Following an invitation from DFDS, I arrived at the Royal Quays passenger terminal on Saturday morning for the ‘Whale Tales of the North Sea’ event, celebrating 10 years of DFDS and the charity ORCA working together.
I spend part of my time working for MARINElife, but I’ve also been an ORCA member for nearly two decades and NEWT’s involvement with them goes back to 2010. when I led a familiarisation trip for the wildlife officers ahead of their season onboard. Our own Whale and Dolphin trips during the summer usually pass by one of the Newcastle-IJmuiden ferries, either as we sail out of the Tyne, or return at the end of the day, and the NEWT team enjoyed a mini-cruise to Holland in 2010 as guests of DFDS. We’d highly recommend it 🙂
Following a packed lunch, Michaela Strachan presented a series of short clips of some of her experiences with whales and dolphins around the world, which kept all of the younger members of the audience entertained. With only ~90 different species, cetaceans are poorly represented compared to terrestrial mammals (~4200 species), birds (~10000 species) and insects (~1000000 species, with potentially another 5-29000000 million species still to be discovered!). What they lack in numbers they make up for in sheer size, and some of the film clips demonstrated just how big they are.
Anna Bunney from ORCA gave a presentation about the cetaceans of the North Sea and there we have an even smaller range of species. Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin, White-beaked Dolphin and Minke Whale are all relatively common, but there’s a range of rarer visitors to the waters of North East England; Risso’s Dolphin, White-sided Dolphin, Killer Whale, Sperm Whale, Pilot Whale and Humpback Whale have all appeared in recent years and historical records contain some real oddities.
Educating people about the wealth of marine wildlife in the North Sea is something that ORCA and DFDS are doing really well, and the data that surveyors are gathering onboard is a valuable resource, combined with the ferry data gathered by MARINElife on other North Sea routes and the small-boat survey data from the North East Cetacean Project in Northumberland.
Many thanks to DFDS for the invitation to join them for the celebration with ORCA 🙂
If you’re not already convinced that our marine wildlife is awesome, here are a few pictures that should speak for themselves 🙂
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.
The festival is an excellent idea, and organised/sponsored by 3 organisations that we’ve worked closely with in the last few years – DFDS, ORCA and ERIC NE – so we were more than happy when asked if we could run a pelagic trip as part of the festival. No matter how many talks you attend, how many wildlife documentaries you watch or how much time you spend on the coast looking out to sea, actually getting on a boat and experiencing the North Sea up close is still the best way to really appreciate how special it is.
I was interviewed on Radio Newcastle earlier this week, responding to the question ‘conservation – can we afford it?’. When I look at the importance of our ecosystem, and the North Sea in particular through my work with MARINElife, the North East Cetacean Project and ERIC NE, I think the question should be ‘conservation – can we really afford not to do it?’. A sustainable world can only be achieved through conserving what we have and sustaining our planet for future generations. The definition of sustainability is an often contentious issue, but clients, friends and colleagues who we’ve spoken to since the phone-in all agree that conservation should be a priority for government. We wouldn’t expect anything else 😉
As we approach July, there’s always a sense of anticipation when we’re close to the sea on a land-based trip, or at sea on one of our Northumberland Pelagics. Good seawatching conditions over the next few months will see us gazing towards the east when the opportunity arises. Seawatching may be one of the more specialised aspects of birdwatching, but it brings an element of unpredictability that can outweigh even our evening mammal trips.
After good cetacean sightings in February and March, while carrying out transect surveys for the Northeast Cetacean Project (NECP), I was excited to receive 2 reports of land-based observations on Sunday and Tuesday; a possible pod of 5 Orcas was seen heading south past Lynemouth on Sunday evening and then 4 White-beaked Dolphins were off the mouth of the River Wansbeck on Tuesday evening. The second of these species is the one that we’re most interested in, after all it is the primary focus for the NECP, however Sunday’s report set the pulse racing; almost mythical off the Northeast coast, maybe the ultimate apex predator, right at the top of the list of our ‘most-wanted’. Maybe this will be the year when we finally connect with it, and my dreams about our forthcoming Farne Deeps pelagics seem to involve something black and white 😉 We’ve still got spaces on those 2 trips so give us a call on 01670 827465 to book your place now.
Last week saw a repeat of a familiarisation trip we led in late March 2010, as the ORCA wildlife officers, who will be on board the DFDS King Seaways over the summer months, had a couple of days with us to familiarise themselves with Northumberland and the wildlife and birdwatching opportunities that it has to offer.
One major difference was the weather; this year it was warm and sunny…a marked contrast with last year’s trip, when the weather threw everything it could at us.
After a very nice meal at Longhirst Hall on Thursday evening with the wildlife officers, and Jude Leitch from Northumberland Tourism, I collected Richard and Isabelle on Friday morning and we headed north along the coast. With a relatively calm sea, we enjoyed a cruise around the Farne Islands on Glad Tidings V. Rafts of Puffins, the raucous calls of Guillemots and Kittiwakes, Grey Seals lazing in the sun and 2 Common Terns displaying and calling high over the islands were all well appreciated. Once back on dry land we drove down the coast to Low Newton, to have lunch at the Ship Inn. As we turned off the main road an unexpected bonus appeared in the shape of a ringtail Hen Harrier, mobbed by crows before heading inland. More birdwatching along the coast followed, including a visit to Holy Island, before an outing at dusk on the North Northumberland coast that produced sightings of a Roe Deer and 2 Otters.
Saturday started with an interesting discussion during breakfast “what’s the difference between a whale and a dolphin?”, then we travelled down the coast, birdwatching in Druridge Bay, before it was time to deliver Richard and Isabelle to the waiting ship. Good luck to them both, and may they find many cetaceans this summer 🙂