As many regular readers of our blog will know, we have quite an affinity for our local pub The Swan at Choppington; Kirsty and Chris’s daughter, Annabel, is Sarah’s god-daughter, Northern Experience Images donated the photography for William’s calendar to raise funds for his World Challenge trip to Namibia and Botswana in 2013 (and Amy at Whiteacres, who has been the creative mind behind our logo and the NEWT Images range of cards and prints, donated her design services to the calendar project).
Friday evening is when we can usually be found relaxing at The Swan, and last Friday was no different. Then I was asked “are you Martin?”. Now, how was this going to pan out? What followed was a very enjoyable discussion about all things wildlife; Red Squirrels, Otters, White-beaked Dolphins, the Northumberland coast, the North Sea and the best places to find a lot of our local specialities. It was great to hear that a lot of locals follow our blog posts, and Peter had a request that we’re only too happy to oblige. Here you are Peter, just for you…
Friday was our final Royal Quays evening pelagic for this summer, and we were heading once again on to the North Sea in search of a species that has come to occupy much of my time; White-beaked Dolphin. My first encounter with them was in 2003, on an evening pelagic, and we’ve found them many times since then.
I’ve spent long, difficult days offshore in the winter, researching their distribution while leading the North East Cetacean Project, I’ve stood on a clifftop with clients (on an Otter and Badger Safari!) as a pod covering several square miles of the North Sea passed by, I’ve taken photos like this one on flat seas in beautiful weather
and I’ve had brief encounters in conditions where I was surveying but would never have taken clients out. I’ve spent several hours watching them bow-riding
and I’ve laid on the front of a boat, looking down at a dolphin that was bow-riding upside down looking at me.
On Friday though, we witnessed behaviour that myself and Andy (who was also on board) had never come across before. We think that what happened was a small group, including a tiny calf, were resting near the surface and we inadvertently woke them up. The first indication we had that there were any dolphins around was when an adult crossed close to our bow, tail-slapping. Another adult (or possibly the same one) then began breaching and for 20 minutes we found ourselves shadowed by a pod of about 10 animals. No bow-riding, no interaction other than escorting us as we travelled slowly through their area, and a rare insight into the behaviour of a pod of dolphins protecting the next generation. Eventually the pod dropped away from us and, as we headed south, we saw them for the final time as they milled about distantly in our wake.
We’ve got just one place still available for our September Royal Quays trips (that space is on September 22nd), our Whale and Dolphin Cruise from Seahouses on September 8th is filling rapidly and we’ve got a few spaces on our Farne Deeps trip from Royal Quays in search of White-beaked Dolphin, Minke Whale and seabirds on August 15th and our evening RIB trips from Seahouses. Click here for more details or to book, or call 01670 827465 to reserve your place before they’re all sold out.
This has been a difficult year for boat operators on the east coast, with unseasonable winds and frequent heavy rainfall making it unwise to head out to sea.
Tuesday was the first of this year’s evening pelagics to survive the weather so, as we set out from Royal Quays on the SarahJFK, I was full of optimism. Soon after leaving the mouth of the Tyne, Allan spotted a Harbour Porpoise, although it remained typically elusive. Kittiwakes were following us throughout the evening, no doubt wondering if we were going to throw any scraps overboard, Gannets and Fulmars were passing by and, all around us, the sky looked heavy with something…
I’d had a call earlier in the day to say that a small pod of dolphins were passing Newbiggin, so I took a guess on where they would be by mid-evening and asked Allan to plot a course that would take us through the area. Sure enough, just where we expected them, 6 White-beaked Dolphins, including the smallest calf that I’ve seen in the ten years since we first found White-beaked Dolphins on one of our pelagic trips, appeared in front of the boat and then came in to bow-ride They stayed with us for several minutes before heading south, probably to feed, and we continued north. 5 Manx Shearwaters were heading north, and a flock of 30 Common ScotersAll the while the weather around us was looking poor, and eventually we found ourselves in a heavy, misty drizzle as we headed back to port, and by the time we docked it was properly dark – not something we’d normally expect in mid-July.
Glowering, oppressive weather conditions, remarkably good visibility, a sea state that was ideal for cetacean spotting, a boat full of enthusiastic clients and a pod of dolphins…perfect
After our stunning pelagic on Friday, we had 3 more evening trips in 5 days, all concentrating on the southeast Northumberland coast.
Saturday was a massive contrast with Friday; only 2 brief White-beaked Dolphins, but Gannets and Fulmars were in great abundance and 3 Great Skuas, 2 Manx Shearwaters and 5 Sooty Shearwaters added to the birdwatching interest.
Monday was the day that the weather forecast was really, really wrong. Just 20 minutes out of the Tyne, the heavens opened and most on board headed for the shelter of the wheelhouse. With the North Sea appearing to be coming to the boil, fortune favoured the brave, and the 2 participants who stayed on deck with me during the deluge were the only ones lucky enough to see the White-beaked Dolphin that surfaced just a few metres away from us. Manx Shearwaters, Arctic Skuas and lots of Gannets provided entertainment once the rain had ceased, but the dolphins remained elusive.
That brings us to yesterday evening. A very calm sea and cetacean reports from earlier in the day (12 unidentified dolphins south past Tynemouth at 06:30, porpoises just off Cullercoats from the SarahJFK and 2 White-beaked Dolphins in Newbiggin Bay at 17:15 all seemed to bode well). We’d just passed between the Tyne piers and started to head north when we came across 8 White-beaked Dolphins and 3 Harbour Porpoises! After enjoying several views of them, I explained to all on board that it isn’t usually that easy and we continued north. Arctic Skuas were seen as we passed St Mary’s Island but the real entertainment began when Andy spotted a distant fin north of Blyth. After a wait of several minutes the dolphins began to surface in ever-increasing numbers, eventually we were surrounded by over 30 animals bow-riding, breaching and milling about. As the dolphins began to drift away, presumably to feed once they’d finished playing with our boat, we continued north into Newbiggin Bay. Our return journey produced more dolphin sightings, including one animal repeatedly ‘spyhopping’, and some incredible views of animals swimming slowly around the boat. The only downside (if there really was a downside) was the murky, overcast conditions made it seem like dusk almost from the moment we set sail. We can choose times/dates appropriate to what our clients want to see, we can use our knowledge and fieldcraft to maximise the chances of encountering any desired species…but we can’t control the weather. Wouldn’t it be a dull life if we could though?
After a couple of poor-weather weekends, the elements relented and we headed out from Royal Quays on the SarahJFK for a 4hr evening pelagic in the North Sea off southeast Northumberland. Pomarine Skua, Manx Shearwater, Common Scoters and a summer-plumaged Red-throated Diver were the birdwatching highlights, but were eclipsed by what Stephen described as “the greatest wildlife experience of my life”. We’ve got a busy programme of offshore wildlife trips over the coming months, and here a few images that show why they’re so popular;