2019-08-13 - Aberdeen–Lerwick

Survey details

Survey route: Aberdeen–Lerwick

Company: NorthLink

Sea region: North Sea

Survey start date: 2019-08-13

Number of nights: 2

^ Grey Seal in Lerwick Harbour (Christine Murdie)

13th August: Departing Aberdeen

The team boarded the MV Hjaltland eager to voyage North. Upon departure out of the harbour, numerous bird species were observed including herring gulls, terns and black headed gulls flying around the ship as well as guillemots, oystercatchers and eider ducks gathered around the harbour walls.

Favourable conditions presented themselves with a sea state 2, occasionally rising to a 3 with white caps appearing. Within 30 minutes of leaving, a fog set in reducing our visibility to 2 km at times. After the fog cleared, around an hour and a half after departing Aberdeen, a Minke whale was sighted briefly ahead of the ship, only surfacing the once. Eleven minutes later a tall blow was observed towards the horizon on the port side, followed by another blow seconds later. Whilst the body of the animal was unseen, the blow was indicative of a large whale species, likely a fin whale.

Almost another hour passed before the first harbour porpoise made an appearance on the port side, popping up close to the ship in a pair. Over the next hour or so, 4 more sightings of harbour porpoise were observed as singles or in pairs, as well as 3 unidentified dolphins seen on the starboard side which were too brief to identify, but some members of the team suspected they could possibly have been pilot whales.

As the evening progressed, the conditions further improved with only ripples bearing the signs of a sea state 1. Ahead of the sun setting, a Minke whale was seen by the whole team, nicely silhouetted and swimming ahead of the ship, revealing a nice profile view for an unmistakable species identification.

14th August: Arriving into Lerwick (Shetland)

Bright and early the team were on the bridge for 5am, able to see both the Fair Isles and the south side of Shetland around Sumburgh Head. White caps now littered the sea presenting a sea state 3-4 but with good visibility most of the morning. It wasn’t until approaching the port of Lerwick, within the red zone, that the team spotted some grey seals bottling/resting at the surface or swimming close to the harbour.

Taking advantage of the day in Shetland, the team hired a car and drove to Sumbrugh Head to try their luck watching for orcas. Despite most puffins having headed off into the wider Atlantic, small rafts were seen sitting on the water as well as several great skuas, many fulmars and the occasional Arctic skua (dark morph) mobbing some terns for their lunch. During the drive around the island many seals were seen hauled out on beaches or rocks and also an array of terrestrial birds including the subspecies of Shetland wren seen bouncing along the dry-stone walls, wheatear, pied wagtail starlings, rock pipits, martins and ravens. Along the coastline, wader species such as turnstones, ringed plover, redshank, sandpiper and oystercatcher were among those spotted.

Departing Lerwick:

Following a lovely day on Shetland, the team returned to the Bridge, surveying majority of the evening in a sea state 3. Another seal or two were spotted out of the harbour. By 18:18 a pod of 3 unidentified dolphins were spotted on the starboard side, not showing much of their bodies at a distance from the ship. Five minutes later the Bridge Crew were delighted to witness along with the team, a group of breaching white beaked dolphins, repeatedly breaching on the port side.

Before the end of the survey, a further two lone harbour porpoise were seen as well as an abundance of puffins as we sailed past the Fair Isles, a welcome sight for us all including one of the Bridge crew who was unaware there were so many still about.

15th August: Arriving into Aberdeen

On the final morning of the survey, despite every effort no cetaceans were sighted due to heavy fog shielding our views. Visibility was reduced to less than 500m at times and waned between 2-4 km as we approached Aberdeen. On the way through the harbour, a final sighting of a grey seal finished the survey.

Overall, the team had a wonderful survey and were blessed with mostly good weather conditions, as well as sightings of the whole package of: whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals. We would like to formally thank Captain Sean Smith and his crew for welcoming us on board and showing an interest in our work. We look forward to voyaging with Northlink again soon.

Marine Mammals Seen:

Minke whale x2                              
White beaked dolphins x3                
Unidentified dolphins x6                
Harbour Porpoise x9                    
Large Whale x1                                
Grey Seal x5                                    
Seal sp x1                                    

Birds Seen:
Herring Gull, common guillemot, black headed gull, oystercatcher, eider duck, tern sp, shearwater sp, cormorant, gannet, kittiwake, great skua, razorbill, Atlantic puffin, Northern fulmar (incl blue morph), black guillemot, storm petrel, common gull, manx shearwater, lesser black backed gull, carrion crow and grey heron. 
Birds seen in Shetland:
Starling, pied wagtail, great black backed gull, rock pipit, wheatear, turnstone, ringed plover, pedshank, sandpiper, sand martin, house sparrow, wren (Shetland subspecies), swallow, raven, pigeon, Arctic skua, oystercatcher, fulmar and Atlantic puffin. 
Lion’s mane jellyfish

^ Fulmar (Ruth Coxon)

^ Breaching white-beaked dolphin (Andrew Boulton)

Survey team members

Ruth Coxon, Christine Murdie, Andrew Boulton, Sara Valentini

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2019-07-30 - Aberdeen–Lerwick

Survey details

Survey route: Aberdeen–Lerwick

Company: NorthLink

Sea region: North Sea

Survey start date: 2019-07-30

Number of nights: 2

^ Sumburgh puffins

The ever-accommodating crew of the Northlink ferries welcomed us onboard the bridge of the MV Hjaltland before we set sail from Aberdeen towards Shetland. As we exited the harbour mouth, we were seen off by one of the locals, a bottlenose dolphin. The weather was promising but as we headed north, the famous Har (fog) started creeping in which was set to stay with us for much of our survey. However, with the fog, generally comes a decent sea state, so we managed to hold out to record harbour porpoise, Minke whale, grey seals and white-beaked dolphins. We only managed to do three of the four watches, as the final morning was thick fog.

This route allows you several hours to play with on Shetland, which is always a treat. We had hoped to see the orcas but were not lucky this time. We enjoyed a drive around the mainland, a headland walk and of course, a visit to Sumburgh Head to drop by the puffins.

The crew on this route are always friendly and accommodating and are becoming very accustomed to our presence which makes this a lovely route to do. We recorded a total of 30 animals which was very impressive given the visibility! A very enjoyable survey.  

Marine mammals:

Bottlenose dolphin x1

Harbour porpoise x21 

Minke whale x1 (plus one incidental) 

Grey seal x4

White-beaked dolphin x 2 


Guillemot, Arctic tern, common tern, gannet, great skua, cormorant, puffin, razorbill, oystercatcher, kittiwake, greater black-backed gull, herring gull, fulmar, lesser black-backed gull. 

Survey team members

Nikki Taylor; Kelly Macleod; Alice Doyle; Eunice Pinn

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2019-06-11 - Aberdeen–Lerwick

Survey details

Survey route: Aberdeen–Lerwick

Company: NorthLink

Sea region: North Sea

Survey start date: 2019-06-11

Number of nights: 2

^ A family of orca in the north North Sea

The team met at Aberdeen ferry terminal, apprehensive of the Northerly gale forecast ahead of us.

After settling into our cabins and meeting the amiable crew we were allowed onto the bridge for an early departure. Captain McPherson and first officer Shane told us about the bottlenose dolphins at the harbour mouth.

As soon as the survey started at the breakwater a feeding frenzy of kittiwakes were above 8 bottlenose dolphins. We had superb views before the open sea.

The sea state was 4 rising to 5 with a 4 swell. After half an hour we had an unidentified dolphin surfacing close to the ship in the heavy swell. However the excitement really started after 2.5 hours into the survey. At starboard ahead I noticed splashing below a tight flock of kittiwakes. As we drew near a large upright dorsal fin appeared with a body slapping black and white cetacean nearby! We were watching a bull mother and calf orca`s. The whole bridge was buzzing. The closest we got was about 400m in heavy swell with spray splashing on the windows, but what a sight.

An hour later again an heavy swell with a port glare, portahead, again, there was frantic bird activity then whoosh! a vertical large blow. A fin whale rolled ahead. It passed us down the portside constantly feeding on surface fish. We were having a great survey even in poor conditions.

We finished slightly early in the evening as the conditions increased.

Indeed, we couldn’t survey on the approaches up the east side of Shetland.

After a superb breakfast onboard we had a hire car waiting outside. The local contacts had various sites lined up for us in a tour of the south part of Mainland Shetland.

We first headed to Boddam looking for otters but saw 2 feeding grey seals instead, various waders and 2 small eider families. Then off to the Loch of Hillwell where we caught up with 2 quietly feeding cranes.

Off to RSPB Sumburgh head and the lighthouse where it was somewhat windy, but it still allowed wonderful views of nesting puffin, fulmar, shags and guillemots with great skuas overhead.

We then drove down to the Sumburgh head hotel seeing skylarks, pipits, twite and wheatear on the way down for a pleasant lunch.

In the afternoon we went to the Loch of Spiggie seeing families of whooper swan and red throated diver.

Once leaving Lerwick harbour late afternoon, a seal was spotted and it was quiet in the shelter of the island but as we approached Sumburgh head the sea state rapidly increased to 4 and then continued to increase along with the swell until, with a heavy swell and a sea state increased to 7 with rain we had to abandon this transect.

The final transect we started early at 0400 am to try and see the orca`s in the same area as earlier in the survey but no luck. However we did manage a harbour porpoise and  1x bottlenose dolphin and grey seal in Aberdeen harbour.

I would like to thank Northlink ferries for this opportunity and especially the welcoming captain and his wonderful crew who made us so welcome and were so hospitable and generous.

Also I want to thank the ORCA team for their hard work in very difficult weather conditions.

Marine Mammals seen:- 

Orca x3

Bottlenose dolphin x9

Unidentified dolphins x1

Harbour porpoise  x1

Fin whale x1 

Grey seal x2

Birds seen:- 

Red throated diver, gannet, cormorant, shag, great black-backed gull, herring gull, kittiwake, black headed gull, fulmar, common tern, Arctic tern, sandwich tern, great skua, Arctic skua, cormorant, shag, common guillemot, black guillemot, razorbill, puffin, manx shearwater, rock dove, wood pigeon, skylark, shetland wren, pied wagtail, meadow pipit, rock pipit, dunnock, wheatear, hooded crow, raven, jackdaw, magpie, blackbird, common crane, mute swan, whooper swan, greylag goose, mallard, eider, tufted duck, long tailed duck, moorhen, turnstone, oystercatcher, lapwing, twite, whimbrel, curlew, common starling, blackbird, house sparrow.

^ Orca dorsal fin

^ Bottlenose dolphin seen on survey

Survey team members

Brian Clasper,Chris Stevenson, Yolanda Arjona and Elouise Cartner

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