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A Report from

Wildlife observations from the Plymouth to Santander Ferry, August 1997,

James Gilroy

(This report appears with the kind permission of Bren McCartney of the Berkshire Birds Web Page.)

The following is a report of my sightings from 2 journeys on the ferry, outward on the 18th August, and the return journey on the 26th.

Outward Bound

The outward journey left Plymouth harbour at around 9.30am on a calm, mild morning with relatively little cloud cover. Most of the daylight on this journey was spent crossing the English Channel and passing the Brest Peninsula of France, crossing the bulk of the Bay of Biscay, generally the most interesting area, during the hours of darkness. Consequently we didn't get the best of the birds or cetaceans, which are mainly to be found in the deep water (below 1000m) in the central Bay of Biscay. We found the English Channel to be rather quiet for birds, and after around 4 hours of watching had only recorded around 34 Gannets, 2 Fulmars, 3 Lesser black-backed Gulls, 1 Bonxie and several Kittiwakes. We then passed into dense sea-fog as we approached the Brest peninsula of France, which seriously limited visibility, and prevented and observations for a couple of hours. We returned to watching at around 4pm, and found that there were still few birds visible. The rest of the afternoon and early evening were spent passing fairly close to France, before finally entering the northern Bay of Biscay. From around 6 o'clock we began to see a few more birds, particularly Gannets in occasional feeding groups. It was amongst one such group that we recorded the first dolphins - a small group of Striped dolphins at around 6.30. These were followed by one Bottle-nosed Dolphin, a further group of 3 Striped Dolphins and a briefly sighted small whale, thought to be a Minkie. Other notable sightings were around 20 Arctic terns, 1 distant gull that was almost certainly Sabine's, 1 Grey Phalarope and 1 Cory's Shearwater. We estimated that we would have reached the deep water of Biscay at around an hour after nightfall, and would have passed out of it by around an hour before sunrise, so we had just missed what was probably the most productive area, and hence had not seen quite as much as we had hoped.

The morning gave us about an hour of viewing time before our arrival in Spain, during which time we had good views of three Cory's Shearwaters which flew alongside the boat for some way, at one point being joined by a Mediterranean Shearwater. We also saw a group of three White-beaked Dolphins quite close to the side, one of which decide to show off by leaping into the air as we passed it. The only other interesting sighting was of two probable, but distant, Gull billed Terns on the approach to Santander Harbour. We both enjoyed the crossing, which lasted just under 24 hours, but we still felt that we had not seen the best of Biscay.

Inward Bound

The return journey promised more than the outward, as we were leaving Santander at 11.00am, meaning we would be crossing the whole of the Bay of Biscay during daylight. The conditions also seemed more favourable, as there was a slightly stronger northerly breeze blowing, and the previous day had seen a serious storm sweep across the bay. We hoped that the wind would improve our chances of seeing a few shearwaters on the crossing. After leaving the harbour we soon began to see Gannets, obviously brought close inshore by the storm, with at least 25 around the boat as we left sight of land behind. At around 11.45 we startled a raft of shearwaters which proceeded to fly across the bow. Expecting them to be Cory's, we were surprised to see that the nearest was in fact a Great Shearwater, and on closer inspection we found them all to be Greats, a flock of around 15.

We quickly crossed to the other side of the ferry in the hope that they might come alongside, and no sooner had we started to scan than I saw a huge spout go up about 200 metres off the boat. It was followed by the enormous, dark green back of an adult Fin Whale, probably around 20 meters in length! It was closely followed by two more, which surfaced and spouted several times before we passed them. They were a truly awesome sight, their spouts shooting high into the air, remaining visible at a great distance. This excitement was followed by a short lull, with only a few arctic terns and a Bonxie recorded. More interesting was the passerine which circled the boat at around 1 o'clock before landing out of sight in one of the lifeboats held on the top deck. It remained there for around 20 minutes before flying to the rear of the boat. We located it poking around under the deck chairs of the sun bathers, where it revealed itself to be a Reed warbler. Needless to say it was a bizarre sight as it flitted between the passengers' feet in a vain search for insects. This was followed by two Cory's Shearwaters which passed at around 2.00pm, and then, at 2.35, two more whales, this time a little smaller and more distant. They were still very large with high, clearly visible spouts, but were dark greyish in colouration, and we decided that these were probably Sei Whales.

At 2.55 another passenger came on board - this time a Hummingbird Hawkmoth, which fluttered around the top deck for most of the rest of the journey. At 3.00 I was treated to the awesome sight of a large Sei Whale which surfaced no more than 30 metres away alongside the boat, before slipping into the wake and diving. A walk around the top deck at around 3.30 was again productive, with a Willow Warbler and a first winter Whitethroat alongside the Reed Warbler in the lifeboats. These birds were obviously very tired and were quite approachable, often flitting amongst the sun-bathers on the deck. We decided to move up to the top deck as this afforded a better view for spotting whales. We were quickly rewarded with another Fin Whale spouting in the distance. Another Great Shearwater passed at 3.50, followed by 3 more large whales, probably Fin, and a run of tuna, with many of these large fish leaping clean out of the water. A 2nd summer Mediterranean Gull passed at around 4.00, followed by another Great Shearwater. Shortly afterwards I noticed a smaller bird coming across the bow and flying alongside. At first I thought it was an Auk, but soon it's rapid fluttering flight broke into a low, stiff-winged glide as it banked around, showing white flashes across the secondaries on the upperwing, instantly setting alarm bells ringing in my mind. It came past right next to the side, flying quickly in the opposite direction to the boat, and as it banked I saw it's clean white underparts, very narrow black edge to the underwing, and a very white face, with tiny black bill and it's eye completely isolated from the black cap. It flew quickly away from me, heading into the harsh light against the sun, but the close view I had left me in no doubt that it was a Little Shearwater - only my second ever and undoubtedly the best bird of the trip.

This sighting was followed by another two large whales spouting in the distance, before another passerine - this time a Robin - alighted on the deck. Another large whale, probably a Fin, spouted distantly at around 4.30, along with another two Great Shearwaters. These two were a precursor of an awesome feeding group of at least 60 Great Shearwaters, which approached and soon surrounded us, passing right below us by the side of the boat. We were thrown into a kind of chaos as the birds seemed to fill the sea around us, and it became difficult to know where to look. We managed to pick up two Sooty Shearwaters amongst them, along with a Black Tern and another distant whale. The flock stayed with us for about five minutes, and even after we had left them behind it seemed always possible to see Great Shearwaters around the boat. With the arrival of these birds I decided to move back down to the lower deck where I was treated to superb views of the steady trickle of Greats as they passed across the bow.

About ten minutes after leaving the first group we hit a second, even larger flock, this time of at least 100 Greats, along with several Gannets. The sight of the shearwaters so close to the boat and in such good light was quite breathtaking. The numbers were too great to count, and it was difficult to get an accurate idea of what was passing as there was so much activity. Another 2 large whales, this time probably Sei, came past, along with 6 dolphins. Watching from the top deck we had another Sooty Shearwater, followed by another group of around 25 Great Shearwaters and a single Manx Shearwater, as well as a distant bird which was probably a Fulmar (although it did hint just a little at Soft-plumaged Petrel). Another Willow warbler came aboard, followed by a large, very yellow warbler that may have been a Melodious, but was not seen settled.

This was followed by possibly the most unusual bird of the trip. What appeared to be a medium-sized passerine circled in, making several passes but each time moving off just before landing and circling back out to sea. It showed a strongly graduated tail and was otherwise plain dark grey to buff on the underside and dark russet brown above. The bird finally circled in to land, but made an unfortunate choice of perch - it settled on the head of a sleeping sun-bather, before quickly moving to the side rail. It was clearly unsettled by it's experience - as was the passenger - and took off again, this time settling momentarily on the sea before quickly flying off to the south. The extraordinary bird in question was a Nightingale, hardly what I expected to see in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. Even more interestingly, the bird also suggested several characters of Thrush Nightingale. It seemed very dark throughout, particularly the underparts, and from the close fight views it seemed to show sparce streaking on the breast, and had a particularly russet brown cap and face. Furthermore, when it settled on the rail it showed a uniformly dark russet brown mantle, rump and tail, unlike the clearly reddish tail and rump and contrastingly buff mantle of the Nightingale. It's bill seemed deep, short and stubby, very thrush-like. Unfortunately it was facing away from me throughout it's time settled, so I was not able to see the breast markings or malar stripe that would have clinched the identification. It is extremely unlikely that a Thrush Nightingale would be seen in the Bay of Biscay, and so it is far more likely that this bird was just a particularly dark, well worn adult Nightingale. Even so, it was an extraordinary sighting.

It was at around 7.00 that we discovered another area where it was possible to watch from the front of the ferry - a small observation area very low down over the bow. We decided to spend the evening here in the hope of seeing some Storm Petrels, notable omissions from our list so far, as they are difficult to see from high up on the deck. This position also gave us excellent views of the Great Shearwaters that were still passing across the bow. I decided that the best chance of seeing a Storm Petrel was to constantly scan across the bow through binoculars. I watched a point about 20 metres out from the bow, scanning back and forth along that line, and within five minutes I had found a British Storm Petrel, flying quickly across the bow, giving an excellent close view. We used this method for the last hour of daylight, and saw another 6 British Storm Petrels, as well as excellent views of another 34 Great Shearwaters, 5 Common Dolphins and 1 Pilot whale. We finally finished at around 8.30, after undoubtedly one of our most memorable days in European birding.

By dawn we were back in the English Channel, a couple of hours outside Plymouth. We decided to go back to the bow and see if we could add anymore petrels to the tally. The same method as before produced another 19 British Storm Petrels, most giving excellent views across the bow. I think that had I known about this viewing place, and had been using this method of watching whilst we were passing through the groups of Great Shearwaters, we would have stood a good chance of seeing Wilson's Storm Petrel (or even Madieran, which have been recorded on this crossing). When we finally arrived in Plymouth, our final tally for both crossings stood at 250+ Great Shearwaters, 3 Sooty Shearwaters, 5 Cory's Shearwaters, 1 Little Shearwater, 1 Mediterranean Shearwater, 26 British Storm Petrels, 3 Bonxies, 1 Med. Gull, 2 Black terns, 1 Grey Phalarope, and over 30 cetacean sightings, including around 20 large whales.

Although the outward crossing did not really live up to our expectations, and the birding was often hard work, the return journey far surpassed our greatest hopes, with near constant interest and some truly spectacular and memorable sights. I thoroughly recommend the crossing to anyone who is interested in seabirds or cetaceans. If our observations are anything to go by, any crossing that goes through central Biscay during daylight at this time of year could be very exciting indeed, and could rival any pelagic trip in Northern European waters for excitement and quality species.

P.S. If you have any comments, or have any details of other good pelagic trips anywhere in the world, I would be glad to hear from you. E-mail me at


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