Friday, 6 June 2014

Epic trip to France on The Stena Horizon... thaaaar she blows!

New Horizons for Sea Trust.
When Hannah and I first heard that Stena Line had taken over the Celtic Link, Rosslare to Cherbourg route we started making plans to get aboard as soon as possible. This route promised to open up exciting new opportunities to expand our survey horizons. It kind of helps when you know the right people and after ten years of surveys aboard the Stena Europe and now Holyhead - Dublin surveys,  thanks to the kindness and generosity of staff, crews and Stena managers we know the right people! 

And so, on Tuesday, Hannah, Barbara and the Walrus boarded the Stena Europe in Fishguard and sailed over to Rosslare on stage one of the journey The sea state was great to start with and we clocked up several porpoises and some common dolphins before about halfway, when the sea conditions deteriorated. We managed to clock up a couple more porp's as we came into the shelter of the Tusker Rock on the approach into Rosslare but it was clear that the weather was not on our side for the second leg aboard the newly renamed "Stena Horizon" in its smart new Stena Line Livery.

After a meal in the excellent Harbour View Hotel Rosslare,  we boarded the "Stena Horizon".
Philippe, the Guest Services Manager  welcomed us with all the charm and bonhomie one could have hoped for, making us all feel a bit special and showing us to our excellent en-suite cabins, where we stored our baggage before being taken to the Bridge to meet Simon, the Stena Horizon's Master. The welcome aboard the bridge was equally friendly and Simon and the rest of the bridge crew made us feel at ease. It never ceases to amaze me how all the busy Stena employees take an interest in what we are doing and make us feel a part of the crew!
We made arrangements to return at dawn and then headed back to our cabins for some sleep before an early start for the second leg of our survey from Rosslare to Cherbourg..

We were up on the bridge by 6 am where Ian and Valdis were on watch. On our port side we could make out Land s End as we passed out into the busy English Channel .Sadly the weather gods were not with us and we dodged in and out of the heavy channel traffic without any sightings from the increasingly messy sea.

Some of the ocean Giants passing through the messy seas of  the English Channel.

We got into Cherbourg at about 3.30 pm and had a pleasant few hours enjoying lunch and shopping for cheese and wine!

By nine in the evening we were back on the bridge of the Stena Horizon about to leave our berth. With a minimum of fuss, Simon and his crew eased the 30,000 ton ferry out into the sheltered harbour and out towards the gnarly sea, growing under a stormy glowering sky. Our third leg of survey was not looking promising as the big ship bucked and rolled beneath our feet...

Almost 70 years to the day an 18 year old private in the East Lanc's Infantry, Joe Benson, was about to splash his way ashore under a hail of shells and bombs and take his first steps onto French sand. He survived where thousands more did not. He and his comrades fought their across western Europe. We owe them much more than we can know. He was my Dad I wish I had known him better,.

a glowering stormy sky

Fortifications at the entrance to Cherbourg Harbour. 
We were up on the bridge again bright and early and amazingly the sea had died down quite a lot with hardly any breeze and no white capped waves. If not perfect conditions they were not bad and again we were starting the day passing by Lands End.
Long-ships Lighthouse, Lands End 

We sailed along in ever improving survey conditions as the sea died back down and expected to start getting sightings but for four hours it was only seabirds that kept us company. About four hours onward we began seeing a small armada of trawlers and the seabird sightings increased,.
Hannah spotted what she thought was a blow and then got a glimpse of a distant whale. She went to write it down and I went back to try and get some film. Whilst I did so, another came up off our bow giving Hannah her first close up view of a Fin whale (no wonder she sounds so excited!) The next hour seemed to find us in Whale soup with blows all around us, most were distant but we recorded at least twelve animals close enough to ID as Fin Whales!The above is a short taster...

Hannah is having a well deserved weekend off, but will edit all the film next week.
The next few hours produced what looked like a large superpod of Common Dolphins when we were west of the Smalls, but sadly too distant to film or accurately estimate. We then had a couple of Minke's, a Porpoise and calf and just as we approached Rosslare a single tail slapping Risso!

I think the real value of the trip was that it gave a different perspective on the ten years of surveys we have carried out in the southern Irish Sea. It proved  that if the conditions are not favourable you are wasting your time trying to survey, even on a platform as high and stable as a 30,000 ton super ferry.
Complex computations that are used to try and assess the amount of animals you might have seen, aka SCANS can only be regarded as unreliable.

Secondly, the route between Fishguard and Rosslare is extremely productive in terms of sightings per hour. In several hundred surveys of the Fishguard-Rosslare route in the kind of favourable conditions we experienced from 0600 to 1030 am on the third leg of our survey, between Lands End and Rosslare, we would have averaged something between 12 to 25 sightings depending on the time of the year. The three surveyors are extremely experienced and although we may have missed some animals, that would hold true on all our surveys. The fact is we saw very little (zilch) because there was very little there! It confirmed results of a survey I undertook some year ago on the Cartlett Lady on passage between Milford Haven and Plymouth.

Given that we know the Fin Whales are found of the south coast of Ireland in the winter months and that we have encountered them further north of where we saw them yesterday in August in recent years, the fact that they were not more than forty or so miles south of where we saw them in August may point to a resident population in the Celtic Sea....