Posted by: orcaweb | August 14, 2015

Flat seas presenting many porpoises!

 06.08 – 14.08 2015

Following the changeable weather and intermittent sightings from the previous week, Sasha and I were excited to see what the next week would bring. Our first deck watch leaving Newcastle brought us a seal spyhopping and a pod of 4 white-beaked dolphins, thought to be feeding as there were many Kittiwakes repeatedly dipping down on the water’s surface getting at the catch that the dolphins had pushed to the surface.

A spy-hopping grey seal

A spy-hopping grey seal

White beaked dolphin

White beaked dolphin

Among some harbour porpoise sightings, minke whale activity was also reported later in the evening by a good handful of passengers! However, all of these reports were observed to sides and back of the ship out of view from our surveys being conducted at the front of the ship! It just goes to show that marine life can appear anywhere and we aren’t always lucky enough to witness everything around us.

The following crossing coming into Newcastle on the 8th proved to be a particularly busy morning! With a handful of harbour porpoises seen even before 8:00 and 2 seals it was a great start to the morning! White-beaked dolphins were soon seen ahead of the ship, towards the horizon. Seemingly attracted to the ship as we drew closer to each other, they disappeared below. However, a minute later we were pleasantly surprised to see one of them jump out the water alongside the bow of the ship making us able to see its pale sides and back! With these flat calm waters, the pressure wave created by the bow of the ship must have appeared very exciting for these dolphins as during the minutes that followed, they were bow riding! We could hear the loud slaps their bodies were making as they hit the water, being pushed along by the ships bow wave!

A white-beaked dolphin by the side of the ship about to bow ride

An underwater white-beaked dolphin about to bow ride

The activity didn’t stop there though as many more lone porpoises were spotted, some even a long distance away, highlighted by their very triangular shaped dorsal fins against a very calm flat sea state of 0! Whale and dolphin watching heaven! Speaking of whales, a Minke whale added to our sightings as one surfaced about 800 metres from the ship for all to see. Passenger Tom Page managed to capture some superb photos of this animal during one of its surface rolls.

Harbour porpoise

Harbour porpoise

A minke whale! Photographs taken by Tom Page

A minke whale! Photographs taken by Tom Page

A minke whale! Photographs taken by Tom Page

A minke whale! Photographs taken by Tom Page

The activity for the morning seemed to be relentless though as even more dolphins were spotted at a distance, very close to the shore of Sunderland! These had tall dark dorsal fins characteristic of white-beaked dolphins, and watching them further, I realised that some were breaching out the water and that another pod was surfacing a little further down the coastline in front of the Stadium of light. What a fantastic morning! It seems the flat calm conditions and beautiful sunshine brought everything out in abundance on this particular day!

sunderland WB - outlined 2

Distant white-beaked dolphins off the coast of Sunderland

Distant white-beaked dolphins off the coast of Sunderland

Distant white-beaked dolphins

Dorsal fins of two distant white-beaked dolphins

The evening deck watch was less hectic but nevertheless exciting as only 10 minutes into the deck watch, a Minke whale surfaced amongst a small flock of kittiwakes dipping into the water. This was even more spectacular than normal as it was only 50 metres ahead of the ship! At the time Sasha was looking through her binoculars at the exact moment and location it surfaced, so the super close-up view even gave her a little bit of a shock. Excitement soared on the observation deck as all were able to witness this spectacle. We were pleasantly informed later that other lucky passengers happening to look out the window at this time (19:15ish), were able to see this whale as it travelled down the side of the ship. Following all the excitement little was seen afterwards except the subtle splashes from some small cetaceans about a kilometre away.

The arrival and departures from Ijmuiden, Holland over the past week brought occasional porpoise sightings, with a rise in number than in previous weeks. One particular evening proved very abundant though with 10 porpoises being seen in just over an hour or surveying! This is an especially good figure for our deck watches in and out of Holland, as often we are left without seeing a single cetacean during a deck watch on this side of the crossing. We have also been seen a massive increase in jellyfish at the surface too!

Harbour Porpoise

Harbour Porpoise displaying its very equilateral triangle-shaped dorsal fin

IMG_8034 (2)

Lion’s mane jellyfish

Later into the week, an unusual sighting on the 9th miffed Sasha and I during a very calm sea state 0. Upon deliberation, we think it may have been a shark – Sasha’s favourite animal! Sharks behave very differently to cetaceans. First we thought it to be a bird sat on the water, but then upon observing this mystery animal, it rolled over, displaying a dorsal fin and sank below. Perhaps, this was a small shark species milling at the surface to gain some heat from the sun’s rays. In the North Sea, there are 21 species of shark observed here. Some vagrant and others resident or visitors to the area. These include the Common Smooth-hound, Blue shark, Nursehound, Thresher, Tope and Porbeagle shark.

An arctic tern with a sandeel in its mouth!

An tern with a fish in its mouth!

On a morning coming into Newcastle we observed a couple of dolphins at a distance, jumping (porpoising and skimming out the water). At first, it was difficult to distinguish which dolphins these were. However, I was certain that these were not white beaked dolphins! Upon inspecting my photos later, I believe these pair to be common dolphins! We are seeing occasional sightings of these in the North Sea in the summer months. They are normally a warmer water species, normally residing in the English Channel and west coast of UK where waters are warmer, but climate change and increasing sea surface temperatures both altering the distributions of many cetaceans as well as fish stock patterns, means that we are occasionally seeing some more unusual sights in these waters.

The days that followed seemed to bring a majority of porpoise sightings, both Newcastle and Holland side of the crossing. However, towards the end of a deck watch leaving Newcastle on the 10th, another pair of Common dolphins we seen fast swimming away from the ship, surfacing about 9 times before disappearing out of view.

A common dolphin about to surface

A common dolphin about to surface

During the second to last departure in and out of Newcastle, the sea seemed alive with life, presenting many porpoises, another possible pair of common dolphins and a probable minke whale slipping silently down the port side of the ship. Later on in the deck watch, I also noticed some splashing ahead in the distance alongside some circling gannets. As I suspected, some dolphins surfaced multiple times below the curious birds. As they got closer, I was able to count eight dolphins, believing them to be white-beaked dolphins. After this excitement and a handful of passengers to view the activity, the sea state flattened out to a very desirable sea state 1 for the final hour and many more porpoises were seen, some alone and others in pods up to 5!

Two harbour porpoises

Two harbour porpoises

Porpoises

Porpoises

The final crossing over to Holland brought a less ideal sea state with many white caps. Despite this, the ship managed to disturb a couple of Harbour porpoises during the morning deck watch, each of which swiftly swam away from the approaching ship. The evening deck watch was much the same with two porpoises surfacing together – a porpoise and its calf swimming closely by its side. The overnight crossing brought stormy weather which continued into the morning, drowning all those brave enough to join us on a deck watch in rain. We did manage to spot one lonesome porpoise though, so our efforts were not in vain!

That is the end of my two weeks on board DFDS King Seaways now, so I handover to Rachael again and hope the flat seas return for her.

A rainbow of colour outside the ORCA centre as the sun sets

A rainbow of colour outside the ORCA centre as the sun sets

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Back again in two weeks!

– Ruth Coxon

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