Posted by: orcaweb | September 4, 2017

Minke or fin??

Welcome back to another week on the lovely King Seaways! To start straight away: We have seen three beautiful minke whales on Saturday evening, somewhere along the English coast after having left North Shields… Or should I rather say fin whales?? You might wonder now what on Earth am I talking about, but I’ll explain it to you in a second.

Around eight pm, as we sailed along the north eastern coast of England, our current ORCA intern Charlie and I spotted a large, dark shape in the water ahead of the ship. Quickly it became clear that it was one of the rorqual whales surfacing in the lovely calm waters we could enjoy that day. Just a few seconds later there was another one surfacing closer to the ship on the port side – and it gets even better – soon thereafter a third one appeared on the starboard side. We couldn’t believe our luck!! And to add to this ‘sighting frenzy’, there was a grey seal popping its head out of the water just behind one of the whales and a little bit later on three more grey seals were spotted. Charlie and I, together with some passengers, were totally awed by these magnificent whales making an appearance.

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Dorsal fin of a rorqual, just before it disappears under water

But back to the ‘minke/fin whale problem’. The shape, general appearance and the fact that summer is peak season for minke whales on our route here didn’t really lead us to think about any other whale species than a minke whale. However, later that evening the ORCA Marine Mammal Survey team – who were on board that day to conduct one of our offshore surveys – said they recorded them as fin whales (which are quite rare to be seen here in the North Sea – but possible!). They perceived them to be much bigger than a minke whale. So you can imagine that lead to some interesting discussions.

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Grey seal swimming along

You might also think that it should be quite straightforward to distinguish a whale more than double the size from one that’s a lot smaller. Fin whales can reach up to 26 m; in contrast minke whales only 7 to 10 m on average. Nevertheless size can be quite difficult to judge when you are out on sea – especially if you’re high up on a fast moving vessel. The best way to identify any cetacean is always to combine a variety of different features, such as shape, size, colour, surfacing sequence, shape of dorsal fin, blow and behaviour. Unfortunately though, you don’t always get a good look on all of these or enough features. So to summarize, I can’t tell you for certain whether they were minke or fin whales, as we only got one photo of the dorsal fin, which unfortunately isn’t enough for a positive identification. Anyway, it was a great encounter and as always a real treat to see these cetaceans!!  For now, we will have to record them as unidentified whales.  Who knows, we might spot them again next week!

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Lovely calm seas – great whale watching conditions!

Apart from this very exciting evening the rest of the week was pretty quiet in terms of cetacean sightings, despite having near perfect spotting conditions. However, we were able to share sightings with passengers of seals, harbour porpoises and white-beaked dolphins.

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Two beautiful cormorants flying in asymmetry

On Thursday, Charlie and I had another really exciting day, when we visited the University of Newcastle’s Dove Marine Laboratory for their summer school sessions. We had everything packed the day before – including Harry, our inflatable harbour porpoise model – and disembarked the ship as soon as we got into port in North Shields. Our short taxi journey brought us to the beautiful Cullercoats Bay just north of North Shields.  In the morning I delivered an interactive talk about cetaceans, their evolution and common species in the North Sea. Afterwards the 11 to 14 years old pupils joined me outside for some land-based surveying! Although we didn’t spot any whale or dolphin from the shore, we could enjoy some birds swooping up and down the sky, as well as several sneaky gulls trying to steal the lunch off from people who were enjoying a sunny day on the beach.

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On the lookout for some wildlife at Cullercoats Bay

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Explaining the difference between toothed and baleen whales

In the afternoon I gave another talk about ORCA’s conservation work, survey methods, common species and volunteer opportunities with us. This introductory marine science course was aimed at 16+ year olds who are interested in the marine science sector. It was a really fun day and ORCA is very proud to be one of the partners of the Dove Marine Laboratory. It’s fantastic to engage with the local community and to inspire young people about the fascinating marine life that’s out there – on our doorsteps!

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Juvenile gannet soaring in the sky

As always we had a busy and exciting week – there’s hardly ever a dull moment around. This week will be Charlie’s last week on board the DFDS King Seaways, so make sure you’ll stop by next week to read all about how Charlie experienced his four week Wildlife Officer Placement on here. And hopefully we can report on some more mysterious whales by then!

Have a great week!

Julia

 

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Posted by: orcaweb | August 22, 2017

Birds and Beach Cleans!

Hello! I’m Charlie, the fourth and final of this years ORCA Wildlife Officer Placements on board the DFDS King Seaways! I’ve had a fantastic two weeks with Lucy, learning all there is to know about the wildlife of the North Sea, as well as how ORCA operates, life on a DFDS ferry and working out how to use the crew lift!

One of the first things that struck me as we sailed into Ijmuiden for the first time is the massive amount of industry. After passing between some wind farms you can see the tall chimneys and smoke rising from the Dutch coast, along with a variety of cargo ships at anchor or on their way between ports. Having spent some time in the English channel I was aware of the high traffic volumes in this area, but when you see it every day you really begin to understand the vast quantities of shipping that goes on throughout our oceans.

It’s interesting to see the contrast between the wind farms and the huge piles of coal in the Ijmuiden port, it highlights the transition stage we are currently in between fossil fuels and cleaner energy. North of the River Tyne we can see the construction of new wind farms, but each time we arrive back in Ijmuiden it reminds us we still have a very long way to go to move away from fossil fuels and the pollution this causes.

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Aproaching Ijmuiden

One thing I will take away from this experience, which I hadn’t considered before, is how real the threat of pollution is to our environment. All of the figures and percentages about carbon emissions and plastic in our oceans, that we read online and see in the news, are real. Everyone knows there is plenty of rubbish in our oceans and most people know this is bad. However when you see balloons, beach balls and other miscellaneous objects most days it really puts it into context, until you see something and its effects its easy to turn a blind eye.

These thoughts have really highlighted to me how important the work of ORCA and other environmental charities are. It’s great that ORCA is making such a difference by inspiring others as well as collecting such vast and scientifically robust data. I’m really grateful to be contributing to such a worthwhile cause and am really excited to build my future career from my experience here with ORCA!

The weather continued to be relatively uncooperative this week – a lot of the time there was white water and some choppy waves. This makes sightings challenging, as the key features we look for are white water and dark shapes! But who doesn’t like a challenge!? With a bit of persistence and determination we have been lucky enough too see some harbour porpoises on both sides of the North Sea. I have also been really excited by all the diving gannets, they’re really spectacular to watch when feeding and we’ve been really lucky to have front row seats on a few occasions. The great skua that has cropped up in previous blogs has been seen on a few more occasions, which is really exciting. On Thursday evening this week we even saw a Manx shearwater, it was great to watch its distinctive flying pattern over the waves. So all in all I’ve had a great two weeks, but as always, fingers crossed for some flat seas!

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Couple of harbour porpoises

We’ve also been quite busy off the ship! On Tuesday 15th we joined a beach clean with Sandra and Geeke from the DFDS office in Holland. The Boskalis Beach Clean is an annual event in Holland where two teams clean the entire Dutch coastline over two weeks. Each team starts at a different end of the Dutch coast and we joined them for the finale at the central point near Ijmuiden. Over 200 people came together, which made a really friendly and positive atmosphere. Everyone was really keen to make a difference to our environment and it was brilliant to see how popular the event was and how many people care! In total this year they managed to pick up an astonishing 15,000kg of litter!

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Lots of enthusiastic beach cleaners!

The most common item was thin fishing line, this is used during trawling and breaks up along the sea floor. We encountered small and large strands, individual bits, and tangled masses of line and seaweed all along the beach. But this is only the bits that have washed up and there is a load more in the sea, unfortunately this will be the case until fishing practices change.

We also found a lot of yellow solid paraffin along the beach strand line. This had come from a ship, although the guys at the Boskalis Beach Clean were still unsure who, where, when or how. Paraffin is a fuel derived from petroleum; it has many different uses as fuel, lubricant and is even found in cosmetic products. It contains benzene that is a known carcinogen, and so can be extremely damaging to the environment when polluted in large quantities.

 

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Just 1  trailer out of the 15,000kg collected on the Dutch coast

We finished off the week visiting the CoCoast Dove Marine Lab.  Lucy gave a really interesting talk about cetaceans in the North Sea to the students. We then went to the cliff top for a land based survey and within a few minutes we had seen our first harbour porpoise! It was a very different experience surveying on solid ground, everyone really appreciated the talk and were really interested in ORCAs work on board the DFDS King Seaways.

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Land survey at Cullercoats

So I have definitely had a brilliant two weeks and time certainly does fly when you’re having fun. I am sure the next two weeks will follow suit and I’m looking forward to working with Julia, hopefully along with some flatter seas!

Charlie

Posted by: orcaweb | August 17, 2017

Charlie and the Croissant Theif

As the end of the Wildlife Officer season begins to creep closer we invite on-board our final placement for this year. Charlie joins us from Cambridge and is looking to gain valuable experience in marine conservation to specialise in a career for ocean protection following the completion of his biology degree. The first lesson that Charlie learnt was that the weather at sea doesn’t always working in our favour. Venturing out to the observation deck, heavy rain made it almost impossible to even keep our eyes open let alone spot and whales or dolphins. Flying close to the ship however, undeterred by the rain were gannets, fulmars and even a Manx shearwater.

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Gannet

If you have read the blogs from the last two weeks you will know that a great skua has been sighted at the Ijmuiden end of the journey repeatedly. We were lucky enough to see this impressive bird again this week. Whether it is the same individual prowling the area is uncertain because this species will form small flocks. Either way it is always one of my favourite birds to see and a nice addition to our ever growing bird list.

As the water depth closer to the Netherlands is extremely shallow (10-20 metres), we usually expect harbour porpoise and seals in this area. So you can imagine how excited we were to see on Wednesday in these shallow waters a large splash on the horizon, too large to be a fish or a porpoise this splash appeared three times before it’s owner disappeared. Being so far away we were unable to establish what it was as only the white water it created was visible. Proving again how mysterious and unpredictable the sea can truly be.

By Thursday, Charlie was very eager to get his eyes on some cetaceans and as we sailed back towards North Shields.  Both myself, Charlie and the passengers outside with us were delighted to see a Minke whale surface three times at a nice slow and relaxed pace. Minke whales generally reach a maximum length of 10 metres which is small in whale terms. This minke whale however looked even smaller than this so may have been a juvenile or sub adult on one of its first migrations towards the Arctic.

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Charlie looking our for whales and dolphins

Friday morning brought with it a great amount of laughs for all outside on the observation deck. A herring gull had perched itself on the ledge above us, I was curious as to what it was up to as we rarely see birds landing here. It was soon clear that we were now the ones being watched. After a few moments of watching the gull, watching us, it swooped down, landed on a ladies head and stole her chocolate croissant right out of her hands. If this wasn’t bad enough, it then took up a spot on the bow right in front of the robbed passenger and wolfed the croissant down whole as if showing off its victory.

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The greedy gull eyeing up the prize

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The theif enjoying its stolen breakfast

Later that evening whilst recalling the mornings hilarity we saw a sight that soon brought us all down to earth. A gannet flew above our heads, nice and close but as we watched in awe as the majestic bird soared gracefully, we noticed a fishing line trailing behind it. This poor bird then frantically shook its head, digging its beak into its breast feathers in an attempt shake off the fishing line. A reminder of the negative impacts of our interactions with the sea.

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A Gannet with fishing line trailing behind it

The weekend soon came around and we were treated to several harbour porpoise and a great diving performance from a huge flock of gannets. Always impressive to see and a regular sighting for us at this time of the year in the North Sea.

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Diving Gannets ahead of the ship. An increasingly common sight as we sail towards North Shields

Thanks again for stopping by and please do come back next week to see how Charlie has been getting on on-board our floating home the King Seaways.

Lucy

Posted by: orcaweb | August 7, 2017

ORCA OceanWatch on the North Sea!

What an unbelievable four weeks I’ve had at sea. I can’t quite believe how fast it has come around. As you may remember from my earlier blog, my name is Beccy and I have been training to be a wildlife officer with Lucy and Julia over the last month, by taking part in ORCA’s Wildlife Officer Placement scheme. It has been absolutely incredible. We have seen seals, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, incredible seabirds and not forgetting one very special minke whale.

We have had another wonderful week here on the North Sea. The weather hasn’t been marvellous but it has in no way dampened our spirits. Especially as it is a very exciting time of the year – ORCAOceanWatch. It is during this time of the year when our incredible network of Marine Mammal Surveyors go out on our ferry and cruise routes to survey UK and adjoining sea regions as much as possible.  Throughout the year, ORCA also train many bridge crews on how to survey and identify different cetacean species and we are very fortunate and excited that so many different companies are taking part this year. They were joined earlier in the week by four ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors who very excitingly spotted a minke whale on Monday morning as well as lots of harbour porpoises.

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Stunning sunset view from bridge

Out on the observation deck, Julia and I have been accompanied by lots of eager passengers which has been fantastic. It is always great having some extra sets of eyes on the lookout especially during OceanWatch. On Monday evening, we spotted a small pod of dolphins whilst leaving North Shields which led to some very excited passengers. However this had been the most recent cetacean sighting of the week due to us experiencing some very adventurous and rocky seas. Thankfully by the weekend the ocean calmed and when approaching Ijmuiden on Saturday morning we spotted a very inquisitive grey seal who popped its head up quite close by which was a lovely start to our day.

Our luck of calm seas continued as we approached North Shields on Sunday morning. The sea was quite still and all of a sudden our attention was drawn to big splashes halfway out towards the horizon. It was a small pod of white beaked dolphins with one particularly acrobatic individual who was leaping in and out of the water for us all to see. And then when sailing passed the breakwater, we spotted a mother harbour porpoise and her calf right next to the ship! An excellent end to our OceanWatch! We have also been very fortunate in seeing a variety of amazing seabirds, including huge flocks of terns (as many as 100), flocks of cormorants and I even saw my first great skua on Saturday night.

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White beaked dolphin leaping out of the water

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Gannets soaring the North Sea winds in perfect synchrony

In other news I have been very excited about giving both the general presentation as well as our Wine & Whales presentation to passengers on board. The wine and whales presentation mostly discusses the threats to cetaceans and it is something I feel very passionately about and have really been enjoying giving it. We have had a full house every night and many different people of all ages have been coming to listen. What is particularly nice is that this presentation can be a very discursive open “chat” at times. Many guests feel equally as passionate and it is always wonderful to see so many people take a keen interest in the issues that all cetaceans are sadly faced with and we have had some excellent discussions about some of the small changes that we as individuals can introduce to make a difference.

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Myself (Beccy) using a model of a bottlenose dolphin skull to demonstrate odontocetes teeth during presentation

Our evening children’s activities have also been one of my top highlights. Every night we host a variety of fun educational games and activities in the ORCA Wildlife Centre, such as; harbour porpoise snakes and ladders, colouring and drawing and of course my personal favourite – ORCA fun fact treasure hunt.

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Excellent colouring in skills by one of our smaller passengers

As well as learning all about being a Wildlife Officer, as placements, we are also given a wonderful opportunity to expand or create ideas for ORCA. So over the last few weeks I have been working on my own personal project and it has been inspired by our wine and whales presentation.

I sometimes feel like there are so many issues in the world and it can be quite easy to feel quite helpless. ‘What can I do?’, and ‘I don’t know where to start’ are some of the thoughts that cross my mind and I am sure this is something that a lot of us think. So, my project is precisely that – where to start.  I have named it ‘Small Changes’ and I have created tables that could be included in ORCA membership packs as motivational fridge posters or wall stickers.

One table shows the most commonly found litter found in beach cleans and the other shows the biggest threats that face marine life. The following column then shows examples of small everyday changes that we can introduce that can help make a difference.

For example, it is estimated that in the UK we use over 38 million plastic bottles per day with only just over half being recycled. Around 16 million bottles are either burnt or end up in landfill, the environment or our oceans every day. Plastic bottles and bottle tops were one of the most common items found in British Beach Cleans in 2016. So in my ‘Small Changes’ table the next column is ‘reusuable bottle’.  It is simple solution but I think that’s the beauty in small changes – you don’t have to drastically change your lifestyle to make a difference in the world.

My ORCA adventure on board the DFDS is now almost over but I cannot be sad as it has been more than I could have ever hoped for. I genuinely can’t thank everyone at ORCA enough for this incredible experience. It has been one of the best things I have ever done and I know it is just the beginning of a wonderfuI future with ORCA. If you are reading this and considering applying for 2018, all I can say is – DO IT! You will not only get to see some amazing birds and cetaceans but you also learn so much and you will meet some fantastic people. Lucy and Julia, I would like to thank you both for making my time so special. We have had so much fun and you have both been so encouraging and supportive and have taught me so much. It has been an absolute pleasure and I wish you both all the best in the future.

And to ORCA readers, I would like to thank you for reading and I hope you all have a wonderful week. Until next time.

Beccy

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Beccy and Julia (left)                                                             Beccy and Lucy (right)

Posted by: orcaweb | July 31, 2017

Excited about ORCA OceanWatch

The unusual rough weather that my colleague Lucy and our current intern Beccy experienced during their past two weeks unfortunately persisted during this past week, with sea states showing numerous white caps and often spray as well.  We are quite used to a wavy, choppy, windy, sometimes stormy North Sea, but I have to admit that we were hoping for some better weather, since it is after all summer time!

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A choppy North Sea

Despite this not so lovely ‘summer weather’ both Beccy and myself were very excited to have the start of ORCA OceanWatch on Saturday! ORCA OceanWatch runs from 29th July to 6th August, and it an initiative that aims to involve seafarers in the collection of cetacean data. During this concentrated time period of nine days trained bridge crews, as well as ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors and Wildlife Officers record all sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises and raise awareness of these wonderful animals. If you want to keep up to date with all our sightings during OceanWatch, please follow us on twitter at #ORCAOceanWatch!

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A lovely ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor team on board

On Saturday, a dedicated volunteer team of four ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors boarded the ship in North Shields to stay on for a mini-cruise and to record some of the amazing cetaceans in the North Sea. It is always really nice to have a survey team on board and to chat about any sightings. Although the weather wasn’t great, they were able to spot a handful of harbour porpoises and a minke whale when approaching Newcastle on Monday morning.

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Flock of black-headed gulls

One time Beccy and I were out on deck to conduct our daily surveys of whales, dolphins and porpoises we actually did have quite a nice flat sea. So our hopes of having some sightings were high and we were enthusiastic about these calm seas. After a while, Beccy got really excited and pointed towards several splashes on the starboard side of the ship. We both thought these must be a small group of porpoises or dolphins. But it turned out that these splashes were created by a few – seemingly very agile and lively – guillemots! Although we were slightly disappointed to not have seen any cetaceans, these sneaky guillemots made us laugh nonetheless.

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A calm sea surface for a change

Maybe you are thinking that we only talk about the bad weather and how we do have hardly any sightings… Just to reassure you (and maybe ourselves as well) we have already had plenty of sightings this season. To date we have seen 197 harbour porpoises, 47 white-beaked dolphins, three bottlenose dolphins, four minke whales, 25 grey or common seals and 30 unidentified cetaceans (that is mostly when we can’t identify the species for sure, as we’ve seen not enough of the animal to accurately identify it to species level). So hopefully we can add some more sightings to this count in the next week.

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Beautiful gannet

I really enjoyed having Beccy, our third Wildlife Officer Placement of this season, on board. She is now heading into her fourth week already and despite not having too many cetacean sightings, she is always enthusiastic about the ORCA Wildlife Officer programme on board this ship. Our presentations this last week, delivered both by Beccy and myself were all very well attended. It is always really great for us to have so many interested people attending our talks and activities and it is even more rewarding whenever we get positive feedback from passengers. We also had some really interesting conversations during and after our wine & whales evening lecture, which deals with the threats, conservation status of the cetacean species we see here in the North Sea and ways how we can help. It is amazing to hear that people think about and do make small changes to help the (marine) environment and to discuss different possibilities!

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Black-backed gull

It has been great to work with Beccy and I am looking forward to our next week on board. Fingers crossed for some nice and calm seas and a lot of sightings during ORCA OceanWatch! Thanks for stopping by and reading this blog. Next time you will hear from Beccy, when she will tell you all about her four week internship with us on the King Seaways!

Julia

 

Posted by: orcaweb | July 24, 2017

Wonderful Wildlife Above and Below

They are certainly right when they say time flies when you’re having fun. I can’t believe I am about to head into my third week with ORCA and what a wonderful two weeks I’ve had in the North Sea already. Please let me introduce myself. My name is Beccy and I am one of the very lucky Wildlife Officer Placements who gets the chance to learn all about what it takes to be an ORCA Wildlife Officer.

As soon as I arrived on board the DFDS King Seaways, Lucy (Senior Wildlife Officer) made me feel right at home and I was quickly settled into my new room for the month, eager to get started. On my first few deck watches I noticed lots of seabird species that I had never seen before; gannets, guillemots, cormorants, terns, razorbills and fulmers. Luckily, Lucy was fantastic at identifying them and told me some really good features and flight patterns to look out for. Later that week she kindly gave me a sea bird presentation and quiz which was really fun and her enthusiasm for seabirds was infectious and certainly rubbed off. I never thought of myself as much of a bird watcher before but after learning so much about the different species and seeing so many every day it has definitely sparked a new interest in me and now I get almost as excited as Lucy when we spot these fantastic birds.

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Gannet soaring the North Sea winds

Monday morning set us off on a very exciting start to the week when we spotted three white-beaked dolphins swimming near the ship as we approached North Shields. Then when departing later on that evening we had another brief encounter with a small pod of white-beaked dolphins as we headed over to Ijmuiden. As well as seeing an array of seabirds and some beautiful dolphins in my first week I was also very lucky in seeing many harbour porpoises and a magnificent minke whale.

Being July, you would be forgiven for thinking that the weather has been glorious with clear blue skies and peaceful, calm seas. However, the lovely Scottish weather has followed me to the North Sea and we have experienced choppy seas from Tuesday making it very difficult to spot any cetaceans. Nevertheless, this did give me plenty of opportunity to work on my new seabird identification skills.

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Porpoises rolling in the deep

Leaving Ijmuiden on Saturday evening, Lucy and I were delighted when we went out for deck watch and saw that the sea had calmed. It wasn’t quite a mirror but after our week of choppy seas it was heaven. We saw a lot of gannets and juvenile guillemots learning how to swim with their fathers but still no sign of any cetaceans. Then I saw something floating straight ahead of the ship. I called to Lucy as I thought it was marine litter until I looked through my binoculars and was horrified to see that it was something much worse. It was sadly a dead dolphin floating on its side. It’s always upsetting to see something like this but it is a reminder of why it is so important that ORCA continues to do the work that it is doing in order to understand the threats that cetaceans are being faced with.

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Male guillemot with his chick

As well as doing deck watches, we also give an evening talk on the wildlife of the North Sea to passengers on board. On Saturday I was ready to give my first public presentation. I was a little nervous at first as we had an audience of over forty people but as soon as I started speaking my nerves melted away and I really enjoyed it.

One of the things that I love most about being a Wildlife Officer with ORCA is that you can interact with the public. It is so inspiring when so many people of all ages and from all walks of life are interested and equally as passionate about our wonderful marine life, particularly children. We have had so many enthusiastic, inquisitive children this week coming to the ORCA centre every day that they are on board and eagerly joining us for deck watches. One 7 year old boy named Maxwell joined us out on deck on Saturday evening and Sunday morning and he told us that when he grows up he would love to be a Wildlife Officer, too.

Sunday was a particularly exciting day. After we docked in North Shields and the passengers disembarked, we welcomed a new group of guests that were all on board to set sail for the Sunderland Air Show. Once we set sail down the mouth of the Tyne we went outside to do a deck watch. Lucy and I were very excited as we normally are indoors giving a talk during this part of the journey and so have never surveyed inside the harbour before. To our delight, as soon as we went outside we were amazed at the bird life diving so close to shore. We saw arctic terns, guillemots and sandwich terns flying and swimming around the docked boats. Then, all of a sudden a passenger excitedly squealed and pointed at the water in front of us. She had spotted two harbour porpoises – inside the harbour walls! About 2 minutes later we then saw another two harbour porpoises swimming just outside the port. A brilliant marine show for the passengers just before the red arrows lit up the sky and amazed us all with their performance.

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So after a very fun-filled and educational week I have to sadly say my farewells to Lucy. She is very excitingly embarking on a Norwegian Fjord cruise from Dover on Friday as an ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor during her two weeks off (dedicated to the job). I wish her all the best in her future adventures and I am incredibly grateful for all her support over the last two weeks – I am sure I will see her again soon.

I am very much looking forward to working with Julia over the next fortnight and can’t wait to report back with more stories of our maritime adventures. Until then.

Beccy

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Spectular double rainbow seen on our Monday morning deck watch

 

 

Posted by: orcaweb | July 17, 2017

Whales, waves and white-beaks

Another week in the North Sea and if I’m honest with you, you would not have thought it was the middle of July as the weather has included plenty of fog, grey skies and drizzly rain that soaks your skin before you’ve had a chance to notice. None of this however deterred our brand new intern, Beccy who has maintained a great amount of enthusiasm whatever the weather.

Beccy joins us from the sea side town of Troon on the South West coast of Scotland. She is currently studying Ecological and Environmental science at the University of Edinburgh and already has a wealth of amazing wildlife encounters under her belt. Having undertaken many exciting projects all over the world including Turtle conservation in Greece and Elephant welfare projects in Sri Lanka. I only hope her experience in the North Sea will be just as memorable for her.

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Beccy on the look out for wonderful whales and dolphins

Due to the poor weather conditions it was a couple of days before Beccy experienced her first sighting of a harbour porpoise in front of the ship, albeit an extremely brief glimpse. Being extremely enthusiastic Beccy was keen to learn all about the bird life of the North Sea. After seabird ID training, armed with new identification skills, she very quickly picked up on some of our most popular species including the gannets, gulls, fulmars and cormorants.

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A gannet searching the seas

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A herring gull

As usual, the weekend was quickly upon us and Saturday morning sailing back to North Shields started with a sighting of two harbour porpoise. After an hour or so of plain sailing I then heard a squeal of excitement from Beccy who was pointing frantically ahead of the ship. From Beccys clear description, the size of the splash and the reaction of passengers out on deck with us, it was clear that what we had seen was a very sneaky minke whale. Beccy was grinning from cheek to cheek for the rest of the day.

Sunday brought with it the calmest sea of the week but it was still joined by a heavy fog and lots of rain. Joining us on deck that evening was a great future naturalist, Yan. Yan was 10 years old and travelling with his family who were on their way to Scotland for a holiday. Already having a keen interest in bird life and after thoroughly enjoying our evenings wildlife talk Yan had expressed his wish to see guillemots in the wild. I only hoped that the next morning we could make his wish come true.

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A group of Guillemots on the water

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A male Guillemot and his chick

Arriving out on deck to a windy Monday morning it wasn’t long before we were joined by our new friend Yan and his family. Luckily within seconds there were guillemots everywhere, some sitting on the water and other flapping past the ship frantically. An added bonus soon came when I spotted 3 dark fins breaking the surface of the water. white-beaked dolphins, swimming in the direction of North Shields. Even with the white water around us, everyone out on deck could see the tall dark dorsal fins as the dolphins skimmed the waters surface. A great start to a new week!

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Wonderful white beaked dolphin

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Please join us again next week when Beccy will be telling you all about her experiences as a Wildlife Officer and what life at sea is really like.

Thanks again,

Lucy

Posted by: orcaweb | July 11, 2017

Magnificent minke and the power of good thoughts

In my last blog I contemplated writing about how I’m still waiting for my first minke whale sighting. But then I decided against it, as I kind of didn’t want to jinx it and also because I thought I should just have patience – after all that’s what wildlife watching is all about. And then on Monday, starting this shift’s second week on board I actually did see one!!! And what a marvellous sighting it was! I was very very happy.

That day the sea was beautifully calm, being almost as flat as a mirror. We usually stay out on the observation deck for an hour and this hour was unfortunately coming quickly to an end. So I was contemplating whether to go back inside to open the centre again or to stay out a little bit longer, as these were really fantastic spotting conditions. Plus, I had seen a couple of porpoise earlier and a lot of seabirds. So it didn’t take long to reach a decision – I kind of had a feeling that I should stay out a little longer.

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Beautiful calm sea and perfect spotting conditions

I thought that I was ready and prepared to see a minke whale now and tried to hold on to these positive thoughts and ‘welcoming’ attitude. And maybe these thoughts did indeed help, because a few minutes later I saw a beautiful minke whale appear. It really was amazing. I could see a perfect dive sequence in this beautiful calm water. First I saw the sharply pointed snout breaking the surface, followed by the blowhole and back with the dorsal fin visible. Then the back and tail stock began to arch until this lovely rorqual whale disappeared under the surface again. This was not very far from the ship at all and both passengers and I could clearly see this minke whale. It was fantastic! (I apologise for the lack of a photo, but I was too excited to think about that.)

In this lovely weather we could also enjoy many bird sightings over the next few days. Although it’s possible to see gannets nearly every day on our route, I’m still fascinated by these birds. Ranging from a blackish body in the first winter to blackish with many white spots to pure shining white plumage when adult, these birds are just a beautiful sight to behold. Also, this week we could again see many tiny guillemots, accompanied by an adult bird, sitting on the water surface and then diving as the ship approaches. I also saw puffins, manx shearwaters and terns.

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Three gannets of differing ages

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Cute tiny guillemot

This week was also very exciting for 48 Denbigh Community Primary School children, whom – together with their six teachers – I welcomed here on board. They were all very excited to be away from their parents and home, and to actually spend two nights on a ship! These children in the age of approximately eight to ten years old took part in a Wildlife Watching Study Trip, which we organise for school classes. Our lovely ORCA wildlife centre provided a unique setting for them to learn about whales and dolphins here in the North Sea. Of course we also spent a lot of time out on the observation deck to actually spot some of this amazing wildlife. Although unfortunately I didn’t have any cetacean sightings during their time on board, the kids still had a great time and according to their spotting sheets they saw many, many whales and dolphins – so maybe I just missed them!

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Grey seal saying hello

One sighting I had this week that was not amazing at all was a gigantic, floating spiderman balloon. Unfortunately we are quite used to seeing pieces of rubbish and often balloons floating on the water surface – which causes huge problems to the marine environment and all its inhabitants. But this one shocked me even more, because it was just so big! Polluting the North Sea – this spiderman really was no superhero. Quite the opposite! Balloons can hurt or kill countless animals, as balloons entangle animals or block their digestive tract, when they mistake them for food and it them. Sadly, the results of the Great British Beach Clean last year also showed an increase of balloon related litter up over 50 % on 2015.

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Gigantic spiderman balloon

As always, I can’t quite believe that my two weeks on board are already coming to an end. I certainly enjoyed my time here in the North Sea, especially the last week with the lovely weather and the awesome minke whale sighting. Now I hope that my colleague Lucy and our new placement Rebecca will have a fantastic time as well and spot many more minke whales – fingers crossed!

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Beautiful sunset

Until next time,

Julia

Posted by: orcaweb | July 4, 2017

Tiny guillemots in the big North Sea

This fortnight on board the DFDS King Seaways didn’t really start with very good weather. And despite Lucy’s wishes for me to have a nice week of sightings, unfortunately I did not see many cetaceans. The sea often was quite rough and stormy and it was raining, too. More than once I was a bit surprised to find that it’s the end of June and then beginning of July already, when I looked at the calendar.

Nonetheless, I was fortunate enough to see a few white-beaked dolphins and the occasional harbour porpoise during this last week on board. And as of Friday evening the North Sea did calm a bit – which made me really hopeful to get a few more sightings – and I could enjoy a bit of sunshine.

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Some much needed sunshine

Although the sightings didn’t increase immensely, I had a fantastic deck watch on Saturday evening because of the wonderful bird life I saw. I was joined by several passengers out on the observation deck, all keen to spot some whales and dolphins. Instead we saw a lot of gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars. But what really excited me was that we saw the first guillemot chicks of the season, on the water accompanied by their parents. So cute! At first passengers and I couldn’t see any birds and were wondering where these chirping sounds came from. But then I quickly realised that these must be the little guillemots that had left their nests. After a while we then spotted these tiny birds sitting on the water surface.

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Adult guillemot with tiny chick

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Beautiful juvenile kittiwake in the sky

Guillemots spend almost the entire year out on the open sea and only come on land for nesting. You might remember that both Lucy and I visited the Farne Islands recently where we saw huge breeding colonies of guillemots and other seabirds. Guillemots usually lay one egg on a bare ledge of a cliff and it’s from there that the young chicks jump onto the water after about two to three weeks after hatching – without even being able to fly yet!! So although they are not fully fledged yet they make their way onto the sea where they are joined and fed by their parents for some time.

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Adult guillemot at Farne Islands

Another special guest during that deck watch was a great skua, which we don’t get to see that often. We saw it right ahead of the ship and apparently it had caught something on the water surface. Unfortunately it dropped the item as the ship approached and I couldn’t see what it was. But as this large bird was really close to the ship it was really exciting to observe it.

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Great skua

This week the presentations I gave in our ORCA Wildlife Centre on board were really well visited as well. Often there weren’t enough chairs and passengers had to stand or sit on the floor to listen to the presentation. Next to the information about our most commonly sighted species – harbour porpoise, white-beaked dolphin and minke whale – people are always fascinated by the amazing facts about the blue whale. Just to name a few: a new born blue whale weighs almost three tonnes, the size of an adult blue whale’s heart is about the same size as a small car and the tongue is comparable to the weight of an African elephant!

So the first week of this fortnight on board brought some exciting bird sightings and now I hope for some more whales and dolphins! I’m still waiting for my first minke whale, so I’m really looking forward to spotting one soon, hopefully. I hope you are all enjoying summer and have some fantastic wildlife sightings as well!

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A faint rainbow over the North Sea

Until next time,

Julia

 

Posted by: orcaweb | July 3, 2017

Stormy, but exciting, North Sea!

Welcome back to another week on board the DFDS King Seaways with your ORCA Wildlife Officers in the North Sea. The beginning of the week was literally electrifying. After almost tropical conditions in previous days we awoke on Wednesday to a magnificent storm. Despite the sun having risen early that day the sky was black for our morning deck watch with thick dense clouds, it almost felt like the night time was still upon us. Then the rumbling began and it wasn’t the rumble of Wildlife Officer stomachs!! Thunder was spreading through the sky and we could tell that we were sailing right towards it as the sounds became louder and louder. Then, a flash, the sky was illuminated. Fork lighting reached down to touch the seas surface off on the horizon. This went on for some time and many passengers were as mesmerised as we were, everyone trying to get that lucky shot of the huge forks with their cameras and phones.

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Rough North Sea

That evening, although the storm had passed there was still a strong easterly wind and the sea state was a high six, meaning white caps everywhere we looked. Fortunately the evening was not without cetaceans though as 3 white beaked dolphins sped towards the ship in perfect formation, definitely in a rush to get somewhere, and they were gone as quickly as they were seen.

The bad weather continued and worsened through Thursday with no sightings in the morning or that evening. Up until this point I had done really well with the weather as I had experienced many mirrors on the waters surface. I think now was my turn to experience the North Sea at its wildest.

By the end of the week we had a handful of extremely brief white beaked dolphin sightings to speak of. Luckily we were visited whilst in port by the excitable year four students of Grace Darling Primary School. The children were greeted on board by the DFDS mascot, Jack the Pirate Parrot and received a full day of activities in the ORCA centre as well as a tour of the ship, visiting the bridge where the captain allowed the bright bunch to sit in the best seat in the house, the captains chair! Lucky them! Schools in the North East of England are welcome to join the ORCA team on board for a day of learning and discovery about the wildlife of the North Sea. If your school or community group would like to join us (no passports required!) then please contact us at wildlifeofficer@orcaweb.org.uk we’d love to have you as our guests.

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Students of Grace Darling Primary School enjoying the KING Seaways

The weekend continued to have terrible weather with strong winds, rain and a lively sea state. Despite this, many species of birds could be seen regularly flying over the water’s surface. Several times large groups of gannets could be seen flying high and then diving in a feeding frenzy. This behaviour usually indicates cetaceans activity but unfortunately no whales, dolphins or porpoises would be seen below the feeding birds, most likely engulfed by the foamy waves.

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A beautiful gannet

I leave this week hoping that the unusual weather leaves us soon and that Julia has a nice week of sightings. Perhaps on our joint crossing together we will be blessed with our usual good luck flat sea which always seem to occur when we sail together. We will keep our fingers crossed. Until next week, thanks again for stopping by.

Lucy

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