Friday, September 19, 2014

Dolphin Watching in the Farne Deeps

Last Saturday (13th) my friend Jane and I drove to Northumberland. We were booked on a trip with North Sea Pelagics who take their fast rib boat 20 miles offshore with the aim of observing White-beaked Dolphins.
Our small group assembled in the carpark of picturesque Beadnell Bay, where a film crew were photographing our tour leader Doctor Ben Burville. Ben appeared last year on the BBC's Countryfile programme with John Craven who undertook the same trip as us and had great views of the dolphins, so hopes were high. The tractor towed the rib to the water's edge and we clambered aboard. We decided to occupy the front seats so we could spot anything directly ahead of the boat. Although people at the front of the rib experience more of the bouncing motion as the boat skims over the waves we were undeterred, and enjoyed the roller-coaster ride!Conditions were excellent with a sea state of only 1 to 2, and the early morning fog had mostly dissipated by lunchtime.
The trip to the "Deeps" takes about 45 minutes but there were plenty of seabirds to keep us occupied, including many winter-plumaged Guillemots, Razorbills and the occasional Puffins without their bright summer bills. Fulmars and Gannets were numerous as well.

Then ,along with another passenger. I spotted a falcate fin breaking the surface and the unmistakable profile of a Minke Whale! The rib slowed to halt and we spent a short time with this magnificent animal ensuring everyone got a good view while being careful not to cause any disturbance. It was definitely a tricky game trying to predict where it would surface again. At one point it surfaced quite close to the rib and we were treated to a shower of its stinky breath! Interestingly, this whale had a distinctive notch cut out of its dorsal fin; perhaps a close encounter with a ship's propeller or maybe a close shave with an Orca?


After this fabulous encounter we continued on our way to where we hoped to see the White-beaked Dolphins. We constantly scanned the calm sea for the tell-tale splashes of dolphins and closely monitored the activities of the seabirds; a flock of circling and diving Gannets is often a sign that cetaceans are in the area. And wow! How amazing are Gannets when they dive!
Soon we saw a flock of Fulmars feeding on something in the water, and even appearing to stand on the waves! We edged the rib closer and discovered what was attracting these "mini-albatrosses"; a dead dolphin! And they were standing on the corpse ass they fed.  It was a large animal with most of its guts showing and its skull almost devoid of flesh. This unfortunate animal was identified as a White-beaked Dolphin; not the view I had hoped for. After a few photos of the Fulmars we beat a hasty retreat from the putrefying stench.

Another Minke was seen by some of the group but it was more distant than the first. We continued on our journey and soon reached the "Deeps". The engine was cut and we scanned the calm waters.It's amazing to be that far out at sea with no sign of land, and not even any other vessels to be seen. Conditions were perfect for viewing cetaceans; if anything at all had broken the surface we would have seen it. But, alas, nothing was seen. We scoured the area, and closely monitored the Gannets to see if they had found any fish shoals. But, unfortunately, there were no large flocks of seabirds and, sadly, no dolphins.
Although some of the Gannets did make sweeping passes of the boat providing fabulous views and a chance to test our skills at aging these magnificent seabirds. Additionally, we saw good numbers of juvenile Kittiwakes which were carefully scrutinised in the hope of finding a Sabine's Gull.

We made our way slowly back and were very fortunate to find another confiding Minke Whale that provided another photographic challenge in the dull evening light.

The sun was getting lower in the sky and it was time to head for the shore. But our ever vigilant group did not give up hope.
And then there they were! A pod of dolphins in the dusk! The group of maybe a dozen animals swam adjacent to the rib, with some even riding the bow wave! Amazing! Everyone on the rib was ecstatic with high-fives, whoops and cheers all around. But, wait, these weren't the expected White-beaked Dolphins. They had pale lateral flank stripes that were clearly visible when they leapt from the water despite the fading light. Photography was difficult in the evening gloom but record shots were taken which later confirmed the species as Atlantic White-sided Dolphin; a species I had never seen before! Very unexpected, but that's the beauty of wildlife.
A tired but very happy crew made their way back the sandy bay at Beadnell, where we said our thank yous and goodbyes. And no doubt we were all planning our next northern pelagic as soon as we left the carpark!

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