Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Return to the Farne Deeps.

Whales and dolphins are addictive. Once you have experienced the high of a close encounter with any of the world's cetaceans you are liable to become a marine mammal junkie and the next fix can't come soon enough!
I had a very successful encounter with the North Sea's White-beaked Dolphins last July on a trip with the "sealdiver" himself, Ben Burville, and I was keen to return so my partner Jane could also witness this unique marine spectacle. But ocean going trips are always subject to the vagaries of the weather and I was gutted when I received a text from Billy Shiels Boats saying that due to forcasted high winds the pelagic was to be postponed from the Saturday afternoon to the Sunday morning. Our hotel had already been booked and the chances of finding somewhere to stay in Northumberland at the height of the summer holiday season seemed remote to say the least; and a fruitless hour spent phoning dozens of hotels in the area proved the point.
I reluctantly phoned Billy Shiels boats to inform them of  my decision to cancel, but was given a tip on where to find accommodation for the Saturday night in Seahouses itself, local knowledge is priceless.
Saturday was spent on a seven mile walk around the beautiful Cheviot Hills. The remote rolling hillsides (we hardly saw another person all day!) and changeable weather (wind and rain) provided a challenging but rewarding excursion.

The iPhone takes a good snap, this could be a
 cover photo for a country walking magazine.

Early Sunday morning found us at the harbour as the tide slowly edged closer to our viewpoint in the car-park, threatening to disturb the Eiders loafing on the rocks below. We made our way along the harbour wall and joined the intrepid band of potential dolphin-watchers being briefed by Ben. We donned our life-jackets and were soon speeding away from Seahouses on board the fast RIB, skippered by the experienced Alan Leatham.
We were only  a few miles out from Seahouses when we came across an unexpected sight. A large and well-scattered group of grey seals were to be seen bobbing in the water. Alan slowed the rib as we all took in the amazing view of myriads of seal heads bobbing in the water, most looking directly at us. Ben told us that they were there to hunt herring and, despite his extensive experience of this part of the North Sea, this was only the second time that he had witnessed this amazing phenomenon.

The seals were spread over a large portion of the sea so it was difficult to estimate their numbers, but there could easily have been over one hundred animals in the area. But they were not our target species, so after a few minutes we continued out to sea, being careful not to disturb the seals.
The Farne Deeps is an area 20 miles off the coast and is one of the best places in the country to observe White-beaked Dolphins. But it goes without saying that the sea is vast and our first stopping point proved fruitless, but there were a lot of seabirds in the vicinity which is always a good sign when looking for cetaceans.

Fulmar gliding past the boat.

Feeding Gannets can be a sign that dolphins are nearby.

We headed off again scanning the ocean intently for any signs of dolphin activity. Suddenly, Ben shouted out saying he thought he had seen splashing in the distance, a sure indication of dolphins; and he was right! Through my binoculars I could see splashes below the horizon, and they were moving closer. White-beaked Dolphins produce distinctive splashing as they "porpoise" through the water, so much so that at a distance the animals themselves are barely visible while the splashes they produce can be clearly seen.
We waited with baited breath, but soon there were at least four dolphins zipping around the boat. Ben jumped in the sea to obtain film of these amazing animals while the rest of us attempted to take photographs, not an easy task as they moved through the sea at some speed. It is a real priveledge that the dolphins choose to be with the boat and, without wishing to be anthropomorphic, they clearly seem to enjoy riding the rib's bow-wave; this behaviour allows us to appreciate these wild animals within touching distance! But it's important not to disturb them so our time with any cetaceans is limited and rightly so. It was soon time to leave this group and go in search of more dolphins.
And it wasn't long before we encountered another group of about eight White-beaked Dolphins. They are inquisitive animals with keen underwater hearing, and this group also made a beeline for the rib. Once again Ben entered the water to obtain video footage and did his best to point out the positions of the animals to the excited watchers on the boat. (N.B. Ben Burville has a special license to film the dolphins.)

They went that way!
And again we obtained magnificent views of the dolphins riding the bow wave, and my partner Jane made use of a bathyscope to watch the dolphins under the water from the safety of the boat. This device, although sounding like some apparatus used by Captain Nemo on board the Nautilus, is in fact a wonderfully simple viewing scope that once placed in the sea eliminates glare and, depending on the clarity of the water, provides stunning views of the dolphins as they swim past below the surface of the sea.

The dolphins played around the rib for about ten minutes, after which they swam away from us but were still visible in the distance as Ben explained about their biology and his own research. I continued to watch the dolphins through my binoculars and was amazed so see some of them leaping out of the water. Their acrobatics reminded me of similar behaviour that I have witnessed amongst the Bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay when they are chasing fish. Alan turned the boat so we could obtain better views, but did not approach the dolphins so as not to cause any disturbance. One individual White-beaked Dolphin breached at least six times; an amazing sight to see, but the position of the boat and the distance of the animal precluded anything but record photos.

We were all more than satisfied by the day's sightings as Alan turned the boat to head back to Seahouses. But we kept our eyes peeled on the return journey and were rewarded with more sightings of the Grey Seals along with numerous Manx Shearwaters and an Arctic Skua.
My craving for dolphins had been sated for a short while, but I'm sure I'll be back soon for another mind-blowing fix!