Spring continues to be a bit of a mixed-bag in the Bay. We have had worse weather lately than we saw for much of the winter and sea temperatures are lower than this time last year. As a result we have not managed to get out as much as we’d like and there are major differences in what we are managing to find! The lack of jellyfish and sunfish is presumably due to the colder water and less extensive plankton blooms, but on the upside we have seen several Basking Sharks – probably for the same reason- which is a vast improvement on the last two years. Common Dolphins have remained offshore, now in smaller pods, and the less predictable group of Bottlenosed Dolphins have put in welcome performances off the Mount in the eel-grass, hunting cuttlefish. Risso’s Dolphins haven’t done that this May, and Porpoise have only been further west out of the bay. It is tempting to think the latter may be avoiding the Bottlenoses , but choppy weather always makes Porpoises harder to see.
At around 4pm yesterday the Mermaid II cruised into the small bay on the lea-ward side of St Clement’s Island looking to show the 20 or so passengers on the 3pm “Seal Cove” trip the resident Grey Seal bull “Sammy”. I have no idea if they saw him because Adrian and crew were amazed to see a large white bird with a long, pointed, slightly down-curved orange bill, and long white tail-streamers sitting above Sammy’s usual spot. It almost immediately took flight over the island. I would probably have heard no more about it had Adrian and Billy not already kindly sent me down-loaded photos of a Red-billed Tropicbird they claimed to have seen as a wind-up a week ago when I was stuck on the Scillonian III, the same day as a genuine bird had been seen from Porthgwarra! Remembering this however, Adrian immediately recognised this as the real thing, and they steamed around to the eastern side of the island hoping it had landed again. There was some confusion as an orange-billed bird took off and was snapped by one of the passengers, but this was an Oystercatcher, and sadly it seems the initial sighting took everyone by surprise and the Tropicbird was already out over the bay! Readers may well wonder a) what all the fuss is about, and b) how on Earth we can be sure this is the same bird as that seen last week!? The answer is the same – this is an incredibly rare bird in British terms with only 3-4 previous records; Red-billed Tropicbird breeds all around the tropics with the nearest to us in the Cape Verdes or Caribbean. As there have been virtually nothing but north-north-easterly winds since the Porthgwarra sighting it is highly unlikely a second bird has arrived! And how do I know this is a definite second sighting? Because I am sitting writing this in North- blooming – Oxfordshire – that’s why!! Today’s 3pm trip was the first wild-life trip I have not been able to do since the tropicbird sighting a week last Friday, and if readers are wondering what that distant crunching noise is it is the sound of me grinding my teeth down to the gum-line!! Of course- I am really pleased for all the lucky folks on the trip (AM I HELL!!!), and I hope the bird is seen again, as the Mermaid II is probably the best place to start! Here’s hoping!
Disgruntled of Banbury/ Martin Elliott
It may look like we are always making excuses for our pelagics this year, but we really have had no luck at all with conditions except- adding insult to injury- the one trip we had to cancel because of low bookings! The 29th looked like being even worse because the wind was wrong and yet this came after one of the best week’s sea-watching of the year so far locally, so expectations were higher than usual right up to the late night forecast on Friday. Add to this the fact that 3 of our passengers were “coming-down” after the highs of seeing Red-billed Tropicbird and Hump-back Whale from Porthgwarra on the Friday and you will understand why I worried about our trip.
My fears seemed well founded at first; there was a very light south-westerly that dropped to almost nothing, a deceptively big swell still running after the previous high winds, and almost inevitably the 100s of Gannets which had been feeding around the Runnel Stone the day before, along with a few Cory’s Shearwaters (not to mention the Tropicbird and Hump-back!) were nowhere to be seen. We did come across our first Grey Phalarope – a moulting adult- off Tater Dhu which instantly meant this trip could not be as bad as the infamous 8/8, but again we could not get as far west as we hoped due to the swell so our chum “drift” would barely clear Longships.
Despite the wind, we did attract several Storm Petrels at first, but as time wore on the wind died to nothing, the sun came out, and the trickle of Stormies dried up.
However, it was then bought to our attention there was a pod of Pilot whales close by. There followed an anxious and intense journey to catch up with these great mammals. Finally we glimpsed them away to our south-west. Despite the relief, Adrian was almost too cautious in approaching them and I thought they would leave us behind – but we need not have worried! We stopped a couple of hundred metres off the group and then began one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we will probably ever have!
No sooner had we stopped when more than half the pod started to swim straight at us- lead by the females with calves (4-5 in this group). There were about 19 animals and soon all of them were surrounding the Mermaid II within touching distance as the males (about 7m long and with distinctive “elbowed” dorsal fins with deeply down-curved and rounded tips) joined in. They may have been trying to drive the females and calves away from the boat as a couple of times they went under our hull and released huge columns of bubbles. However, the youngsters wouldn’t be put off and they began spy-hopping (to look at us?) and the whole pod seemed to relax. We then had almost an hour where you did not know where to look; the 2nd group of about 10 animals rejoined our pod (the only time there were signs of aggression as a couple of males began tail-slapping, but this was brief), youngsters were spy-hopping, many of the older animals began rolling on their backs waving their long, tapered pectoral fins in the air (conveniently identifying them as Long-finned Pilot Whales – Globicephala melas melas), there were whales constantly rolling and jostling all around the boat, and all this accompanied by what I can only describe as a chorus of comedy farting noises!!!!
I have no idea if these were deliberate “vocalisations”, or just an unfortunate consequence of blowing through partially submerged blow-holes, but as the whales only made the usual puffing noises when producing a blow it is tempting to think these noises were deliberate. There seemed to be two main types; a short, relatively soft “raspberry”, and extremely loud, almost percussive “wet-farts” that sounded like the slapping of a huge cow-pat, apparently given by the males – and the first clue I had that the second group were approaching- like a herd of marine Spike Milligans!
To put this into context I, and especially Adrian are used to seeing dolphins playing around the boat, and we will never tire of it. But this was different! Common Dolphins are more cat-like; they come to the boat to bow-ride, surf the stern-wash or even scratch their backs on the hull, but if we slow or stop they usually drift off, and – if they are feeding- ignore us altogether. The pilot whales were much more laid-back and seemed both interested in and accepting of us. I will regret to my dying day that I didn’t at least reach out and touch one as I doubt I’ll ever have another chance, but it seemed wrong at the time and is probably un-ethical. However, knowing that these whales are the species prone to mass-stranding, and worse are murdered by the Faroese for the sake of tradition, made the encounter all the more special.
It was a real wrench to have to leave the whales behind in the end as we were running late, and I was almost emotional when we did head off as for the first couple of hundred metres a few followed us and rode the wake. But these whales live in extremely tight-knit social groups and they clearly didn’t want to go far. The rest of our pelagic was therefore a bit of an anti-climax, and I have to admit the excitement and media chaos meant I forgot to tally up our sea-bird totals; we saw about a dozen Storm Petrel, 5 Balearic Shearwaters, 6 Grey Phalaropes, a couple of Bonxies, Common Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise etc, but I can’t remember if we saw Sooty Shearwater or Arctic Skua and I don’t think those lucky enough to be on board will mind either! Thanks to them for coming, thanks to Geoff for guiding us whale-wards, and thanks to Adrian for sticking by the pelagics when he could have made more money from mackerel-fishing. This will be the last pelagic of the old format- we will do shorter, early morning/ late evening trips from now on, but what a season’s finale this was!
Sadly high winds mean the Mermaid II is not always able to put to sea! This is doubly unfortunate as these rough conditions produce unique opportunities to see rare or seldom encountered wildlife that normally passes the UK miles off-shore to within sight of the Cornish headlands. Although these species would be fantastic to see from the boat the accompanying high-seas would make for a little excitement!
The next best thing is therefore to watch for these species from land and Mermaid Pleasure Trips are pleased to offer guided sea-watching excursions with our local expert guides. Strong winds at this time of year produce an amazing spectacle of 1000s of sea-birds passing off-shore; among the commoner – but still spectacular – British breeding Manx Shearwaters and Northern Gannets there is the chance to see exotic species from much further afield! These include Balearic Shearwater (IUCN red-list category – critically endangered ) of which a large proportion of the world population visit UK waters from late summer to winter from the western Mediterranean, Cory’s Shearwaters from the Azores and Madeira, and both Sooty and Great Shearwaters which breed in the South Atlantic! There is a good chance that many Arctic breeding species can also be seen such as Skuas, Auks, Terns and even the enigmatic Grey Phalarope and Sabine’s Gull. Sea-watching from headlands is also a good way to find other marine wildlife such as dolphins, seals, Basking Sharks (in years they are present) and Ocean Sunfish.
True- watching from a gale-lashed cliff is not as intimate as watching from a boat at close range, but the sheer numbers of birds involved and the possibility of finding the rarer species, can be really exciting. There are 2 main sites we will visit depending on weather conditions; Porthgwarra/ Gwennap Head if the winds are south to south-west, and Pendeen Watch if the winds veer west to north-west. In extremely strong north-westerlies we may try St Ives, or for those who prefer more comfortable conditions, Mousehole can sometimes be worth a visit in south- south-westerlies.
Participants will need to use their own transport, bring water-proof clothing (essential), at least some form of optical aid (binoculars, and if possible telescope), and something to sit on( sit-mat or folding chair). A fee of £10 per head will last you as long as you wish to stay but timings and sites can only be arranged by contacting Martin on 07875295457 the evening before each session as local weather reports are critically important! Good luck! And good sea-watching!!