Friday, 26 September 2014

What A Load of Rubbish!

With sharp eyed observers present on multiple decks, scanning the vast expanses of open ocean from the R.V. Celtic Explorer for whales, dolphins, seabirds etc., it's no wonder that we also encounter other marine 'inhabitants' from time to time and unfortunately those which originate from a human source.

Since 2012, the seabird team conducting surveys during the Cetaceans on the Frontier research trips, Blue Whiting Acoustic Survey (Mar-Apr) and Celtic Sea Herring Acoustic Survey (Oct) has recorded the presence of any marine litter observed, taking notes on size, material, colour and branding plus photographing examples as much as possible. 

Plastic bottles, rubber gloves, wooden pallets and plastic bags seem to be the most frequently observed 'macro litter' so far and some interesting results are starting to crop up with regards which sectors of the Irish offshore territory exhibit higher densities of surface litter.

Why is it important to survey for marine litter? The direct effects of marine litter, particularly plastics, is well documented as having lethal consequences for species which mistake them for food. In seabirds such as fulmar, up to 95% of those examined in the North Sea alone contained an average of 35 pieces of ingested plastic in their stomach. Leatherback turtles are also prone to ingesting plastic bags which they mistake for jellyfish (their prey), ending up in their gastrointestinal tract, resulting in death. Even the largest of marine predators are not immune to the dangers of litter. In 2013, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Southern Spain which contained 17kg of plastic sheeting in its stomach associated with greenhouses for vegetable growing.

Jellyfish?... nope, a plastic bag (c) Jason McGuirk

Data on the presence of surface litter in the Irish offshore territory will continue to be collected during future seabird surveys on board the R.V. Celtic Explorer and analysed to assess temporal and spatial variation in density and distribution.

I'm not lovin' it (c) Niall Keogh

Monday, 22 September 2014

COTF6 Day 6: It Ain't Over Until The Fat Turtle Sings

As we make our way into Galway Bay to dock tonight, it's time to look back on yet another superb days surveying on board the R.V. Celtic Explorer in the waters off West Ireland.

It was both a busy night and day for the acoustic monitoring teams with the hydrophone picking up plenty of common dolphin whistles as well as some lively vocalisations from long-finned pilot whales

Common Dolphin clicks and whistles (c) Enda McKeogh

Our starting point over the Hovland Mound SAC at the North end of the Porcupine Seabight remained quiet enough for the first hour or so before large numbers of common dolphins with several calves started making their way towards the bow. During all this commotion, a separate group of 30 or so very active dolphins some distance ahead of the ship caught our attention. With behaviour and a breaching style suggestive of striped dolphin we decided to break track and investigate. A mixed group of both common dolphins and at least three striped dolphins then appeared on our port bow, showing incredibly well, allowing for some excellent photo opportunities (closer examination of which reveals 'foetal folds' also known as 'birth rings' on one of the striped dolphins, indicating its young age). It was a real treat to get such good views of this infrequently encountered species in Irish waters after our brief run in with them earlier in the week.

Striped Dolphin. Just look at how it bursts out of the water! (c) Jason McGuirk

Striped Dolphins. Note the prominent, slightly bulging and steep forehead (c) Rossa Meade

Striped Dolphins. Always acrobatic! (c) William Hunt

Common Dolphin (c) Roisin Pinfield

Later in the afternoon, a large sized and active group of common dolphins had with it an entourage of milling seabirds, namely sooty shearwaters, gannets, European storm-petrels and a circling pomarine skua. All indications of a mixed species feeding association on the go, the birds perhaps availing of fish pushed to the surface by the dolphins? Whilst scanning through the flocks of seabirds, that unmistakable shape of a leatherback turtle, complete with its ridged carapace and prehistoric looking head, came looming out of the water among them not more than 100 metres from the ship. A stunning view of an ancient and gnarly animal. Magic!

Leatherback Turtle (c) Hannah Keogh

Aside from the aforementioned leatherback turtle, more marine ‘megafauna’ was recorded again today such as a large ocean sunfish with lesser black-backed gulls in attendance (perhaps picking parasites off it?) and half a dozen or so albacore tuna breaching close to the ship.

Ocean Sunfish (c) Jason McGuirk

Seabirds were generally low in number yet again but the patch of feeding activity associated with the common dolphins and leatherback turtle in the afternoon certainly bumped up some figures. A Wilson’s storm-petrel showed well first thing this morning as it passed by close to our port side. A total of four very fine adult pomarine skuas complete with ‘spoons’ (i.e. their uniquely shaped tail streamers) flew right over the observation deck. New species added to the trip list today included a puffin, a black-headed gull and numerous great black-backed gulls. Other tallies in the form of a great shearwater, 20 sooty shearwaters, 19 Manx shearwaters, 58 European storm-petrels and 7 great skuas were noteworthy. 

Pomarine Skua (c) Jason McGuirk

Marine litter surveys continue (c) Jason McGuirk

In the final minutes of survey time for the seabird team, a totally unexpected migrant songbird landed on the railings just 1 metre beside the observers... a nightingale! The bird took flight and made its way out to sea before coming back and landing in the rescue boat on the deck! It then flitted about from here to there for about 10 minutes or so, not looking very settled at all, before flying back out to sea, never to be seen again. This all occurred some 40 nautical miles West of Loop Head, Co. Clare. Nightingales are a very rare passage migrant to Ireland with just 30 or so documented records to date. An amazing send off at the end of the trip! Additional new migrant birds on the R.V. Celtic Explorer included a merlin, a blackcap and a lone swallow which was seen circling the crow’s nest.

Nightingale on the R.V. Celtic Explorer (c) Rossa Meade

Nightingale in flight (c) Rossa Meade

Nightingale in flight (c) Rossa Meade

Nightingale in flight (c) William Hunt

Merlin on the R.V. Celtic Explorer (c) William Hunt

News of our killer whale sighting from a few days ago seems to have been a popular story with the media, receiving coverage in the national papers, radio and TV. Here's an article on the subject on for those interested.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

COTF6 Day 5: Sunny Sightings

A perfect start to the day over the Eastern Porcupine Seabight, West of Co. Kerry (…up The Kingdom!). With a horizon clear as far as the eye could see, sun shining, cloud at a minimum, sea state of 2 and not much in the way of swell, you couldn’t ask for a better day to be out in the Atlantic in September!

Sunrise (c) Enda McKeogh

Common dolphins were as ubiquitous as they have been for the past few days, but with the sea conditions as calm as they were we could now see small groups splashing about much further towards the horizon and in a wide arc across our viewshed ahead of the ship. These progressively made their way towards the R.V. Celtic Explorer, leaping out of the water with great determination, often landing back down on their sides with a mighty splash. On closer inspection, several of the smaller, discrete groups contained calves, one of which was particularly small and provided great entertainment as it rocketed its way out of the water and towards the bow.

Common Dolphin calf (c) Enda McKeogh

Common Dolphins (c) Rossa Meade

It was a great day for long-finned pilot whale sightings, with a group of about 10 or so in our wake at first light followed up by another group of 10 later on with a small calf, which came in for a good close look at us allowing for excellent photo opportunities. A fairly abundant species with a widespread distribution in the Irish offshore territory but tied to deep water habitats and rarely seen from land so always great to encounter and see well. A firm favourite with many on board.

Long-finned Pilot Whales (c) Joanne O'Brien

Some confusingly short, bushy blows from a baleen whale which refused to show well on several occasions this afternoon had our attention focused for quite some time as it moved ahead of us on our survey transects. After much searching it eventually made a pass of the bow, surfacing on three occasions at a range of about 100m… a truly stunning view of a small, juvenile fin whale! The full suite of ID features were on offer including the white right hand side of the lower jaw, prominent ‘splashguard’ around the blowhole and whispy, grey ‘chevrons’ along the back. The small size of this animal would account for the confusing blows we saw beforehand.

Fin Whale surfacing sequence (c) Roisin Pinfield

During this time, the Irish Air Corp Maritime Squadron Casa 253 joined by Patrick Lyne and Lucy Hunt of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group were making their approach towards the R.V. Celtic Explorer for a flyby during a routine assessment of fisheries operations in the Porcupine Seabight area. The Irish Air Corps have provided IWDG surveyors a fantastic opportunity over the years for offshore surveying by facilitating them when possible on these trips where they target recording larger species such as baleen whales and sperm whales.

Irish Air Corps Casa 253 seen from R.V. Celtic Explorer (c) Roisin Pinfield

R.V. Celtic Explorer seen from Casa 253 (c) Lucy Hunt

The juvenile fin whale had now made its way towards a second, larger individual so a decision was made to launch the IWDG RIB ‘Muc Mhara’ in order attempt a biopsy sample for genetic and stable isotope analysis. Simon and Joanne set off in the RIB accompanied by two crew members but the whales proved too quick for a safe biopsy to be taken. The sortie in the RIB did allow for some excellent photo opportunities of the R.V. Celtic Explorer from a sea level angle!

IWDG RIB Muc Mhara (c) Jason McGuirk

R.V. Celtic Explorer as seen from IWDG RIB Muc Mhara (c) Joanne O'Brien

Other marine ‘megafauna’ got a good shout in today also with a distant sighting of what was most likely a breaching bluefin tuna, fantastic views of a multiple breaching ocean sunfish and one of the undoubted highlights of the week, a leatherback turtle which was picked up just under the water’s surface as we approached it, passing along the side of the ship at no more than 30m, followed by two superb views of it surfacing, head and ridged carapace (shell) right out the water! Leatherback turtles regularly occur in Irish waters with a widespread distribution right across the Atlantic frontier and even up into the Irish Sea. Views as good as the one we had today are hard to come by however as they often only spend brief periods at the surface so finding them in the first place is hardly an exact science.

Leatherback Turtle (c) William Hunt

Leatherback Turtle (c) William Hunt

The seabird team had barely got started with their morning’s census (some 50 nautical miles West-Southwest of the Skellig islands) when a pair of shearwaters rose up ahead of the R.V. Celtic Explorer, one a Manx shearwater, the other a much smaller and rarer Barolo shearwater! The two birds continued ahead of the ship, moving away in a Northerly direction, heading off to our port side, allowing for a perfect comparison of both plumage features and flight style between these two somewhat similar looking species (at least according to the field guides, seeing them together in ‘the field’ however is a different story… like chalk and cheese!). Barolo shearwaters breed across the Macaronesian archipelago, specifically the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries. They are a rare, infrequently recorded species in Irish waters, most often from West coast headlands in late Summer or Autumn, with just 22 records documented up to the end of 2012 (per the Irish Rare Bird Committee reports). A most unexpected and welcome sighting, certainly one of the many avian highlights of the week.

New bird species added to the trip list today included a couple of grey phalaropes, a handful of guillemots and a migrant swift flying around the ship. Seabird numbers were generally low throughout the day, a few diving gannets and milling fulmars indicating some feeding opportunities were on the cards in this area. Two great shearwaters, 10 sooty shearwaters, 9 European storm-petrels and 9 great skuas were the best of the rest. One of the two kestrels which came aboard last night was seen again this morning, leaving the ship and heading off on its merry way. A few new meadow pipits joined us over night also, one of which ended up inside the bridge and took its place in the captain’s chair while everyone was off watching the match. Good to know somebody was steering us in the right direction!

Captain M. Pipit (c) Niall Keogh

Captain M. Pipit (c) Jason McGuirk

Tonight we will zig-zag North West along the Eastern Porcupine Seabight and cross North East over the Hovland Mound SAC once more in the morning while we make our way back towards Galway. The lads on the night time acoustic monitoring shift will continue in their endeavour to decipher what whale and dolphin calls they hear coming out of the depths. Enda reports that after some analysis, a series of clicks they picked up last night almost certainly came from a species of beaked whale, a group of enigmatic, poorly understood and rarely seen cetaceans which we know occur with some frequency in the Irish offshore territory but to date have given us the slip on many occasions, often showing only briefly when they do. Tantalising stuff, but it certainly keeps us motivated!

Sunny surveyors (c) Niall Keogh

Saturday, 20 September 2014

COTF6 Day 4: Eastern Porcupine Seabight

The Belgica Mound SAC on the Eastern slopes of the Porcupine Seabight was our destination first thing this morning where the third and final batch of Static Acoustic Monitoring (SAM) devices were retrieved. From there we zig-zagged our way South over the shelf slope in a series of transects, covering as much of an area over this productive zone for cetaceans and seabirds as possible.

It was a busy day for the cetacean team with a steady stream of sightings keeping eyes sharp and walkie-talkies in constant use. We added a new species to the trip list today in the form of seven long-finned pilot whales, a specialist of shelf edge and deep water areas in the Irish offshore territory. Numerous distant blows were left as unidentified but at least six others were confirmed as fin whales, including one small individual which surfaced extremely close to the ship! Common dolphins were once again very numerous throughout the day with groups of up to 80 animals counted, one of which contained a aberrant, melanistic individual.

The small Fin Whale (c) Rossa Meade

A 'regular' sized (i.e. big!) Fin Whale (c) Roisin Pinfield

Long-finned Pilot Whale just off the bow! (c) Jason McGuirk

Jason getting some pics of the Long-finned Pilot Whales (c) Roisin Pinfield

Adult and calf Common Dolphins (c) Hannah Keogh

Melanistic Common Dolphin (top animal) (c) Jason McGuirk

Melanistic Common Dolphin (c) Jason McGuirk

Seabird passage was more continuous in comparison with recent days, an average of one bird per minute or so. Young gannets were the order of the day with this year’s juveniles and one year old birds far outnumbering adults and older immatures. Another Wilson’s storm-petrel was seen and photographed by Roisin, a juvenile Long-tailed Skua was new for the trip list as were two Arctic terns and other highlights included a dark morph pomarine skua, 17 great skuas, 11 great shearwaters, 28 sooty shearwaters and 23 European storm-petrels.

Juvenile Gannet (c) Rossa Meade

First-year Gannet (c) Roisin Pinfield

First-year Gannet with rope/line stuck its bill (c) Jason McGuirk

Juvenile Long-tailed Skua (c) Jason McGuirk

Wilson's Storm-petrel (c) Roisin Pinfield

A few new migrating birds landed on board the R.V. Celtic Explorer today, a reed warbler and two kestrels! The reed warbler was seen flitting about the deck outside the dry lab whilst the two kestrels spent much of the afternoon and evening flying around the crow’s nest and frequently landing on the railings or beams to take a break. These birds are perhaps Scandinavian in origin and most likely were heading South West to spend the winter in Ireland or the UK, overshooting the mark and ending up too far out! The ship is providing a place to rest in the meantime so hopefully they stay with us until we reach shore in a few days. A red admiral butterfly also came aboard today so Autumn migration for birds and insects is most certainly in full swing.

Kestrel (c) Roisin Pinfield

Kestrel (c) Roisin Pinfield

Kestrel (c) Rossa Meade

Red Admiral (c) Jason McGuirk

Tomorrow we will continue to zig-zag in transects along the shelf slope North of the Belgica Mound SAC.