Probably my favourite pelagic of all of the North Sea pelagic trips that we run (although I enjoy all of them immensely!) is our 10hr Farne Deeps – Northumberland’s ‘Ultimate Pelagic’. The forecast looked about as promising as it gets and I arrived at Royal Quays in good time, to discover that most of our participants were already there :-) This was just a day before I would be heading south to the British Birdwatching Fair and five of our participants would also be visiting Rutland over the coming weekend.
As we sailed north east we soon found our first cetaceans of the day, a small pod of Harbour Porpoise. 10 minutes later our progress northeast was slowed as we enjoyed prolonged views of a Minke Whale. Continuing towards the Farne Deeps, a deep-water offshore area that I’ve been interested in since the late 1990′s and the North East Cetacean Project has been surveying since 2009, we encountered our first White-beaked Dolphins of the trip. In an interesting rolling swell seabirds were passing by too; Fulmars, Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, Great and Arctic Skuas and the occasional Puffin all attracted interest. Small groups of White-beaked Dolphins were found in locations where we expected them before we headed further offshore to the area that we’ve shown to hold large aggregations of dolphins in the mid-late summer. Almost exactly where we would expect them to be we found several dolphins breaching. Others began bow-riding and soon there were groups of White-beaked Dolphins in every direction; tail-slapping, breaching, spy-hopping and just generally performing. Eventually as many as 60 of these stunningly beautiful dolphins were in view and all of the photographers on board were busy filling their memory cards. 16 years of organising North Sea pelagic trips and they just get better every year
Sometimes things go right, sometimes things go wrong, and sometimes things go just right and completely wrong all at the same time…
We set sail from Beadnell with a full boat, and stopped just outside the harbour to ask a local yachtsman if he’d seen any whales or dolphins during the day. “Yes, White-beaked Dolphins, about 6 of them, 3 miles E of Boulmer…6 hours ago”. Even though his sighting was before lunchtime, it was still encouraging news, particularly as our plan was to head south as far as Boulmer anyway.
Gannets, Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins were soon spotted and then, as we headed from Craster towards Boulmer, Andy spotted a dark shape away to the east. We stopped and waited, then it surfaced again. Guessing where it would surface next I lifted my binoculars and then almost dropped them as the centrally-placed, upright, dorsal fin of an Orca passed across my field of view! I’m notoriously sceptical of claims of Orca in the north east but, with over 1000h offshore, I always thought I’d bump into one eventually I needed a longer lens on my camera so I reached into my camera bag, took out a 300mm f2.8, removed the 70-200 from the camera…and then broke the camera lens mount as I tried to attach the longer lens :-( As the distant dark shape appeared again, still heading slowly north, we suddenly had White-beaked Dolphins close by too. Eventually we had ~20 of them close to the boat, and I was stuck with one broken camera and a spare camera body that had decided that it wasn’t going to communicate properly with the lens. I managed to get a few record shots of the dolphins, and planned to set my alarm for early on Sunday morning so I could try to sort out camera issues before heading offshore on a North East Cetacean Project survey.
In late July there are a few species that we’d be amazed to not find on a North Sea pelagic trip; Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar and Gannet are all great birds to see, and are all part of the experience that is the North Sea in mid-summer. There are other species that can overshadow the regular cast list though; Sooty Shearwater is a real ‘birders bird’, close views of any of the skuas grab the attention and, with seabirds covering such vast distances, there’s always the possibility of something completely unexpected. But, for crowd-pleasing spectacular there’s little that can compete with our marine mammals. Grey Seals often pop their heads up as we pass, but the real awe-inspiring species are whales and dolphins. Our previous pelagic had been illuminated by Minke Whales but on this trip we were confident of finding a different species. Ten years of finding, studying, and mapping the distribution of, White-beaked Dolphins gives us a narrow target area to search in the third week in July…
As we headed north, a shout from Jimmy alerted everyone to the presence of a small pod of dolphins ahead of us. Sure enough, the White-beaked Dolphins came across to investigate our boat and we soon had 12 of them around us :-) Once I was sure that everyone had seen them – which didn’t take too long! – I waited for them to surface alongside us so that I could take photographs of their dorsal fins. Through a combination of NEWT pelagic trips and survey work for the North East Cetacean Project, we’ve built up a catalogue of individual White-beaked Dolphins off the Northumberland coast. Having been the first pelagic tour operator to regularly find White-beaked Dolphins off the Northumberland coast, and the only one to have contributed to the Marine Conservation Zones project, we’re proud to have been involved in leading the way in groundbreaking research to map the distribution and abundance of White-beaked Dolphins. We’d like to thank all of our clients who’ve contributed, and continue to contribute, to the catalogue too
Of course, dolphin dorsal fin images aren’t the most exciting shots you can get, and the glassy calm water produced lots of other interesting possibilities…
It was a chance I wasn’t going to miss; I was on the PV St Oswald, we were about to pass the SarahJFK in the River Tyne at North Shields, Sarah was on board with 10 of our clients and a late withdrawal had left a space free :-) The smoothest of ship-to-ship transfers – accomplished by two excellent skippers who I would trust with my life – took place, and I was heading back out into the North Sea for another 4hr sailing
Heading back to the location of the last White-beaked Dolphin sighting I’d had during the survey, we were on the North Sea in quite remarkable conditions. So flat that it looked like glass, Gannets, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were all reflected in the glassy surface. A small group of dolphins surfaced, but only myself on the starboard side, and Jon on the back of the boat on the port side managed to see them as they were directly in front of us. We continued our search as a spectacular sunset started to develop and then, as we headed back through the area where the dolphins had been, and it suddenly turned overcast, Ruth said “there’s something over there”. That something was a Minke Whale, and soon everyone on board had excellent views as it surfaced and fed :-) Could it get any better? Of course it could…then there were 2 together! Away to the south, what was, probably, a 3rd Minke Whale surfaced and then the sort of magic that our summer evening North Sea pelagic trips seem to produce so often happened. The sun broke through the clouds and I could see some interesting photographic opportunities developing…as long as the whale was going to be obliging
We’ve got a few spaces remaining on some of this year’s North Sea pelagic trips so give us a call on 01670 827465 to find out what’s available and to book your place. You’ll get to spend time on the North Sea and all of the sightings we make on our pelagic trips are contributing to a genuinely groundbreaking research project that’s the only one providing vital information about the distribution and abundance of Northumberland’s whales, dolphins and porpoises, to the ongoing Marine Conservation Zones process.
The North Sea can be a strange place. I’ve been out there in calm, sunny conditions, heavy rain, and I’ve carried out survey work for the North East Cetacean Project in conditions – dense fog, white-out blizzard, ‘interesting’ swell – where we wouldn’t have hesitated to cancel the trip if it was part of our North Sea Pelagics programme. Yesterday was probably the oddest conditions I’ve seen though…
The northward stretch of our trip was in very calm sunny conditions that Mary likened to the Greek islands and Andy thought was reminiscent of a sheltered Scottish sea loch. Gannets were soaring by, Puffins were bobbing about on the barely noticeable swell, small rafts of Guillemots weren’t doing very much at all and there didn’t seem to be a great deal of activity until we were just off Cresswell and amongst the flocks of gulls and terns.
Then, the journey south brought conditions that were just surreal. First the sea began to flatten, until what little swell there had been was gone, and it was mirror calm. Then a hazy mist developed and the reflection of the sky in the water meant that it was no longer possible to see where the sea ended and the sky began; all was a monochrome canvas in front of us – no visible horizon, just a flat grey sheet liberally washed with dense flocks of gulls. Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters were gliding by just above their own reflections, a flock of Common Scoter flew north just after a Red-throated Diver had passed by and a Harbour Porpoise betrayed the interface between air and water as it surfaced nearby. As the deep red orb of the sun dipped below the horizon away to the north west, the temperature dropped dramatically and we sailed back into the Tyne.
All of our evening pelagics from North Shields are sold out (except for one place remaining on July 26th) but we still have a limited number of spaces on our Farne Deeps pelagics, our all day pelagics from Royal Quays in September and our Whale and Dolphin Cruise on August 31st. Give us a call on 01670 827465 for more details, to check availability or to book
We rarely let the weather get the better of us. Apart from our annual programme of North Sea Pelagics, where the weather really can make a difference to a trip going ahead or not, we can pretty much cope with anything the elements throw at us.
I collected Harry and Maureen for their mini-safari on the North Northumberland coast as the first drops of rain began to speckle the windscreen of the car. Straight down the coast and we were soon watching Eiders and Common Scoter riding up and over the surf, Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills loafing offshore, Gannets and Fulmars soaring effortlessly over the sea, Swallows hawking insects within a few feet of us and Rooks foraging around the car park in search of discarded morsels of food. All of this was in heavy rain, but positioning the car at just the right angle to the wind made it possible to watch all of these birds and the dark majesty of the sea as a backdrop. Along the coast towards Holy Island a huge group of Grey Seals were basking in the improving weather and, all too soon, it was lunchtime and the end of the trip.
In any list of ‘Northumberland’s Big 5′ there will always be disagreements about the species that should be included. One species that really epitomises the wildlife of North Northumberland is the ‘hook-nosed sea pig’…or Grey Seal to give it a less offensive handle than the translation of it’s Latin name
I collected John and Jennifer from Church Point and we drove northwards along the Northumberland coast. Arriving in Seahouses, ready for our Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings V, conditions were near perfect; beautiful blue sky, calm sea and just the slight breeze that always seems to be present on the coast, even on calm days. As the distance between ourselves and the mainland increased, streams of Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were heading to and from the islands, Gannets were passing by in impressive groups, Cormorants and Shags were sitting like sentinels at the gates of some mystical wildlife world and then we came across the seals. Bathing in the sunshine, and only occasionally lifting their heads to avoid unexpected sprays of breaking surf, they allowed a close approach that had an entire boat full of camera-wielding visitors clicking away like a knitting circle.
Back on dry land we sat and had lunch, just along the coast from the impressive bulk of Bamburgh Castle, and then continued north to look for more seals. As high tide approached they could be seen ‘bottling’ close to Holy Island, and we made our way back down the coast.
Occasionally I still get to do the whole school teacher role…but it’s enjoyable for me and my students
I met up with Carol at Seahouses Harbour last Saturday for an all-day one-to-one photography session, only to learn the inevitable – conditions weren’t suitable for landing on Staple Island, so we were going to be sailing at noon, and spending 3hrs on Inner Farne. We had a wander down the coast and worked through all of the relevant settings on Carol’s camera, so that once we were on the island and the air was filled with birds, the only thing to concentrate on would be technique; camera settings were all sorted and should take care of themselves :-) It was a rewarding afternoon as Carol soon worked out where to stand to get the shot she was after, how to decide which bird to follow through the lens and when to hit the shutter release. Minor adjustments to camera settings were made as needed and the birds offered lots of opportunities. Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Shags all passed before the lens and Carol was delighted at her ability to capture that classic Farnes shot of a Puffin flying with beak filled with Sandeels.
Tuesday brought another Farnes photography session, this time the latest in our Beginners Photography series. Dave had been with us on our Dawn on the Coast session in April, and was back for something a bit warmer at a more civilised time of the day :-) We sailed around the islands before landing on Inner Farne. Puffins were again flying by with substantial beakfuls of Sandeels and the cold southerly breeze was a reminder of the often harsh conditions faced by the Farne Islands birds (and Rangers!), even during the summer months. I’ll be giving a talk about the Farne Islands at the Bird Fair at Rutland Water this year so if you’re there please do come along and find out more about this extraordinary wildlife experience.
Arriving at The Swan on Monday evening I met up with Ronnie and Liz at the start of our Seabird Spectacular holiday. Of all of our holidays, this is the one that concentrates on the really outstanding wildlife available on the Northumberland coast in the summer.
Tuesday started out very nice, although cloud cover was increasing and, by lunchtime, eventually it was overcast, misty and spotting with rain. We’d spent the morning around Druridge Bay, with one of the highlights being a very obliging male Reed Bunting who sat just a few metres away from us and sang for over 20 minutes, Wall and Green-veined White Butterflies flitted across the tracks ahead of us, Sedge and Reed Warblers played hide-and-seek in the edge of the reeds and a male Marsh Harrier quartered a reedbed, giving prolonged views at relatively close range. As we ate lunch, overlooking the North Sea, watching Eiders, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets, the southeasterly breeze was starting to build a noticeable swell…
The inevitable happened and our planned sailing around Coquet Island was cancelled on safety grounds, so we continued around Druridge Bay. Sandwich Terns and a Grey Seal were near the weir between Amble and Warkworth and we ended up watching five Otters as they munched their way through a feast of Eels A Great Northern Diver flew south between Coquet Island and the mainland and we could see clouds of Puffins and a few ghostly white Roseate Terns from our clifftop vantage point. Swifts were around in good numbers – a scythe-winged menace to flying insects – and at the end of the day we returned to The Swan and were joined for dinner by Sarah.
After Tuesday’s cancelled boat trip it was a relief to see that the wind had died down by Wednesday morning, and our all-day birdwatching trip to the Farne Islands went ahead as planned. There were lines of Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills streaming back towards the islands, Gannets were effortlessly heading either to or from the Bass Rock, and the sights, sounds and smells of the seabird colony were just a few minutes away when we came across two Harbour Porpoises. Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like on the Scarcar rocks and landing on Staple Island we watched Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Razorbills, Shags and Rock Pipits at close range before having our picnic lunch in superb weather conditions on this magical rock just a few miles offshore from the Northumberland coast. Transferring across to Inner Farne at 13:00, via a brief detour to look at the Grey Seals lazing in the sunshine, we were greeted by Head Ranger David Steel and then enjoyed the very different experience of running the gauntlet of a succession of angry Arctic Terns. Common and Sandwich Terns were around too, and we watched Puffins skilfully avoiding the attention of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A pair of Rock Pipits nesting beneath the boardwalk were carrying beakfuls of food and I had a Farnes ‘tick’ in the shape of a Swift soaring over the lighthouse buildings. We tried to find a Roseate Tern in amongst the roost by the Inner Farne jetty, but without success. Back to The Swan for tea, reflection on a successful day and my Plan B…
Today was planned to be a one-day extension to the holiday, visiting the North Pennines, but we’ve moved that to tomorrow and the ladies have an extra afternoon out with me, to take the boat trip around Coquet Island
Snow on Monday, glorious weather on Tuesday…and torrential rain on Wednesday :-( When I arrived to collect David and Janet for their Prestige Tour in the Cheviot Valleys we quickly decided to head towards the Northumberland coast instead as that would offer the chance of plenty of birdwatching with the prospect of being able to shelter from the worst of the weather.
Starting at Stag Rocks, we watched flocks of Eider and Common Scoter as they rolled up and over the substantial waves and a Grey Seal swam just beyond the breaking surf. One thing that was immediately obvious was that there was a movement of Gannets; birds were flying over the rocks and more could be seen offshore. Heading down the coast, the intensity of the rain increased and we had our second seawatch of the day, this time just south of Cresswell. An almost continuous passage of Gannets was evident as they headed north, flocks of Kittiwakes and Guillemots were passing by, the occasional Fulmar arced up above the clifftops and a single Manx Shearwater easily outpaced the Gannets. Avocets sat tight as the rain hammered down around them and, when the deluge finally ceased and blue sky and sunshine replaced the gloom, we watched a male Marsh Harrier as he quartered a nearby field before soaring heavenwards. A Great Crested Grebe sailed by serenely, a Whimbrel flew north, five Brown Hares were engaged in some half-hearted chasing and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins all took advantage of the feast of insects that had been stirred to activity by the improvement in the weather.
Even in poor weather, Northumberland can produce some excellent birdwatching