Hello everyone and welcome to the new Wildlife Officer season here in the North Sea. On board the beautifully refurbished King Seaways this year you will find myself, Lucy the new Senior Wildlife Officer and Julia our new Junior Wildlife Officer. After an exciting launch event with Michalea Strachan on-board to celebrate our ten year anniversary with DFDS, I remained on the ship for the first official day of the 2017 season.
The first thing that struck me about the North Sea was how varied the bird life here is. On my first deck watch I was in awe of the species I was seeing. In just one hour of watching I saw Guillemots, Razorbills & even a couple of puffins! Auks are in my opinion some of the prettiest seabirds and so lovely to see. The sea was beautifully calm but despite wonderful surveying conditions, no cetaceans were seen.
The next morning I awoke to the most brilliant sun rise and again a beautifully calm sea. Lots of gulls and a few Gannets soared through the sky as the sea came alive with light reflecting the suns rays. That evening the surface of the water had begun to show signs of increased winds with white horses dancing on top of the waves. This is not such great weather for spotting cetaceans as they can often be hidden behind the crests.
The passengers on-board have been absolutely fantastic and a pleasure to meet. Presentations in the wildlife centre have been full to the brim most evenings and the deck watches too have proved very popular. There is a great diversity of nationalities on-board and I have been practising my Dutch with many of the passengers sailing over from the Netherlands to North Shields.
Once the weekend had passed I was overwhelmed on Monday morning when I arrived onto the observation deck to look out at a sea state zero. This is when the surface of the water looks as clear as glass with not a single ripple in sight. This is whale and dolphin spotting heaven and I got my binoculars ready straight away. It wasn’t long before I started spotting harbour porpoise rolling through the water. Harbour porpoises are the most common cetacean in the North Sea and the only porpoise seen in European waters. Being small and shy, calm seas are the best way to see these amazing creatures at their best.
A solo white-beaked dolphin was spotted in the distance and then seemingly out of nowhere a thick dense fog rolled in like a white wall blocking any chance of seeing further wildlife. Despite the conditions I remained on deck with some passengers who were amazed by the sudden change in conditions.
The following afternoon and morning brought with it the same idyllic sea state and thankfully without the fog, I was already starting to fall in love with the North Sea. With passengers in tow eager to marvel at the wildlife more harbour porpoises were spotted as well as many auk species including the occasional puffins which are most likely making their way towards the Farne Islands where they nest and breed.
Gannets are a common sight in the North Sea, soaring above the ship with their huge two metre wing span and riding the thermals out to sea. By mid-week seals had started to appear, mostly grey seals bobbing at the surface. The seals can be seen at all points throughout the crossing and are more than capable of swimming the full distance between Ijmuiden and North Shields!
As the week progressed the weather started to deteriorate slightly with rain and choppy seas. It always amazes me that the birds who spend most of their time out at sea are un-phased by the weather that causes us to grimace and shiver. Many gull species including greater and lesser blacked back as well as herring gulls can be spotted sitting on the water or flying just inches above the surface in even the roughest seas. Kittiwakes have also been a highlight of this last week. I have seen more here in the North Sea that anywhere else I have previously ventured and I love the distinctive markings on the wings of the juveniles.
Coming to the end of my first weeks on-board we again we greeted by flat seas and rolling fog. Convinced the calm conditions would bring us porpoise sightings as we sailed towards the Netherlands I endured the fog and reduced visibility. As both myself and passengers watched patiently, fulmars, kittiwakes, gulls and gannets were all seen disappearing into the mist. We arrived in Holland with no cetacean sightings to speak of.
With the first week of the season coming to an end I am very excited for what we will see and experience here in the North Sea. Next week Julia boards for her first 2 weeks running the programme and I have my fingers crossed that she will see some amazing wildlife and meet some fantastic passengers. Join her next week for the next blog instalment from the King Seaways.
For more information about ORCA, please visit our website.