Sunday, 3 February 2013

COTF4 Day 8: West Connemara & Galway Bay

Our last day of surveying was spent heading south along the Connemara coast and then east into Galway Bay, following a similar route to that taken on Friday.

A few small groups of common dolphins were seen at various stages throughout the day. Their larger and more elusive relative, the white-beaked dolphin was noted again, with two animals seen surfacing just off the bow at 11:30am not far from where we saw the group of 6 on Friday. The final sighting of the survey was of 2 harbour porpoise as we entered Galway Bay, between south west Connemara and Inishmore. The total cetacean list for the trip comes to an impressive seven. That’s nearly one species for every day of surveying which is excellent by Irish standards. In addition to this veritable wealth of whales and dolphins, we came across another species of marine mammal today…common (harbour) seal! Two individuals were seen on separate occasions, popping up out of the water in order to have a good look at us!

The seabird team was kept busy for the first couple of hours by yet another large milling flock of gannets, fulmars and gulls. Estimates of 500 fulmars (including at least 7 ‘blues’), 400 gannets, 150 kittiwakes, 50 great black-backed gulls and 30 herring gulls probably just scratched the surface of what was really present. An amazing sight all the same! These cleared by mid morning and only small numbers of birds were noted for the rest of the day. Quality was provided by another glaucous gull, this time a nice fresh juvenile which followed us for some time about 4 nautical miles west of Slyne Head. Once entering Galway Bay we clocked a few inshore species like guillemotrazorbillshag and common gull which was new, bringing us to a total of 16 species recorded on transect since the survey began overall.

And with that comes the end of another successful ‘Cetaceans on the Frontier’ survey. Our Chief Scientist, Conor Ryan sends us off with the following sentiment…

“As a marine scientist, one of the most rewarding and exciting things to do is embark on an expedition on a research vessel. We are lucky enough in Ireland to have one of the finest research vessels in the world… this is not an exaggeration. The R.V. Celtic Explorer is one of the quietest ships in the world, and as such is in demand for acoustic surveys whether for cetaceans or for fisheries. Yet we have been able to charter this platform for our research, on four occasions in five years. For students and senior researchers alike, this is a fantastic opportunity to build a unique multi-disciplinary dataset. I’d like to thank the crew of the R.V. Celtic Explorer for their unending help and professionalism; this makes our job so much more enjoyable. A big shout out to the fantastic scientific crew too – despite the dire weather in the ‘Abysmal Plain’, spirits were always high. Looking forward to COTF5 already!”

Cetacean team: Conor Ryan (Chief Scientist), Joanne O’Brien, Simon Berrow, Dave Wall, Enda McKeogh, Darren Craig, Suzanne Beck, Marie Louis, Milaja Nykänen, Emilia Chorazyczewska.

Seabird team: Niall Keogh, Domhnall Finch, Vivi Bolin & Alex Borawska.

Jellyfish, plankton & microplastics team: Fergal Glynn, Paul Mayo, Diana Swores & Amy Lusher.

Over the past two weeks we’ve done our best to get as many pics of whales, dolphins, birds etc. to show the good folk at home viewing this blog the fantastic variety of fauna that inhabits the Irish offshore territory.

Today we figured we’d do something different and pay tribute to the dedicated band of researchers, students and hardcore enthusiasts who we’ve had the good fortune of spending the past two weeks with…

Saturday, 2 February 2013

COTF4 Day 7: Sperm Whales & a Killer Whale!

Conditions this morning were excellent for surveying (by recent standards anyway!); sea state 3, swell about 2m, visibility clear to the horizon, bright & dry. Just as well too as today was the last big effort for this year’s survey, located right over the shelf edge west of Mayo to boot.

Fergal bagged the first of the days cetacean sightings as he finished up his night time plankton surveys with some dolphins (probably common dolphin) following the ship at 07:30am.

Right from the start it was clear that it was going to be another good day for fulmars, with a flock of 80+ (including several ‘blues’) trailing the R.V. Celtic Explorer from dawn. More and more birds began to join in and by mid morning up to 500 fulmars and 150 kittiwakes were wheeling about off the stern, generally making any attempt at accurately surveying seabirds impossible!

As soon as the numbers of fulmars peaked, Enda spotted a blow straight off the bow at 1.5km. A whale! Several of us latched onto the area where the blow originated with binoculars and witnessed several more, small and bushy spouts from roughly the same spot in quick succession before a large tail fluke loomed high up out of the water and sank away. This behaviour left us pretty confident that we had just seen a sperm whale! Word then came through from Dave on PAM (read more about his exploits on the hydrophone here) that sperm whales were clicking in the vicinity.

The blows continued and as we got closer, more and more body of the surfacing whale could be seen until we were treated to some reasonable views of the steep nose, long flat back and stumpy dorsal fin on initial surfacing followed by a thick tail stock with ‘knuckles’ seen when fluking. At least two animals were seen blowing at the surface and a third may also have been present.

Most of the scientific crew managed to connect with views of a sperm whale or at least the blows so spirits were high thereafter. A great species seen in good conditions and over good habitat. This is what it’s all about!

 Sperm whale surfacing sequence part 1: blow and forehead (c) Emilia Chorazyczewska

 Sperm whale surfacing sequence part 2: back and dorsal fin (c) Marie Louis

 Sperm whale surfacing sequence part 3: dorsal fin and tail stock knuckles (c) Conor Ryan

Sperm whale surfacing sequence part 4: tail fluke (c) Conor Ryan

Whilst still savouring the elation from this encounter, the next hit of cetacean fuelled adrenalin kicked in when Dave (who was now on watch) called ‘KILLER WHALE AT 1000m’!!! Some ‘slight’ panic ensued, but after assessing in which direction and distance he was looking, it wasn’t long before we caught sight of a massive black fin slinking into the water. There was no doubt about what we had just seen but it was a tantalisingly brief view. A short while later, amidst a cloud of fulmars, a surprisingly tall blow was followed by that unmistakable white eye patch on black, tall dorsal fin and pale saddle. Our first proper view of a Killer Whale in Irish waters!

The killer whale was some distance out, over half a kilometre at its closest point, and was moving quickly north but a few more views of the body on surfacing along with several blows and dorsal fin views left the lucky half a dozen or so of us who saw it thoroughly satisfied to say the least! Both the sperm whales and killer whale were seen about 55 nautical miles west by north west of Achill Island (within sight of land) over c.1,000m of water. The sperm whale record is notable in that they tend to be found in deeper waters.

 Alex did very well to get this shot of the killer whale dorsal fin (right of centre) slipping away below the surface, yet still quite tall looking even though its not fully out of the water. Fulmars nearby for scale! (c) Alex Borawska

To finish things off, Conor managed to spy a few pilot whales surfacing close to the ship from the port hole in his cabin around dusk! 

As mentioned previously, large numbers of fulmars kept the seabird team busy throughout the day. It is likely that most of these birds followed us for several hours at a time, so exact numbers were hard to calculate. Up to 1,000 birds max would seem a reasonable tally for the day. Of these fulmars, about 20 were of the ‘blue’ Arctic variety, spanning the full spectrum of colour from intermediate (coded as 'L') to double dark (coded as 'DD'). Great to get a good prolonged look at the variation exhibited by these colour morphs. A couple of little auks were seen again today, one of which at close range, whilst singles of puffingreat skua and herring gull added to the regular numbers of gannetskittiwakes and great black-backed gulls.

A double light morph (coded as 'LL') fulmar, the most common type seen around Ireland (c) Marie Louis

Blue fulmar (left) and double light morph ('LL') fulmar (right) (c) Alex Borawska

 A fairly standard looking 'D' blue fulmar (c) Alex Borawska

 A striking double dark 'DD' blue fulmar (c) Alex Borawska

 Double dark 'DD' blue fulmar (c) Alex Borawska

Sampling for microplastics continues and Amy informs me that 100,000 litres of water have been filtered so far which should give her plenty to look at back in the lab in GMIT! Fergal will be dropping some CTDs and plankton nets tonight then we’ll steam back to Galway tomorrow with a strong wind at our tail, surveying as we go.

COTF4: Calls from the Deep

In addition to visual survey effort for whales and dolphins we are also towing a 200m hydrophone behind the ship. Whales and dolphins live in an underwater world where sound allows them to communicate with each other, to find their prey and to navigate. Some species of whales spend much of their lives in the deep ocean with little or no light to see by, yet these whales use sound to ‘see’, producing clicks or sound pulses which bounce off prey and their surroundings, allowing them to hunt and to navigate in much the same way as bats do on land.

Our hydrophone (basically an underwater microphone) detects sound over a wide frequency range from the very low Hertz (below the human range of hearing) up to 150 kilohertz (way above the human range of hearing). We humans can hear in the 14 hertz to 18 kilohertz range so this means we can hear dolphin whistles (which lie below 20kHz), sperm whale clicks (100 Hz to 32 kHz) and the lower frequencies of dolphin clicks (which generally peak at 40-60kHz). We cannot hear the higer frequencies of dolphin clicks and we cannot hear porpoise clicks (which peak at 120-150 kHz) at all! 

However we can see these high frequency clicks using a computer and some software which turns noise into images via a spectrogram readout and a click detector. On the 26th January we detected some porpoise clicks to the west of the Aran Islands (see image below), with the clicks having a peak frequency of about 140kHz. These animals were also detected visually by the observers. So far we have made acoustic detections of harbour porpoisecommon dolphinbottlenose dolphinpilot whale and sperm whale. As we track our way northwest we are keeping an ear on the seas for more calls from the deep…

 Harbour porpoise clicks (c) Dave Wall

Pilot whale clicks (c) Dave Wall

It is thanks to the generosity and expertise of our colleagues in Ocean Science Services of the Marine Institute; the National University of Ireland, Galway; P&O Maritime and of course the officers and crew of the R.V. Celtic Explorer, that we are able to conduct such innovative deep sea acoustic research during this cruise. 

Dave Wall
(Irish Whale and Dolphin Group)

Friday, 1 February 2013

COTF4 Day 6: Cold Waters

With the weather starting to settle, we decided to make a break for it this morning and head back out into the blue!

We began our surveying at the mouth of Galway Bay, between the west end of Inishmore and the south west corner of Connemara. From there we headed west by north west along the Galway coast, passing the Skerd Rocks, Slyne Head & Inishshark. The seas were pretty choppy so we watched inside, from the bridge which was just as well given that a few heavy squalls blew through!

Big waves! (c) Emilia Chorazyczewska

The most noticeable feature of the day was the switch from those species encountered more frequently in warmer water habitats such as the Porcupine Seabight to those found more often in colder waters such as the Rockall Trough which isn’t so far away once north of Galway Bay.

A couple of sightings of a lone bottlenose dolphin was the first cetacean of the day and an important one at that as it was seen just outside the new cSAC (candidate Special Area for Conservation) for bottlenose dolphin along the Connemara coast. These are ‘inshore’ bottlenose, seemingly quite different in behaviour, morphology and genetics to those we encountered offshore several days ago.

The undoubted highlight of the day however came when Marie spotted up to 6 white-beaked dolphins close in off the starboard side of the bow at 4pm, some 11 nautical miles west of Inishshark. A new cetacean species for many of us onboard!

White-beaked dolphins are a cold water species, restricted to shelf or near-shelf habitats of the North Atlantic. It has been suggested that rising sea temperatures could have an adverse effect on their population by driving them further north into areas with less suitable habitat. They are usually reported only a few times a year in Irish waters and rarely this close to land so a fantastic record all round! 

Our final cetacean encounter was of two bow riding common dolphins, completing the hat-trick of dolphin species for the day.

White-beaked dolphins. Tall dorsal fin with a smudged white blaze behind it are excellent ID features (c) Conor Ryan

  You can just see the white 'beak' here from which the species gets its name (c) Conor Ryan

On the seabird front, numbers of fulmars were the highest recorded on the survey so far with a total of 9 ‘blue’ fulmars amongst them, including a ‘double dark’ bird (almost looked like a sooty shearwater!). An immature glaucous gull passed by quickly about 6 nautical miles south of Slyne Head and a couple of puffins were noted also but the prize species was most certainly little auk! Four birds were seen in total, just west of Slyne Head. Little auks are the smallest species of auk in the Atlantic, breeding on Arctic cliffs and island in their millions. They also have the curious habit of feeding heavily on copepods (a type of plankton) whereas other auks which we are more familiar with, eat fish such as sandeels and sprat. In winter, they get pushed south to Ireland during bad weather so with the storms that have raced through the Atlantic over the past week its no surprise we came across some today. 
Smaller numbers of gannets, kittiwakes, great black-backed and herring gulls,razorbills and guillemots were seen otherwise.

Forecast is for some good surveying conditions tomorrow so we’re off to the shelf edge!

Thursday, 31 January 2013

COTF4: Genetic Analysis of Bottlenose Dolphins

Research Vessel Celtic Explorer is a great platform to get information on offshore animals for which there are little studies. Bottlenose dolphins are well studied in inshore waters of Europe were there can be easily studied on day trips. There is a knowledge gap on the offshore dolphins, even though thousands of animals are thought to inhabit offshore areas in particular the shelf edge (according to previous ship and aerial surveys).

I am studying bottlenose dolphin population genetics in the North East Atlantic (from Scotland to the Azores) using biopsies and samples from stranded animals which I get from different organizations and institutes across Europe (including GMIT and IWDG) which I thank a lot for their collaboration.

Locations of samples used in the study (162 biopsies and 242 stranded animals)

The Cetaceans on the Frontier survey is an unique opportunity to get samples from offshore bottlenose dolphins. Last year I included the first biopsy sample of bottlenose dolphins from European offshore waters in my analyses. On this trip I realized how difficult it must have been to get this sample, because of the often high swell of the offshore waters, and the evasive behaviour of the offshore bottlenose who are powerful and fast moving.

My genetic analyses are still on-going, but preliminary results show that inshore bottlenose dolphins are genetically distinct from offshore bottlenose dolphins. Last year COTF biopsy sample fits in the same group as animals that were biopsied in the Azores and some of the stranded animals from Ireland to Spain, which we consider as the “offshore” group.

I hope that we will encounter more bottlenose dolphins in the following days, and fingers crossed that the weather will be good enough for RIB launches, to allow us collect more biopsies.

Marie Louis
(PhD student, University of la Rochelle, CEBC-CNRS, GECC)

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

COTF4: Microplastics in the Sea

While everyone else on the ship (apart from those on the graveyard shift) is primarily interested in the macrofauna found in Irish waters, I am using the opportunity to sample the water for microplastics.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic generally up to 5 mm in size that are found in almost every habitat in the world, from populated urban areas to remote beaches. Sources of microplastics can be raw plastic pellets (called nurdles) used in the production of user plastics; grains and beads used as exfoliants in cosmetics, and powders used for air blasting. Microplastics also make their way into the sea as larger debris which breaks down into smaller fragments and fibres. There is a rapidly increasing concern about the input of synthetic fibres from washing machines into the sea.

So I guess that plastics don’t really fit under the banner of marine biology, however their presence, occurrence and interactions with organisms in the marine environment does.  Research into microplastics in the sea has gained more and more attention over the past 10 years. One effect of microplastic interaction is ingestion by wild fish, birds and invertebrates. It is likely that a number of other species interact with microplastics due to their distribution in the water column but further research is needed. Other effects of microplastic can include physical blockages, leaching of chemicals and accumulation of chemicals within organisms’ tissues. There could be an effect between trophic levels but this is still unknown.

Microplastic sample collected during the COTF4 cruise, as seen under the microscope (c) Amy Lusher

In regards to the Irish marine environment there are no specific studies focusing on microplastics in the sea.  To do this we first need to identify whether microplastics are in the water, and in what quantity. Microplastics are generally buoyant and found in the top few meters of water, if they are fouled by organisms they can sink to the sea floor, however the purpose of this work focuses on the surface water. We are sampling the water for microplastics along our transect, I change my filters every 1.30 hour and the plankton team help by taking samples overnight for me. This is providing a continuous dataset to look at.

Microplastic sample collected during the COTF4 cruise, as seen under the microscope (c) Amy Lusher

During the few days we have been back in Galway I have worked out some of the samples. EVERY sample collected appears to have microplastics. Fibres are the most common, and I have found some fragments and films. It is going to take a while to work up the sizes and number of particles over given areas, but I’m pretty confident that the method we have developed can be used on future cruises and we could compile a picture of microplastics in the marine environment.

Amy Lusher
(Postgraduate Student, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology)

Monday, 28 January 2013

COTF4: The Graveyard Shift

A well planned research expedition makes use of every available minute. The old adage ‘time is money’ definitely rings true for offshore scientific surveys. In order to make the most of this ship time we employ surveying and sampling techniques which don’t rely on daylight. These can include oceanographic mapping, video surveys for pelagic fauna and continuous sampling for plankton & microplastics.

My role onboard revolves around plankton sampling for which we make use of a CTD probe (which measures conductivity, temperature & depth, amongst other parameters). This probe is dropped vertically while the ship is stationary. It provides us with a good way of taking water samples, mounting plankton nets and other equipment such as a video camera system all at the same time. In addition to this it allows us to assess the different water masses from which we are sampling. The water below us is often stratified, with the strata having different salinities, temperatures and oxygen concentrations. The diversity of strata leads to diversity of organisms. We can measure photosynthesis (eg. phytoplankton) in each of these strata, as well as taking water samples at specific depths. This allows us to assess the origin of what we find in water samples, as each water mass, with its own distinct signature, comes from a different area (for example Mediterranean and Arctic waters can be distinguished from each other).

CTD being lowered for sampling (c) Emilia Chorazyczewska

CTD read out (c) Emilia Chorazyczewska

Plankton are sampled continuously on these vertical tows, and give us an idea of the various groups living in a column of water. So far on Cetaceans on the Frontier 4, our deepest drop has been to a depth of around 4.5km. During Cetaceans on the Frontier 3 in 2012, these small samples went on to be involved in studies involving genetic analysis of plankton and understanding how cetaceans fit into food webs using stable isotope analyses (their trophic ecology). This time around, despite some limitations related to weather, we have managed to take plankton samples for trophic studies of fish, sampled water to look for microplastics, aided in a test of acoustic releases for sensor moorings and tested an experimental camera system for studying plankton.

 Purpose built, deep sea camera (c) Fergal Glynn

 Plankton sample; a Euphausiid krill & two copepods (c) Fergal Glynn

There’s no working around the weather at the moment unfortunately. Even after we changed methods to try to deal with the swell and wind, we had to temporarily suspend sampling when it reached a solid seven (rather more wet and windy than solid!). We look forward to getting out and dropping some more sampling stations when we make a break for sea.

Watch this space for more updates from the graveyard shift.

Fergal Glynn
(Queen’s University Belfast)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

COTF4: Ring-billed Gull

A few of us went for a lunchtime stroll down to Nimmo's Pier today which produced some nice bird sightings. The pier is famous amongst birders across Europe for its track record of drawing in rare species of gull from the Arctic and North America.

One of the more frequently occurring North American specialties is ring-billed gull, one of which was present today and showed very well, down to a few meters at times (with a little help from two loaves of bread!).

Light-bellied brent goosebar-tailed godwitgreat northern diverred-breasted merganserlittle egret and rock pipit were some of the other highlights noted between the pier and Mutton Island causeway.

Great biodiversity out there along the outskirts of Galway. Check it out!

Adult Ring-billed Gull. The thick, neatly demarcated bill band, strong yellow colouration to bill and legs, stern expression and pale eye are all good features for ID'ing it from the similar looking Common Gull (c) Niall Keogh

Saturday, 26 January 2013

COTF4 Day 5: Coming Inshore

With a particularly nasty weather system making its way east across the Atlantic, a wise decision was made to shelter inshore for a few days until the worst of it passes and Galway was the port of choice for our 'mid-cruise' break. We still managed 5 hours of good survey time this morning however and added a few new species to the trip list.

Although still 40 miles west of Loop Head at 9am, it was instantly apparent that we were nearing land by simply observing the change in cetacean & seabird species composition around us. A group of 3 harbour porpoise was a great find by Conor. A typically inshore species frequently seen along the Clare coast but certainly notable this far out. A couple of common dolphins began bow riding not long after which were a sight for sore eyes after their absence offshore in recent days.

Gannetskittiwakes and fulmars were present as per usual but the sudden appearance of guillemotsrazorbills (new for the trip), herring gulls and great black-backed gulls in numbers were a sure sign we were over shallower water. Once we entered the mouth of Galway Bay itself, wedged between Inis Oírr & Black Head, sightings of shag and cormorant completed the expected species list for the day. Whilst moored in the bay south of Silver Strand waiting for the pilot boat, a 1st-winter iceland gull made an appearance, nicely complementing its similar looking but larger relative, the glaucous gull, which we had encountered yesterday. Then to finish off, a couple of great northern divers near Mutton Island welcomed us into Galway docks.

With any luck things will calm down out over the shelf sooner than expected so we can get back to business but until then we'll get down to the task of collating and preparing our data collected so far.

Galway pilot alongside the R.V. Celtic Explorer (c) Conor Ryan

Friday, 25 January 2013

COTF4 Day 4: Return to Form

Expectations were high as we skirted along the edge of the Porcupine Seabight shelf, a habitat far more productive for feeding cetaceans & seabirds compared to the ‘abysmal’ plains we were over for the past few days.

Conditions this morning were a lot like yesterday with favourable swell, sea state & wind in comparison to recent days but with a hint of the dreaded sea fog lingering. This cleared up after an hour or so however and with that, the birds started tipping by nicely and by mid morning we had our first cetacean sighting.

Kittiwakes were the order of the day for the seabird team, with double figure flocks loafing around the R.V. Celtic Explorer for much of the morning, no doubt thinking she was a trawler. All this activity drew in some gannets (our first in days), small numbers of great skuas and plenty of fulmars. We then sailed into a feeding flock which produced added bonuses in the form of a puffin and a manx shearwaterwhich was a new species for the survey list.

 Perfect 'as you see in the field' flight pic of a winter plumaged puffin (c) Alex Borawska

A young kittiwake with fulmars behind (c) Alex Borawska

Soon to follow was a sighting of at least two bottlenose dolphins off the starboard side. At last! Our target species for the trip. They moved on quickly however, but not before engaging in some belly rolls & tail fluking/slapping.

Not long after, the PAM team picked up some strange clicks on the hydrophone which could possibly have been a species of beaked whale. A little understood group which have been seen and heard on previous Cetaceans on the Frontier surveys. Tantalising! So to was a distant blow from a large whale species.

Things really kicked off in the afternoon as we travelled right over the shelf from a water depth of 1000m to 200m. By this stage the wind was also blowing a good force 7 north west. Kittiwake numbers started to fluctuate dramatically, with flocks of up to 185 trailing us at times, again interspersed with more gannets, fulmars, great skuas, another puffin and most surprisingly a 1st-winter glaucous gull (scarce winter visitor from the Arctic). We then came upon an active trawler and between its own entourage and those tagging along with the R.V. Celtic Explorer, a vast cloud of seabirds formed, comprising of 600+ kittiwakes, 100+ fulmars and 50+ gannets. Up to 4 ‘blue’ fulmars and a single great black-backed gull added some variety to the frenzy, all the while our friendly neighbourhood glaucous gull was still drifting alongside.

 1st-winter glaucous gull (c) Alex Borawska

A gnarly old great skua (c) Alex Borawska

A 'blue' fulmar, the darker, Arctic breeding counterpart (c) Niall Keogh

                              Kittiwakes en masse! (c) Alex Borawska

The best was most certainly saved for last. The cetacean team picked up an active group of breaching dolphins dead ahead of the bow which were quickly identified as more bottlenose! About 50 were present in total, leaping right out of the water and travelling at great speed past our port side. Some quick manoeuvring by the ships crew allowed for photo-ID but the dolphins obviously had other things on their mind and after several minutes, they slipped away with little effort.

An excellent sighting of an enigmatic group of animals.

Our Chief Scientist, Conor Ryan explains…

”We encountered about 50 bottlenose dolphins 58 miles west of Slea Head this afternoon, about an hour before darkness and in the teeth of a gale. It was in this same area, just on the edge of the continental shelf, that I witnessed my first 'offshore' bottlenose dolphins, in summer 2008. It seems that as we have come to expect, they did not approach the ship and we found it difficult to approach or track them. This strong avoidance of vessels appears to be a behavioural trait of offshores, unlike their inshore counterparts who cannot resist a good bow wave! Although we have yet to carry out a detailed analysis, the offshore bottlenose dolphins appear to be darker in colour and may be slightly smaller than the 'inshores'. We hope that with more genetic, morphometric and behavioural data, we can start to understand just how different these dolphins are to the coastal bottlenose dolphins.”

Offshore bottlenose dolphins (c) Simon Berrow

Offshore bottlenose dolphin...nicks along the dorsal fin useful for photo ID (c) Alex Borawska

Offshore bottlenose dolphin...Some individuals are strikingly dark with a well defined pale belly (c) Emilia Chorazyczewska

Thursday, 24 January 2013

COTF4 Day 3: Pilot Whales & Puffins

After deploying a new PAP buoy out over the Porcupine Abyssal Plain this morning, we steamed north by north east for the rest of the day as we make our way inshore to take shelter from the pending storm (Donegal Bay seems a likely spot for a lovely weekend break!). We hope to continue our surveys along the northern half of our proposed track once it passes.

Swell & sea state were more conducive to surveying today but a thick sea fog reduced visibility to 300m at times. Saying that, we got our long-finned pilot whales! Two groups, of 8+ and c.5, were seen in the morning and afternoon respectively. As is typical for this species, the first group took a great interest in our presence and spent some time surfacing not far from the bow, allowing for photo-ID opportunities. Rarely seen from land so a great chance to catch up with this offshore speciality.

 Long-finned Pilot whales (c) Simon Berrow

Long-finned pilot whales (c) Alex Borawska

 Long-finned pilot whales (c) Alex Borawska

Pilot whale admirers (c) Niall Keogh

Two puffins were the highlight of the day for the seabird team. These charismatic auks spend the winter far out in the Atlantic before coming in to breed on our sea cliffs and islands from April onwards. Otherwise, a smattering of kittiwakes per hour and a handful of fulmars were the best we could filter out of the fog. Yet another gannet-less day!

 A nice, atmospheric pic of a kittiwake (c) Alex Borawska

  Not much of a view from the bridge (c) Niall Keogh