedly seen a pilot whale around the Easington coast – so it could even have been the same individual!

Other than the mysterious pilot whale sighting, only four harbour porpoises were seen throughout the evening. The weather the next morning approaching Holland gave us an average sea state three but no sightings, then the sea took a turn for the worse and on the return journey went up to a sea state six! Definitely not porpoise spotting weather!

Harbour porpoise

Harbour porpoise

Coming towards the end of the blog week, we were hopeful to see a wider selection of cetaceans, as there seemed to be many porpoises but not many whales or dolphins. For example, on the morning of the 13th coming into Newcastle, we saw an incredible amount of porpoises over the two hour deck watch, totalling 17 harbour porpoises! Our concerns were quickly lifted on the evening deck watch though, when on top of seeing eight porpoises, we saw two minke whales, a spy-hopping seal and two white beaked dolphins breaching in the distance! One of the minke whales we saw, did not display its typical slow surface roll behaviour, but instead was seen racing through the waves at some speed. Surfacing very quickly therefore meant we only caught the end of its surface roll, but you can see in the picture below, the force of its body pushing itself through the water due to the large wave it has created.

A minke whale racing through the water

A minke whale racing through the water

The next day proved to be a very quiet arrival and return to Holland despite the excellent viewing conditions. By the time we shut the ORCA centre at 10pm we noticed the completed clear glassy look of the sea and had a few minutes out on the observation deck to admire the reddish orange pastels of the setting sun behind the cloudy sky. As we were staring out to sea we also noticed some guillemots sat on the water, which is fairly unusual to see on the Holland side of our surveys. A flock of Kittiwakes also flew past and we could even see their reflections in the water.

Flock of kittiwakes in the sunset

Flock of kittiwakes in the sunset

We were hoping that the mirror calm conditions would continue into our morning deck watch into Newcastle and they didn’t quite stay with us through the crossing. We woke up to a very foggy sea meaning very low visibility. However, once we had grabbed our survey equipment and headed to the observation deck it was already clearing up. Over the course of the morning in the relatively calm seas, we saw seven porpoises. Two groups consisted of three individuals and a final one on its own, all seen very close to the ship getting a decent view of them with many passengers to see them.

Harbour porpoise

Harbour porpoise surfacing

I now handover to Rachael and say farewell to Jacob who has been a fantastic addition to the ORCA team on board DFDS King and will be finishing his month placement next week. Rachael will then be welcoming a new placement on board shortly afterwards.

If you would like to show your support for our charity, you could donate, become a member, or train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor. We For general information, please visit our website by clicking here.

Additionally, the Your Seas project which runs on board the DFDS King Seaways and around the North East area going into schools and educating children and adults about the marine environment, whales and dolphins etc, has been nominated for the National Lottery Awards in the Environment catergory! If you would like to vote for us, all you need is an email address to register your vote, click here to do so.

Final sunset of my two week rotation with mirror calm seas

Final sunset of my two week rotation with mirror calm seas

See you in two weeks when I am back on board!

– Ruth

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