Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Dolphin spotting at night.

I signed up to do a dolphin & whale survey with ORCA, from Plymouth which is nowhere near where I live, to Roscoff, which is over the channel from it. I got a night train down the coast, toured like a tourist around Plymouth, and then met this lovely bunch of people (pictured in Roscoff, waiting for the ferry back).

(Matthew, Jennifer, Mary)
The ferry left after dark, and we really weren't sure if we were going to see any dolphins as there was only an hour or so of morning's light before docking - and half of that would be in harbour itself when you're not allowed to survey on the bridge. They have a ship to steer, you see, and don't want to get distracted when avoiding quays and rocks and things.
On the return trip we would get a bit longer, but still only a few hours, so I knew not to get my hopes up for great natural spectacles. The fact we all were keen to take part anyway says more about the enthusiasm that marine mammals arouse in people than our sensibleness and logical reasoning.  A week later, and this same crossing will get more light (the clocks will have gone back), but as it is they looked into cancelling it this weekend. Apparently the fact I'd booked my night trains was a factor in going ahead.
We slept in two cabins, woke a bit after 5am, and Mary got us taken onto the bridge where I was put on note-taking and suddenly there was "sighting!", "two common dolphins!", "two more!" and all that being called out. I had to write down the ship's position each time (reading it off the ship's console), and also the dolphins' position in relation to us, as well as some other things like angle, distance, direction etc... It was all a bit frenetic and after half an hour when we had to leave the bridge we'd recorded 21 of them. I personally only saw 2 of them because my eyes were mostly down on the paper and the console, but Jennifer told me to look up from my scribbling especially, lest I miss the experience. 

From on high, they look smaller than you'd imagine, more delicate and neatly drawn, with pale yellow sides and that classic dolphin jumping thing going on. They like boats, unlike porpoises, and are often drawn to them just as they were that morning.
And then : a day in Roscoff, quiet little picturesque harbour town. Barely a town really, just a pretty suburb on the rocks with a nice harbour and a seriously major tide thing going on. It began high, clear water lapping up against the jetties, but by the time we left there were dozens of rocky islands revealed, thousands of rockpools for urchins and crabs, and kilometres of wet sand and seaweed. Good place for a daytrip if you have the time!
While Mary logged the birds, Jennifer told me the difference between the shellfish. I know nothing about maritime wildlife, and I like having vast areas of nature new to me, it's like seeing a big horizon out in front of you.
Purple thingummies (name to check!)

Painted thingummies (name also to check).

The harbour was full of these Brent geese, and we looked for other birds too, so I saw my first Rock pipit and Rednecked grebe of the year.
The other thing I'm really turned onto this month is the return of the bees and the butterflies. Queen bumblebees in particular awe me for how they survive all winter somewhere buried in the soil, and then at this time of year they pop out again and the whole of their species' survival depends upon them buzzing about and finding enough food n that. Wildflowers, pesticides, lawns, them's the crucial factors. And so these queen bumblebees are massive, and different species are different sizes and make different tone buzzes as they bez about. The honeybees are pretty cool too (pictured first), and all busy at the rosemary.

We also spent a fair bit of time in the French cafes, mangling the accent as only english tourists can (Matthew is a particular expert, and also a gastronome so really enjoyed his time in France). I drank a lot of coffee. I always drink a lot of coffee. The Roscoffians were very patient with us, and the weather was warm. Proper holiday feeling.

On the journey back, after a wait in the ferry terminal with well behaved children singing "ten green bottles" (quite different to the Newcastle crossing, which is usually full of drink and drunks), we were up on deck for a bit longer. 
We had quite a few mysteries on the return trip. 
I in particular saw things that I couldn't name, and as a relative novice I lacked the experience needed to say they were definitely seal, minke whale, rocks or what have you. We saw gannets, guillemots, bonxies and kittiwakes. However the journey was sealed and delivered for us all when straight toward us came a pod of common dolphins, all tight together so probably feeding (Mary, our team leader, told us this). First one, then a dozen, then I was counting 35 individual splashes and in total Mary estimated 60 plus, with at least 5 calves. Even I saw a couple of these young ones, leaping alongside their mothers, half the size and quite breathtaking for the sheer fact they were there, in front of us, alive. They jumped around in the wake of the boat before setting off toward France. We, meanwhile, carried on into the 3 shipping lanes that divide England from the continent, and were all aglow. Both aglow with the experience and also aglow with the skin-reddening effects of proper sunshine. I'm returning with a tan.

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