Thursday, 30 January 2014

COTF5 Day 7: Porcupine Seabight

The day began some 60 nautical miles West of Dursey Island where the ships crew were hard at work, loading the M6 weather buoy on to the deck. It had come free of its mooring and began drifting Eastwards a result of the storms and massive swells experienced of late (e.g. a record breaking 23.4m wave was recorded by the M4 buoy off Donegal on Sunday - pretty much sums up the weather we've been having this winter!). Once it was tethered, hoisted and strapped down onto the deck by the always efficient and professional crew of the R.V. Celtic Explorer we were back on track, steaming North along the edge of the Porcupine Seabight from 9am, over a water depth of 700-500m. Hopes were high as previous surveying in the area has shown that this is an exciting place to be!

M6 weather buoy on deck (note the goose barnacles around its base) © Fergal Glynn

This is certainly the realm of the fulmar, with approximately 300-500 birds milling around in our wake for much of the morning, making a mockery of the high seas, cruising about in loose squadrons, seemingly right at home in the deep troughs. Our entourage also included plenty of kittiwakes and gannets, some great black-backed gulls and a single herring gull plus some bonuses in the form of a single great skua, 3 glaucous gulls (an adult and two 1st-winters) and at least 6 'blue' fulmars (5 L's & 1 D for those familiar with the plumage scoring system).

1st-winter Glaucous Gull © Ryan McKenna

1st-winter Glaucous Gull © Fergal Glynn

The sea state was certainly on the higher end of the scale for surveying (up to 7 or 8 at times!) and a large swell made searching for cetaceans difficult. Some whistles were picked up by the hydrophone, sounding like bottlenose dolphins (no doubt of the enigmatic 'offshore ecotype' this far out to sea) but the icing on the cake came in the form of a group of 9 long-finned pilot whales picked up by one of our MMO's, Catherine O'Sullivan, about 50 nautical miles West of the Blaskets just as the evening was drawing to a close. 

The group, which consisted of 2 large-sized adults, 4 regular-sized adults/immatures, 2 juveniles and a small calf came straight in for our bow and spent a good 20-25 minutes circling the ship, having a good look at us, and allowing us to have a good look at them! Such is the inquisitive nature of these superb 'blackfish' (a family of dark coloured medium sized cetaceans, including killer whales, which are in fact dolphins).

The "Atlas of the Distribution and Relative Abundance of Marine Mammals in Irish Offshore Waters: 2005 – 2011" recently published by IWDG has shown that pilot whales are relatively abundant and well distributed in Irish offshore waters but strongly associated with shelf slope or deep water habitats and as such they are only very rarely ever seen from land. So while they may indeed be 'common' for want of a better word, it was still a real privilege to spend some time with these fantastic animals this evening. It wouldn't have been a proper Cetaceans on the Frontier survey without them!

 Long-finned Pilot Whales © Fergal Glynn

Long-finned Pilot Whales © Ryan McKenna

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

COTF5 Day 6: Heading Wesht

A break in the weather had us out of Cork Harbour and ready to go for another days surveying at first light. We steamed towards the Atlantic, taking in the stunning West Cork scenery; Old of Kinsale, Seven Heads, Galley Head, Sherkin Island, Cape Clear, Fastnet, Mizen Head and finally Dursey Island accompanied by The Bull, The Cow and The Calf.

 Fastnet © Aoife Foley

MMO salute to the most South Westerly Irish rock! © Simon Berrow

It was great to see some MSFA's (Mixed Species Feeding Associations) today with distant and circling gannets alerting us to the presence of a couple of small groups of foraging common dolphins, surface rushing, milling and corralling fish near the surface. We also came across some nice flocks of diving razorbills with several dip feeding kittiwakes in attendance and a single flock of 60 or so fulmars ranging about in active search mode. All indications of some rich feeding still hanging about in the waters off West Cork (peak in this area for herring and sprat normally October).

A couple of stunning 'white wingers' (aka Arctic gulls) made an appearance today too. A 1st-winter glaucous gull to the South West of Dursey and an adult iceland gull just off Mizen. The iceland gull was seabird species number 14 for the trip.

 Razorbills © Aoife Foley

 Adult Iceland Gull © Ryan McKenna

View from the Crow's Nest © Marie Louis

Saturday, 25 January 2014

COTF5 Day 5: Super(ish) Pod!

We picked up the survey track this morning well to the South of the Saltee Islands where we happened upon a large group of common dolphins which came bounding in towards us, straight for the bow. What initially seemed to be a group 20 animals rapidly increased in number as we looked out into the distance and saw wave after wave of groups of 10 or so dolphins breaching one after the other in a wide sweeping arc on our starboard side. Our best estimate on group size was a minimum of 200 animals but no sooner had we got our head around what was happening then they were gone! Not exactly a 'super-pod' (a term probably best used to describe groups of 500+) but this brief and exciting encounter was certainly the highlight of the trip so far for some!

A small part of the large pod of common dolphins. No chance of fitting them all into one pic! © Niall Keogh 

Not long after however the seas began to pick up and conditions got too rough for effective surveying out on deck. The decision was made to steam back to Cork Harbour to take shelter and the rest of the day was spent watching from the bridge, but we still picked up on small groups of common dolphins coming in to bow ride for a short while. It was great to see some of the seabirds following the ship in this weather also, making the most of the air currents bouncing off the side of the R.V. Celtic Explorerfulmars in particular looking very much at home on the high seas. An adult glaucous gull and a great skua added interest among the large flock of gulls in attendance with the ship.

Hook Head © Ryan McKenna

We are now docked in Cork, waiting out the worst of the weather and will hopefully head back out West as soon as a suitable break presents itself. In the mean time we'll be catching up on data entry, report writing and going through the finer points of distance sampling methodology with our enthusiastic team of students!

Some serious methodical recording going on! © Ryan McKenna

Friday, 24 January 2014

COTF5 Day 4: Blow!

A busy day all round as we surveyed off the coast of Waterford between Mine Head & Dunmore East. Common dolphins were once again present throughout, appearing in groups of up to 20 animals at times. The full variation in colour was noted from those with ochre toned flanks as expected to some which appeared more smokey grey and one melanistic individual which lacked the typical 'hourglass' pattern, looking superficially like a small bottlenose dolphin!

As we approached the inshore waters South of Dunmore East, a flurry of cetacean and seabird activity was encountered, all of which were no doubt availing of the seasonal bounty of sprat in this area. The survey species list was boosted with the addition of harbour porpoise (including groups of 3 animals), a common (harbour) seal and several grey seals as well as a red-throated diver which was being harassed by an attending great skuaKittiwakeslesser black-backed gulls and guillemots were particularity abundant whilst other seabirds of note included 3 manx shearwaters, 2 'blue' morph fulmars and 10 great skuas.

Just as the last watch of the day drew to a close, the cetacean team spotted a blow from a large whale in the waters to the South of Hook Head. The height of the initial blow coupled with a view of the back would indicate that this animal was most likely a fin whale. We'll be starting off our tracks tomorrow in the same area where we left off this evening so fingers crossed for a repeat performance.

 Typical common dolphin colouration © Marie Louis

 Common dolphin (top animal) showing an atypical grey flank colouration © Aoife Foley

                  Melanistic common dolphin (lower animal) © Marie Louis

 An oiled juvenile Kittiwake (preening these sullied feathers may lead to ingestion of toxic substances) © Aoife Foley

 Razorbills © Aoife Foley

Guillemots © Ryan McKenna

Thursday, 23 January 2014

COTF5 Day 3: Very Common Dolphins & Not So Common Clouds

Today's survey route took us from South of Robert's Head, Co. Cork in the morning, to just South of Helvick Head, Co. Waterford in the evening. Along this track line we encountered a steady run of common dolphins, with 17 sightings totalling 145 individuals logged by the end of the day. Group sizes ranged from 2 to 20 animals, many of which came in to bow ride for some time allowing for plenty of photo opportunities. Nice to see some small calves among them also.

 Common Dolphins © William Hunt

  Common Dolphins © Niall Keogh

Fulmars and kittiwakes were abundant and plenty of lesser black-backed gullswere noted moving between the R.V. Celtic Explorer and fishing vessels in the surrounding area. The seabird team also recorded three new species for the trip list today; Manx shearwater, 3 great skuas (aka Bonxies) and some common gulls. This brings the overall list of birds recorded so far to a respectable mid-winter tally of 12.

  Kittiwake with a John Dory © Marie Louis

 Gannet © William Hunt

Perhaps the most unusual sighting of the day was that of a Stratocumulus Kelvin Helmholtz cloud spotted and identified by seabird team member, Ryan McKenna as we steamed to the South of Mine Head at 13:41.

Ryan elaborates on the significance of this observation: "This is very rare cloud formation that looks like enormous breaking waves. Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds form when cloud develops at an abrupt boundary between layers of colder air below and warmer air above. The upper warm layer moves more rapidly than the colder layer below to produce crashing cloud waves. Due to its nature it decays in minutes, it is rare, fleeting and a favorite of cloud spotters world wide."

Stratocumulus Kelvin Helmholtz cloud © Ryan McKenna

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

COTF5 Day 2: Celtic Sea

We continued along our Celtic Sea transects today between Galley Head and East of the Old Head of Kinsale, encountering less than ideal surveying conditions during the first few hours of the morning (reaching a sea state of 6 at times!). Understandably, no cetaceans were seen during this period and seabird numbers were quite low. With a marked improvement in the weather during the afternoon, numbers of fulmars and kittiwakes began to pick up nicely, with a notable passage of birds moving East, perhaps hinting that we may be approaching some richer feeding areas as we go along. A single dark morph 'blue' fulmar and a 1st-winter glaucous gull which followed the R.V. Celtic Explorer for several hours this morning were the avian highlights of the day. The evening was capped off by two common dolphins seen following alongside, illuminated by the lights of the ship when breaching.

 View from the Crow's Nest © Simon Berrow

 Spirits remain high among the MMO's © Ryan McKenna

 Porthole view © Ryan McKenna

 Double Rainbow! (and gulls) © Ryan McKenna

 1st-winter Glaucous Gull © Niall Keogh 

Herring Gull (left) & an oil stained Gannet (right), one of two seen today © Niall Keogh

Sunset © Aoife Foley

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

COTF5 Day 1: A Slight Change of Plan

After mobilising in Cork Harbour yesterday afternoon, we steamed out by Roche's Point enjoying a beautiful sunset, but all the while, at the back of our minds, we knew the beast of a weather system stirring in the West would mean that effective or comfortable surveying conditions over the continental shelf would most certainly be non-existent over the next week. As such we have decided to start off the trip by undertaking a zig-zag route through the Celtic Sea, off the South coast of Ireland between West Cork and Wexford. This will provide the perfect opportunity to make a comparison with the long running surveys of these waters which take place each year in October. It will be interesting to see what differences (if any) there are in cetacean & seabird abundance and/or distribution between the two ends of the Herring spawning season.

The R.V. Celtic Explorer passing Cobh on Monday evening © Niall Keogh

Impending doom!

The day began in earnest with decent surveying conditions (dry, sea state 3 and overcast but with good visibility). We were treated to our first cetacean sighting of the trip as early as 08:30am when 11 common dolphins (including 2 juveniles) spent quite some time bow riding and playing around the ship just to the South of Fasnet. Up to 10 sightings of common dolphins were then logged throughout the course of the day as we made our way towards Galley Head.

Common Dolphins © Marie Louis

Marine Mammal Observers (MMO's) © Marie Louis

The seabird team got off to a good start, recording a total of 9 species; fulmargannetkittiwakeHerring gullgreat black-backed gulllesser black-backed gullglaucous gullrazorbill and guillemot. The glaucous gull spent some time resting on the bow of the R.V. Celtic Explorer and a flock of 60 fulmars seen resting on the water contained a dark morph 'blue' fulmar. Both these birds originate from the Arctic and are scarce but regular winter visitors to our waters.

Tomorrow we continue East, hopefully towards some fin whales!

Glaucous Gull © Niall Keogh

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

COTF5: Introduction

On Monday 20th January 2014, a team of 20 scientists will embark on a two week long survey of the Irish continental shelf. This will be the fifth dedicated 'Cetaceans on the Frontier' survey to take place on-board the R.V. Celtic Explorer since 2009, supported under the Marine Institutes competitive Ship-time scheme and will be led by Chief Scientist, Dr. Joanne O'Brien of the GMIT Marine & Freshwater Research Centre. This years team of scientists and students from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, BirdWatch Ireland, Queen's University Belfast and Universit√© de La Rochelle will aim to carry out a variety of scientific investigations around some of the most interesting and important marine habitats in Irish waters.

Proposed survey transects for Cetaceans on the Frontier 5

R.V. Celtic Explorer

Primarily, the survey is focused on recording the distribution and abundance of cetaceans through visual and acoustic techniques. Records will also be taken of all other megafauna encountered such as turtles, sharks, tuna or sunfish.

Blows from a group of 3 fin whales seen during Cetaceans on the Frontier 3 © Clo Collins

Offshore bottlenose dolphins, photographed c.150km West of Ireland during Cetaceans on the Frontier 3 © Joanne O'Brien

If the opportunity arises or weather permits, the IWDG RIB 'Muc Mhara' will be launched to try to gather biopsy samples from cetaceans encountered. These samples can be used for genetic and pollutant analyses and give vital information on our offshore species which are often hard to encounter. We will also deploy C-PODs (acoustic devices) close to the continental shelf to record dolphin species in the area over the survey period.

Long-finned Pilot Whales investigating the R.V. Celtic Explorer during Cetaceans on the Frontier 3 © Joanne O'Brien

IWDG RIB 'Muc Mhara' being loaded onto the R.V. Celtic Explorer © Conor Ryan

A seabird team from BirdWatch Ireland will undertake a visual survey recording the distribution and abundance of seabirds encountered. Additionally, a micro-plastics team from GMIT will filter seawater whilst the ship is underway as the presence of such is recognised as an environmental pollutant with our understanding of its effect on organisms still limited. During night-time hours, a phytoplankton and zooplankton team will take over and carry out vertical hauls with specialised nets as these tiny organisms form the basis of the food chain which supports larger predators such as cetaceans and seabirds. Additionally the night-time team will generate conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) profiles of the water column, by collecting temperature and salinity recordings at various depths.

A 'blue' morph Fulmar, a winter visitor to Irish waters from the Arctic seen on Cetaceans on the Frontier 4 © Alex Borawska

Plankton sample from Cetaceans on the Frontier 4; a Euphausiid krill & two copepods © Fergal Glynn

CTD being lowered for sampling © Emilia Chorazyczewska

This collection of various datasets is extremely important to piece together what is happening in these offshore ecosystems, and will contribute towards Ireland meeting requirements of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives aiming to ensure the effective conservation of these important offshore ecosystems.