Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Cetacean Bonanza - weekend wildlife cruise

Last Sunday I spent most of the day crewing aboard an AK Wildlife Cruise out from Falmouth - the conditions couldn't have been much better, with barely a breath of wind, clear blue skies out to sea and warm sunshine. We had a brilliant trip, with cetaceans popping up all over the bay as we headed due south before tracking east towards the Dodman and then back again via St Mawes.

Check out AK Wildlife Cruises website and Facebook page for updates and info on the trips...

We had hardly left Falmouth Bay before the first Harbour Porpoise broke the surface, their rounded back and small triangular dorsal fins glistening in the morning sun. This was followed by over an hour of continual sightings of these shy little cetaceans: we recorded over 70 all-in-all, which is a brilliant testament to the importance of the coast around here for this threatened species which is listed under the EU Habitats and Species directive.

As we powered on out to sea, continual scanning of the horizon payed merit when a scatter of Gannet feeding flocks drew our attention: little black and white specks above the horizon, occasionally plunging vertically in a sure giveaway that there must be fish in the area. Half way to the flock and Keith picked up our first dolphins of the day: a sizeable pod of Common Dolphins skimming out of the water and slicing the surface with their larger, curved dorsal fins. Similarly to our Porpoise encounter, we were then surrounded almost continually by Common Dolphins for the next hour, amounting to at least 120 animals in total!

Common Dolphins are far more sociable than their pygmy relatives, and take little time in coming to check out the boat and make use of the bow wave: it was pretty cool to stand on the bow with 10-15 dolphins weaving to and fro just metres away, their social clicks and whistles audible through the water! Ross Wheeler, who was also crewing, got some pretty fantastic GoPro images and footage by dangling off the bow as we had this encounter with the delightful Delphinus. Check out some of his images here

I forgot to mention that, whilst the Common Dolphins invariably steal the lime light during these encounters, the whole atmosphere of these encounters is made electric with the work-ups of Gannets croaking overhead and plunging into the water like arrows. A smattering of Herring Gulls often join in the commotion, and it was great to see at least three Balearic Shearwaters lounging around, with flocks of Razorbills and Guillemots heralding the start of their arrival for the winter to feed in the waters here.

Balearic Shearwater

After midday, coinciding with slack water, the Common Dolphin activity dropped off a little. It was interesting to come across another pod without a single Gannet in sight, and these animals were also acting totally different - not paying any attention to the boat, and generally keeping a low profile. An hour or so passed as we headed east, before Keith and Ross sighted a BIG feeding flock of Gannets further inshore, not far off the Dodman. There were hundreds of them, but we were a good few miles off. On went the throttle, and we gradually made progress towards the frenzy.

As we arrived in the feeding area, it became apparent that there oddly no cetaceans: not a single dorsal fin breaking the surface! But then every now and then a large splash and spray of water would erupt from beneath the Gannets. Having previous experience of the signs of the species, Keith immediately voiced the probability that there were BLUEFIN TUNA in the area! Although remaining beneath the surface for most of their feeding, they will break the surface in a dolphin-like manner occasionally, and are actually about the size of Porpoise! We spent a good half hour with the Gannet flock, with these mysterious explosions of spray and water appearing at random intervals. Eventually a couple of the Tuna did reveal themselves: popping up above the surface with enough regularity to nail a couple of record shots, before swimming past close enough to see their sickle-shaped rear dorsal fins. What awesome beasts! 

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna!

The show wasn't over quite yet we returned to Falmouth via St Mawes, a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins suddenly appeared in the entrance to this coastal town. There were around 12 individuals within the pod, including at least three playful little calves, with pale heads and spritely nature. Although brilliant to watch, it was a real shame when several other boats and motorised vessels noticed the pod, and with great ignorance proceeded to pursue and generally harass the pod repeatedly before the dolphins ended up scarpering off towards the Carrick roads. The behaviour of some boat operators is a real shame.

Bottlenose Dolphins, including a couple of calves

And finally, a selection of Gannet images...

Watching the Bottlenose Dolphins near St Mawes

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