Survey Reports

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