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’ve seen some fantastic wildlife during the 16 years that I’ve been running pelagics in the North Sea off Northumberland; Wilson’s Petrel, Great Shearwater, Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes, Sabine’s Gull, Ocean Sunfish, Minke Whale and White-beaked Dolphin are just a few of the highlights. One thing that so many clients mention though, is just what an experience it is to be offshore approaching sunset and to see the Northumberland coast in a different light (no pun intended!).
Last Friday brought a reasonable amount of swell, the ‘usual suspects’ – Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Puffin, Razorbill, Manx Shearwater – and a dense feeding flock of terns and gulls just off Cresswell. The other thing the trip brought though was probably the best sunset I’ve ever seen on a pelagic. As the sun dropped out of sight and we were approaching the Tyne piers, the sky away to the northwest was a stunning pinky-orange. Some things really do take your breath away
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.
In near-perfect conditions we arrived at Seahouses yesterday evening for our 3hr coastal cruise on Ocean Explorer. As well as some of our ‘regulars’ we had Andy, Jan and Sam on board, on their final evening in Northumberland.
Soon after heading south down the coast towards Dunstanburgh we came across a couple of Harbour Porpoises. Typically shy, they surfaced a few times and then vanished into the depths. Gannets featured throughout the evening, passing both north and south, and one or two were seen diving. Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were bobbing about on the water and a mixed flock of Arctic and Common Terns and Kittiwakes had found something to hold their interest. We stopped to see if anything else would come along, and were soon joined by a Fulmar, stunning in the beautiful light.
We gradually headed north, and approached the Farne Islands as the sun began to set. Grey Seals poked their heads out of the water and came off the rocks to investigate our boat, Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like on the rocky islets, Turnstones prodded and poked their way around the edge of the mass of Seals and Sam punched the air in elation as his first Curlew flew by :-) The setting sun provided an opportunity to experiment with an aspect of photography that I’ve never really been able to get to grips with, and one which I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about. Excellent light, excellent location, all the ingredients were there to convince me…
As I got home on Tuesday night after our evening pelagic the rain was still hammering down. With a forecast of more rain for Wednesday, and a planned Farne Islands safari, I started thinking about a contingency plan as I dried off all of my camera equipment.
Wednesday dawned…with more heavy rainfall. I needed an idea of what was happening further north and a quick text to William was soon answered; the rain in Seahouses was light and sea conditions were fine so boats were sailing :-) I collected Louise and Martin from Warkworth and we headed north along some decidedly damp roads. A morning birdwatching on the Northumberland coast, including Grey Seal, Roe Deer, Swallow nestlings, Shelduck, Eider, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and a very obliging Whitethroat, was followed by a lunch break just north of Bamburgh Castle, and then it was time to board Glad Tidings for the sailing across to the islands. With a bit of swell on the sea, a chilly wind kicking spray from the bow, and another oppressive sky the islands were incredibly atmospheric. Puffins were sitting in huge rafts just off the islands, Guillemots and Razorbills were flying back to the cliff ledges with fish, Gannets were soaring majestically by the boat, Grey Seals lazed in the surf and Kittiwakes called incessantly from their precipitous nest sites. As we landed on Inner Farne the aerial bombardment from the Arctic Terns was much reduced from the level of recent weeks, and there were plenty of young terns trying out their wings in short flights across the boardwalk. Sandwich Terns were carrying food back to quite large chicks and the island seemed to be awash with Puffins. Every flat area next to the sheer cliff faces was covered in them and hundreds were flying around the island. Louise, like many of our clients when seeing Puffins for the first time said “Aren’t they small”. Everyone expects them to be bigger than they actually are. Kittiwake chicks were almost too big for the nest ledges, and Razorbills and Guillemots were watched at close quarters too. With the poor weather the number of visitors to the island was quite low, making for quite a different experience to our trips earlier this year when all of the boats were full.
Most of our Farne Islands trips this year have been on Glad Tidings 1, and Bobby and Billy always keep their passengers entertained. Now, as I look out of my office window while I’m typing this on a fine, dry, sunny afternoon, Bobby’s words, as he delivered us safely back to Seahouses come to mind “Aye, it’s improved. Now it’s like a fine autumn day rather than a bad winter one”.