It all began with a rendezvous in the wee small hours with David Williams (one of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s observers) in Belfast. The drive to Cobh passed quickly; Ireland’s new road system has shrunk the country. At anchor and shrouded in misty rain, the Celtic Explorer’s green livery shone like fresh green leaves. The cabin I was allocated to share with Dermot Breen would not have been out of place in the upmarket end of a Holiday Inn. Lots of plug sockets and storage space blew away worries about cramped conditions on the high seas and a forced return to pen and paper to record the days ahead. The afternoon and evening were spent in briefings and a growing expectation of seabirds at dawn in a world whose dry land bonds will be slipped tonight.
Along with Dermot, Maggie Hall and David Tierney, I was on board to enumerate all bird encounters over the forthcoming twelve days. A dozen more naturalists have other tasks. However, the peg upon which the voyage hangs is, in the words of Dave Wall, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group luminary and cruise Chief Scientist: “To conduct a habitat-specific survey of deep-diving cetaceans, particularly the little known beaked whales. These whales, of which five species have been recorded in Ireland (Sowerby’s, Gervais, True’s, Cuvier’s and Northern Bottle-nose Whale) favour deep waters (in excess of 1000 metres) with complex bathymetry. Little is known of their distribution or biology, and all are listed as ‘data deficient’. Focus will be on deepwater canyons, which slice the slopes of the Porcupine Bank west of Ireland.” It came as a shock to learn that cetaceans were susceptible to displacement by underwater sounds generated by humankind’s economic rumblings and military mischief. For example, by detonating explosions that send shockwaves revealing ‘drillable’ oil-bearing sediments northwest of Ireland (in Rockall’s neck of the woods). The sounds may well disorientate – or frighten away – beaked whales from canyon homes. Sperm Whales, common in the same vast Inner Space, could also be at risk – for a different reason. They hunt Giant Squid but return to the surface and refuel slowly by lengthy deep breathing, which stokes up tissues with oxygen. Then they submerge and head for the depths for up to 90 minutes. Alien acoustic bangs and other sonic interference reverberate over many miles (and leagues) and can cause dives to be aborted. Besides the racket of economic exploitation, there are the smoke-and-daggers shenanigans of the military. Prima facie evidence links naval exercises at sea with the discovery of ‘Cetacean Free Zones’ once the Doctor Strangeloves of this planet have finished playing war games. The voyage, therefore, had a serious purpose.
Day 1: Wednesday 19 August
Gone is the stationary sedateness of sitting in port. The quiet rumble of resting leviathan engines stirred into life and gradually the underlying heave of the North Atlantic asserted itself. Lying in bed with plenty of thinking time started to raise questions about surviving mal de mer. Dawn will tell. First light revealed total grey. Sea and sky almost merged. No white wave tops despite a ruffled ocean. After the expected ignition sequence – Fulmar, Gannet, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull – the first binocular scan locked onto a shearwater. It was a Great! Storm Petrels were scurrying past (all going in the same direction, whatever that was) and then a Bonxie and Manx Shearwaters
were added to the tally. I assumed that we were southwest of Cork. Wrong. I glanced across to the other side of the ship and spotted the familiar silhouettes of Dursey Island and the outlying islands of the Bull and the Calf. In reality we were less than ten miles offshore and not yet over the horizon. Time for indoctrination into the survey’s techniques. Basically, shout out everything to a scribe and categorize each species under number, distance, direction of travel and activity. Only after a bird was tracked visually could binoculars be used to ascertain identity. Hence, Storm Petrels tended to be under-recorded on the data sheets, despite the species being common. Furthermore, only those species seen ‘in quadrant’ were logged: counts were limited to a 90 degrees sweep ‘ahead and starboard’ or ‘ahead and port’. Never mind. I’m no scientist.
The scale of a large vessel chugging along and not pausing to deploy chum meant that attempting to sift through Storm Petrels and check for Wilson’s became a difficult task. The birds were not close. Dermot and I had suspicions about one or two out of 300 Stormies seen in the course of the day. As the morning worn on a cocktail of inclement weather put a dampener on earlier good vibrations. The wind picked up, rain was more on than off, and white tops spread like measles over an increasingly lumpy sea. The promise of a bright afternoon was extinguished. Just as a sense of fatigue was setting in, I spotted a large shape in the water. I didn’t think it could be a cetacean and ran to the rail, shouting simultaneously. I looked down to see a bed-sized Leatherback Turtle looking back at me. Wowser! Human sails refilled instantly. Then, just as we were headed for the continental shelf, a girl from IWDG fell and wrenched her ankle. Poor thing. The skipper decided to get her ashore. We turned around and headed for Dingle Bay. The remainder of the day was spent re-crossing inshore waters. Back came the large flocks of Manx Shearwaters, rafts of Guillemots and little clusters of Storm Petrels. Squads of Common Dolphins raced to accompany the ship and despite rain-soaked binoculars it was a delight to slice through teeming rafts of intermixed dolphins and birds. A Blue Fulmar swimming
alongside a typical Fulmar was followed by a late evening Cory’s Shearwater. Quality at the end of a long day. It laboured into flight about seven miles west of the Tearaght, Kerry, and slid away south – out of the path of an incoming westerly gale.
Day 2: Thursday 20 August
A malaise set in at bedtime. I took a Stugeron tablet and hit the pillow before ten o’clock. Although I had a long and deep sleep the new morning was likely to usher in seriously rough weather. I woke about 0700hrs and lay in bed wondering when I should get up and how. Should I lever myself slowly, Lazarus style, and remain still for a while? Maybe that would accustom my balance to the endless roll? Best not to ricochet around in case I succumb to real seasickness. Neither Dermot nor I stirred until sometime after 0800hrs. By then chinks of sun formed a halo peeping around the heavy flange clamped like an iron curtain over the porthole.
Dermot creaked it out of the way. Full daylight revealed Great Shearwaters just yards from our bunks! Pandemonium ensued. He pulled on trousers, jacket and binoculars and was gone. My mentally rehearsed manoeuvres were abandoned. A minute later I was on deck – feeling fine – and gawking at a flying carpet of 50 or more Great Shearwaters cruising, circling and cavorting in a playful game of round-and-round the boat. A few Sooty Shearwaters and Bonxies were in the throng but not much else. The sea shone blue in the sunlight and the birds sparkled like diamonds. Breakfast was forgotten. News came through that today’s survey was cancelled due to high winds in excess of Force 5. None of this bothered the birds – or me. It became obvious that Great Shearwaters were slipstreaming the boat on an ad hoc basis. Occasionally a splinter group settled on the sea. Then more arrived. Maybe they were the same birds back again? Who knows. [In fact, watching Great Shearwaters on subsequent days, the same birds really do take ‘time outs’ and then fly back along the wake to rejoin the boat. This is made considerably easier for them since we steam along at a snail’s pace due to towing hydrophones. The speed is no more than eight knots, often less.] They were amazing to watch. Two were in moult; the first time I have seen ratty specimens on this side of the North Atlantic. I loved the way many dropped one foot to keep themselves up off the surface while skimming to within touching distance of it. Motorbike racers do much the same thing when they lean into bends at gravity-defying inclinations. Another trick was to trail, momentarily a wing tip in the water, ‘downhill skier’ style.
Again, this seemed to be an action designed to administer a slight steerage correction. Tail raising and splaying both feet astern to create drag, were other feats employed to adjust rate and direction of travel. Colours across the wings’ curved upper surface switched from pale to dark with the tilt of the bird. Depending on how the sunshine struck, the secondaries could, one moment, shine like silver – and then be plunged into darkness. Furthermore, secondaries on one wing were capable of turning frosty while those on the other remained dark. Precisely the same ‘asymmetric light trick’ plays across Sooty Shearwater wings. The rising and falling of the flock was endless silent choreography. Mesmerizing to watch. And so the day went on. Giant waves and Great Shearwaters. The ocean was up and roiling. Occasionally huge walls of sea reared up and gleamed black as obsidian before calving into white spray, making smithereens of themselves and sending up clouds of spume that hung in the air like wreaths of smoke over a battlefield. Then, at around 1730hrs, I rolled a six. I latched onto a smaller, faster-moving shape just beyond some wheeling Great Shearwaters. Eyes went to binoculars and image went to brain. The answer came instantly. Luckily it was something I knew and zero time was lost. The bird hung there like Polaris, the brightest star in a firmament of ocean. It was a Fea’s Petrel. Seabirds don’t come any better than this. A lifer for Dermot. Several of us saw it. Like the Great Shearwaters, it had its wings locked in a good-to-go aerofoil setting and zipped along well clear of cavernous troughs. It was clearly smaller than the rest of the cast. Having been blessed on four previous occasions I am no longer blinded by adrenaline when I see the species and took time to take it all in. The combination of a tubby cigar body on boomerang-shaped wings is so characteristic. The wings’ outline is smooth (as though planed) so a soft angle at the carpal is as aerodynamic as a bent fin. The wing tip is a blunt point, streamlining the bird into a suit of plumage fit to cut through the air as effortlessly as a scythe. Fea’s Petrel is a boy racer among gliding seabirds. The dark underwings against a white belly and little white ‘leading light’ armpits were obvious eye-catchers. So too the dark outer wings, ‘zoned’ grey inner wings and back, and a lighter grey tail – like a Fulmar’s. The bird was planing in an arc that took it around the front of the vessel. Dermot and I were forced to abandon good shelter and dash to the opposite side and pray that we could pick it up in mountainous Roaring Forties seas bathed in silver light. We did, and still in colour since it remained ahead of the ship, alas steadily vanishing into thin air – still sweeping, still soaring, still suggesting that flying into a 35mph headwind was a cakewalk. Yeah baby!
Life tasted very sweet at around 1800hrs, fuelled by food smells that wafted up from the galley on the deck below. We went down for dinner. High spirits were enhanced further when Dermot spotted a small petrel hunkering down low among the waves. Thanks to our height above the sea it didn’t take long to upgrade Dermot’s suspicion that this was no ordinary Stormie. He was right. Wilson’s at last! In the wind, the bird was attempting to hold itself firmly. The wings were held in a ‘raked-back yet cupped-in’ plane: so no wings aloft, ‘big bat’ silhouette. Nor any classic puppet-on-a-chain walking on water. Actually, the bird looked quite long – probably due its chopstick legs accentuating the tail appendage. Under the circumstances we saw it well, although the frosty upperwing panel was not that easy to see in a half gale. After dinner we were back. The swirl of shearwaters was still there. As I staggered through doors and onto the open deck (staggering through doors is de rigueur in today’s weather) I saw an adult Sabine’s hanging over the wake.
I met Dermot and we nailed the Sabine’s again; Maggie was also able to add it to her life list. Next came a snatched view that seemed destined for anything but a conclusion. Dermot mentioned that he had seen a small shorebird – Dunlin, probably – flying over the sea. Minutes later, there it was. Its little wings were beating so fast that sometimes they seemed a-quiver. Nonetheless, it was zooming around and, although hard to follow, it occasionally came close. As it swept around the wake it pushed closer to where we were, high on the sides of the bow. First it came up the port side, then swung back, then tried to make headway along the starboard side. Bit-by-bit, its features could be checked. It had a short bill, neat breast band ‘high’ across the chest, immaculate white underparts like a summer-plumaged Sanderling, upperparts that often shone with the tone and texture of a digestive biscuit and a thin wingbar. It seemed crazy, but the inescapable truth was that the bird was a Baird’s Sandpiper. Repeat: I was looking at a Baird’s Sandpiper fluttering around the Celtic Explorer in wild seas 160 miles west of Kerry. Was this for real? Well, yes it was. Dermot agreed and Maggie, Dave and Jane all saw it too and could see the same set of distinguishing marks. Everyone was happy and, in the end, the bird made no more frantic appearances. Perhaps it landed on the ship? Time will tell. I quit for the day to begin writing this stuff. Meanwhile Dermot stayed on deck and returned with news of a Grey Phalarope. What a day.
Day 3: Friday 21 August
There was an air of expectation as I looked out the porthole just after first light. The sun was not yet up but the grey light of dawn would be sufficient to reveal the anticipated seabird phalanx. Nothing. No Great Shearwaters, no Fulmars, no birds. Strange. As the sun rose and turned the sea a wonderful Technicolor blue I kept staring at a blank ocean. The theories started. Could the dearth be explained by comparing the weather prelude to yesterday’s cornucopia of Great Shearwaters with today? Put simply, perhaps Wednesday’s heavy precipitation and accompanying southwest winds had compressed a pulse of migrants into our path. The theory continued with the Great Shearwaters stumbling into the ship and attaching themselves to it in the hope of either scavenging some food – indeed, jettisoned scraps were seized – or riding the eddies and lee in our little universe of wind. By mid-afternoon the theory bit the dust. And for two reasons. First, the only birds that were recorded in six hours were in transit. Nothing was feeding or loafing. We were in a bird-free world. A pathetic tally of two juvenile Gannets; a juvenile Kittiwake; a lone Great Shearwater;
two resting Grey Phalaropes and no more than a dozen juvenile LBBGs drifting southwards. No Bonxies or Stormies were seen during ten hours of watches. Secondly, our path was over deep water. Yesterday we cruised southwest over the outer reaches of the Porcupine Bank, depth 300m. Today we were further southwest (before turning northeast in mid-morning) and spent the day coursing over seas that were a dizzy 3000m deep. Out here the marine environment, in its bird-accessible surface layers, must equate to the Sahara. Deep-diving whales inhabit such waters – both Sperm and Fin Whales were seen and heard today – but not winged life forms. As the day wore on the sheer absence of birds became, of itself, interesting. I said to David Tierney, “Today will have been worthwhile if, at the end of the voyage, it stands out as a gap.” The deep abyssal plain would, de facto, have revealed a secret and added a nugget of knowledge about seabird distribution. That is, avoid looking over deep water? However, the weather was more than kind, with warm sun and just two-eighths cloud. The sea rocked us at sharp tangents all day since we were running northeast but in a westerly wind and three-metre swells. At mealtimes, if the canteen floor had been stable, the explanation for all the flying crockery and utensils would have been an army of poltergeists. Despite the impoverished avifauna there was a highlight. An adult Long-tailed Skua drifted by in mid-afternoon and a V of 13 Whimbels passed southeast. How did they know that they were going in precisely the right direction for Iberia? Two calling Oystercatchers seemed very incongruous this far from land (165 miles out). Turnstones were encountered on a few occasions. One group consisted of 13; in total, 20 passed. At about 1800hrs a splendid pod of three Pilot Whales broke the surface. Their sweptback fins, squash-ball heads and glistening wet blackness surging through white water were a terrific sight.
Day 4: Saturday 22 August
The ship was stationary through most of the night. The sideways roll was considerable. I had an uncomfortable night’s sleep on account of being tipped back and forth, not violently enough to be dumped onto the floor, but that seemed an ever-present possibility. Outside, Saturday morning looked wet. Sea and sky mingled into one dark, drizzling mass. Everything was blotted out save a foreground of frothy breaking crests tall enough to swamp a caravan. Occasionally waves lapped against the porthole. Temporarily, the cabin was below the sea and the room was bathed in a glacial green light of the sort that you associate with underwater wildlife films. Pilot Whales were close by and gave Sea World views tearing through a raft of Fulmars. The mammals raced at the napping tubenoses as though trying to take them unawares. Apparently, that is precisely what they were up to: bad-tempered beasts that wouldn’t think twice at having Fulmar for breakfast. Outdoors, conditions were dodgy. The lowest deck, appropriately emblazoned WET DECK, was sloshed by run-off. I stood, camera in hand, curious to see how the ship handled the Law of Physics that says ‘buoyancy overcomes water’, only to find that the mathematical equation proving a large wall of water divides in two when it hits a solid surface, meant that several tons of crashing sea was suddenly heading directly at me. Luckily the wet lab door was open and I leapt inside seconds before a large measure of the North Atlantic drenched both camera and me. Phew! I decided that the bridge was the place to be – inside and able to look out from behind huge armoured glass windows.
Although spray-splattered, the views were breathtaking. The ever-friendly crew gave everyone free reign, even turning on windscreen washers and wipers to improve the panorama of a sea onion-weathered by the wind. Richard, the second-mate from Schull in west Cork, told me that it was gale force eight and that the wind was southerly. Since we were heading northeast the roll wasn’t ‘too bad’. Shortly we turned northwest but it didn’t feel much worse on the bridge. Our position was 53 degrees N and 14 degrees W. We are still over deep water (2000m) and heading into a deeper canyon (4000m). The hydrophones are picking up clicks from Sperm Whales feeding on Giant Squid in the inky depths below us. I put on headphones to hear their intermittent lisping notes, emitted to echolocate prey in the dark. The faint noise resembled a begging Meadow Pipit chick. Odd that one of the largest living things can sound so meek. Unfortunately, in the bad visibility, nobody saw any surfacing for air. Along with Simon Berrow, I did see some Striped Dolphins: smaller and whiter-faced than Common Dolphins and amazingly energetic leapers. A small gaggle of up to half a dozen Great Shearwaters tucked in behind the boat. Fulmars outnumbered them by about three to one. At least three Sooty Shearwaters put in cameo appearances,
as did a juvenile Arctic Tern, about ten LBBGs (two adults), an adult Gannet and – briefly – a Leach’s Petrel. Hypnotic ogling of Great Shearwaters was the drug of choice. The simple elegance of the species in winds gusting up to 53 knots is a joy to behold. What a privilege to be out here watching them in conditions of unbridled opulence. Lunch was chicken Kiev with homemade tart for dessert. I opted for the starter only – delicious chunky vegetable soup and crusty rolls. All queasiness is gone. So long as I don’t impersonate King Canute on the Wet Deck I should be okay.
Day 5: Sunday 23 August
53 degrees, 33 minutes N; 14 degrees, 38 minutes W. At around 0430hrs the cabin phone rang. I heard Dermot talking. I had no idea what was going on. “That was Eugene. He has seen a landbird flying beside the ship.” Sleep was forgotten. Minutes later I was on deck watching no less than eight Wheatears yo-yoing up and down in the ship’s lights. At times they came within arm’s length. One moment fast-moving blobs, blanched to white by the Starship Enterprise lightshow. Then, when one dropped low against the sea, natural colours were revealed. All looked the same: sandy-backed with buff bellies and warm ginger-brown chests and cheeks. They kept pace with our slow 8 knots. They were beating into a southwest headwind and driving rain. When I stepped out of a lee and leaned over the rails to peer down at one, the cold wet night set me shivering in seconds. It was hard not to feel sorry for the waifs, using up energy in constantly undulating flight. Tonight is a battle against the elements. I explained to Eugene and Jane that the little songbird pilgrims may well have left Greenland two days ago, perhaps at dusk on Friday. Instead of getting a tailwind from the northwest, they have encountered adversity. All through Friday and Saturday the winds have been strong southwest or south. Such conditions ground migrant Wheatears around Ireland’s western seaboard. I have seen that happen. Instead of being unapproachable and sprightly, little packs sit near each other, huddled and crestfallen. Might they settle on the ship at dawn? Through the night they know to keep flying. The dark is for migration, not resting. It would be fantastic to see one perched in daylight. Right now it is strangely unnerving to get out of bed on the high seas and see the small print of migration in action. Having read about the mind-boggling transoceanic flight performed by Greenland Wheatears, it is a shock to witness it at first-hand on a black night and gaze at a tiny bird facing a watery grave if it gives up the struggle against driving rain and sapping headwind.
Awake again at 0930hrs, I got the news that one Wheatear was on the ship at dawn but flew off immediately. The morning was bright and clear. Lots of sunshine and pockets of puffy white cloud. The wind was southwest, around force four, although sometimes force five: the hallmark of which is said to be white caps blown off wave crests and turned into spray. Another day of ‘canyoning’ is planned. The hydrophones are in the sea and picking up plenty of Sperm Whales. We track along and across canyons (depth 4000 metres) and hope for cetacean sightings, the Holy Grail of which would be beaked whales. Three came up while I was asleep, so there is a buzz among the IWDG contingent. However, writing this at 1600hrs after most of the day on deck, I am becoming even more convinced that deep water is a seabird desert. The canyon edges are not proving to be the realm of anything except Fulmars. They are out here in low densities and appear to be the only thing with wings that regards the zone as home. Maybe they feed at night? Each morning a group of them is to be found loafing astern. During the day a small gathering of, usually, less than ten criss-cross the wake. From time to time Great and Sooty Shearwaters appear in their midst. A handful of Gannets
appear and then disappear, as do tiny numbers of Kittiwakes. LBBGs are the only big gull in town. Juveniles outnumber adults, although sometimes a pairing of adult-with-offspring suggests familial ties. Apart from the preceding list of ‘regulars’ there is the prospect of a range of ‘possibles’: each in transit and none inhabiting this Empty Quarter. So far, today’s haul includes, one apiece: adult Sabine’s Gull, sub-adult Long-tailed Skua, Blue Fulmar, Grey Phalarope, Arctic Tern and, like the LBBGs, another migrant from Iceland: a juvenile Black-headed Gull. It is (sort of) fascinating to construct a picture of seabird distribution on the basis of what we are not seeing. No bird-harrying skuas (there is almost nothing to harass); no Stormies; no auks (not even Puffin); no numbers of shearwaters. A Manx Shearwater did pass and the only petrels were (two) Wilson’s Petrels. Steaks tonight. The culinary odours are driving Mr Breen and me mad on our watch point above the galley.
Black Forest gateaux had hardly hit our stomachs by the time we were due back on watch. The final two hours were, like the rest of today, a giant lucky dip. Concentrate hard enough and you might knock off a respectable scalp. So, although the soup of seabirds was definitely consommé, there were a few titbits floating near the surface. Specifically, another adult Sabine’s Gull, a Cory’s Shearwater, a handful of Great Shearwaters (day total approximately 30), a Bonxie and, new for the trip, a juvenile Sanderling flying past at close quarters. By 2000hrs the sea started to look menacing. Walls of black water reared up and thudded against the bows, their surfaces striated in white, akin to spilled yoghurt sent flying for six. Wind gauges high on the mast began to spin like palm fronds in a hurricane and rigging wires whined in the wind. The sound was ominous. It was such a noise that, if heard indoors on dry land, would cause more logs to be thrown on a fire while hearing the elements howl.
Day 6: Monday 24 August
That was a wild night. I went down to the cabin at around 2230hrs to find the chair lying against the door and the floor covered with moveable objects: laptop, books, leads and papers. You get into the habit of ramming cases and bags between immovable fixtures and putting binoculars into lockable cupboard drawers stuffed with clothes to ensure that nothing goes clunk in the night. I sleep against a barricade of pillows that help jam my camera bag into the ‘canyon’ (ha, ha) between bed and corner seating. Sleep proved to be impossible. Lying in my bunk, the degree of pivot was too much. It was like being shoved from one side to the other. The action was in slow motion but the result was the same. There was the inevitable tipping point when all your body’s molecules lurched to port, then back to starboard. The pendulum was accompanied by a Big Dipper stomach-sinking. Outside, the swells brushed the ship’s flanks with a roar that resembled a jet taking off. Loud dead bangs were uncannily similar to the thud of a container being dropped in Belfast docks. The cacophony was topped by the deep glug, glug, glug of sea slobbering and salivating against the porthole. I heard Dermot get up in the middle of the night. He dressed, opened the cabin door, and went outside, Captain Oates style. A few hours later I peered out at Monday. Grey walls of water suggested a slalom course outside the porthole. Strange that, when green sea obliterated the view above sea level, the underwater image looked no different to the bubbles circulating against the inside of a washing machine door. Time to get up, brace myself against the worktop, strap down the chair, and write myself awake. Job done. Now for a full Irish!
No one I spoke to had much sleep. All seemed a bit shell-shocked this morning. The prospect was, for most, a day lost to weather. The wind was due to pick up to severe gale force nine and the swells remained in the region of six metres (20ft) all day. Still, looking at the parade of seabirds slipstreaming the boat, the prevailing conditions were no more unsettling to them than a summertide gust. The notion that Great Shearwaters
and Fulmars are ever adversely affected by gales is a myth. If they are prevented from finding food then it is conceivable that they might weaken and be forced to drift and capitulate to a high tailwind sweeping all before it. If healthy, they are the masters. I spent most of the day in shelter – if not comfort – in a corner of the Wet Deck at the rear of the ship. A few birds swept in from the tempest and joined Fulmars (up to 30), Great Shearwaters (up to ten at once), Gannets (at least eight individuals through the day) and LBBGS (around a dozen). The newcomers were: Sabine’s Gull (2 adults), Kittiwake (twelve), Storm Petrel, Arctic Tern (eight), Sooty Shearwater (4), Bonxie and, best of all, a one-year-old Long-tailed Skua that appeared after dinner, at around 1930hrs.
It drifted back among the LBBGs and Fulmars and was difficult to keep track of, due to most views being head-on of a brown dot. Occasionally it broke clear of the pack and drifted closer, broadside on. I watched it swoop and check the wake and then swing back into its chosen position: starboard fullback behind the Fulmar midfield.
Day 7: Tuesday 25 August
At breakfast time Cillian Roden mentioned that a shorebird had circled the ship through the night. When he said that it was calling a lot, I did a Whimbrel impersonation. “Sounds just like it,” he said. Today is National Little Shearwater Day in Ireland. Most records fall on this date, including the bird I saw off Ramore Head, Antrim. Over my shoulder, I can see that the sky is a palate of high heaps of cloud and leads of open canvas, so brightness cannot be far off. The sea is down and no longer is the ship possessed by a kick from The Exorcist. Apart from an irregular gentle heave, it was a restful night. I turned in early just after the 2130hrs weather forecast. The meteorologist was RTE’s Evelyn Cusack. If she is correct, today will be nice. I could be asleep for part of it. I woke with a hangover. That’s what it felt like. No alcohol on this ship, so I must be dehydrated. Perhaps the endless fuzziness induced by having constantly to steady yourself to compensate for the force of gravity coming from all directions rather than just downwards, is the explanation. On the other hand, with urine the colour of Carlsberg, I ought to start drinking water. Back to birds. The only way to establish what is out here is to load up the Celtic Explorer with chum and have a four-hour chum stop every day. The crew tell me that when they haul nets (they occasionally catch fish for various sorts of monitoring purposes) the boat is surrounded. That would be a real sample. I know that certain species would be put off – Sabine’s shy away from boats when a mob of larger birds gather and small petrels do much the same – but the draw would be galactic for everything else. So far, there has been three Long-tailed Skuas on this trip. Technically, none of them are ‘recordable’ due to the exigencies of the methodology. Glad the IRBC don’t have these rules! A few other thoughts, while they are in my head. Great Black-backed Gulls go under the title of Larus marinus. No prizes for translating that title. I know that they loiter offshore but they are completely absent once any more than, roughly, ten miles out. Put another way, might they operate in the zone between land and the horizon? Via email at sea, Bruce Mactavish dispelled my inference that GBBGs might not be as pelagic as I thought. He says that Newfoundland GBBGs do not push offshore until autumn. That would explain their current absence. Herring Gulls are also AWOL. I saw one first-winter on the first day off Cork. Large gulls are being scrutinized daily as there is always the possibility of an Azorean Yellow-legged or North American Herring Gull. But all are LBBGs. A delight to have them around and the juveniles can look a bit scary.
Yesterday one was remarkably swarthy and had a light belly. I leapt from cover behind huge rollers and pirouetted across the Wet Deck, semi-convinced that I might have stumbled into a juvenile Laughing Gull. Nope, just a runtish LBBG. At other times – depending on the light – juveniles can appear remarkably ‘mealy’ in upperparts texture. To boot, the inner primaries can stand out as a lighter block. This can set alarm bells ringing although for what species I do not know. Over the next few days we will be swinging closer to the northwest corner of Mayo. That may well put us within reach of birds tracking down from the northwest. DIM Wallace and I have always regarded the band of ocean northwest of Inishbofin as the source of seabird riches. When there is a strong puff from that zone we see an almost instantaneous reaction from shore. Grey Phalaropes, Sabine’s Gulls and Long-tailed Skuas have all weighed in without much of a time lag. Our conjecture is that ‘the stuff’ ain’t that far away and must be passing south, just over the horizon. That would put it, not out over the Shelf Break or beyond, but in the ‘inshore’ band between coast and continental shelf. If so, that really is a bit of a paradigm shift in my thinking of where most seabirds are.
Fast-forward twelve hours. Today just might have thrown up a new insight. The birds were pretty good, although not stellar. In the early morning a full-tailed adult Pomarine Skua idled past over an undulating but not disturbed ocean. A few petrels appeared. At least a couple of Wilson’s were nailed among a sample of no more than six Stormies. A trickle of other delights included Great Shearwaters (fewer than yesterday and most were ‘at sea’ rather than wake-watching), four separate adult Sabine’s Gulls
and an adult Long-tailed Skua ‘sans streamers’. Then something mysterious happened. Around early afternoon petrels suddenly became fairly common. It was possible to scan and expect to see three or four in a 90 degrees quadrant. That quantity of Stormies has not been in evidence since 19 August: the day we were in shallow seas off west Cork. At least two more Wilson’s Petrels were noted. I watched one Wilson’s gliding quickly like a wannabe shearwater. It was swinging from side-to-side, trying to maximise lift by scissoring to gain momentum, rather than truly banking. Its speed through the air was impressive; never mind its shortcomings in the matter of careening. In the same busy spell, a few Bonxies, Manx Shearwaters, Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes showed up. By, roughly, 1500hrs the Stormie tally must have hit 40 individuals. Then nothing. For the rest of the day we saw, almost literally, diddlysquat. Very occasionally a Fulmar rode the breezes near the ship and some of the same squad of LBBGs that have been with us all day (5 juveniles, a one-year-old, 3 adults) played about looking for non-existent scraps. A Whimbrel flew southeast. Was there an explanation for Ground Zero, the Empty Quarter that we were traversing? Well, there might be. The contrast of seabirds versus no seabirds was so dramatic that David Tierney and I checked the submarine contours. I knew that we had been canyoning west of Achill. It transpired that when we were ‘into birds’ we were transiting over a canyon rim. The canyon was 4,800 metres deep. However, its precipitous rim rose to 470 metres. Beyond the rim lay the edge of an 80-mile peneplain running back to Ireland. Had we struck birds because they represented the start of a shallow ‘home turf’ zone stretching back to shore? An alternative explanation is that the canyon walls created a plume of up-welling plankton in a discrete band. Had this concentrated the Stormies and others? Looking at the 3D maps of the underwater topography on the Celtic Explorer’s arsenal of sophisticated computer screens is pure Jules Verne.
Day 8: Wednesday 26 August
The new day boasts an RAF blue ceiling illuminated by Roseate Tern pink in a cummerbund encircling the eastern horizon. Little rivulets of white mark the peaks of a sea taking deep breaths. There is a palpable swell but it is gentle. I will, in a few minutes, quit this laptop and be able to plonk tea and toast on the worktop and shout ‘Halleluiah!’ as mug and plate stay put. So it is a kind of big avuncular swell. A bounce as deep and slow as an overweight American on a trampoline.
Tomorrow we are to pick up the remnants of Hurricane Bill. Preliminary predictions are of cloud and some rain – but nothing that smacks of high winds and American passerines rattling the portholes, unfortunately.
As has become routine, I checked the wake to see what had either tagged along during the night or drawn alongside at dawn. For the first time, there was nought. Sweeps of all compass points revealed the same charisma-bypass result. Put simply, deep water is dead water. We were canyoning again. However, the day was bright and clear and a keen, chilly wind was blowing out of the WNW. Until around 1800hrs the wind remained in the same quadrant and hovered close to 20 knots. Dermot and Maggie were on duty outdoors on the Bridge Deck and covered the early shift from 0830hrs to 1030hrs. I took up a more sheltered position near the stern. None of us saw much to write home about. Best was an adult Pomarine Skua.
It was crushingly clear that we were crossing a void. Might there be an oasis? In theory, yes. Yesterday’s notion hailing canyon rims as hotspots where plankton plumes deflect upwards – like eddies of wind along a cliff face – held true. By checking the water depth, there really did seem to be a connection. It was hard work but by scanning the sea regularly with 15x56 binoculars, it was possible to locate petrels. None was witnessed feeding but all were skimming low and travelling fast, on the lookout for grub. The real difficulty was trying to pick out Wilson’s under taxing viewing conditions. It was like trying to follow houseflies from a bicycle. I reckoned that 30 or more Storm Petrels were seen. Dermot got a definite Wilson’s Petrel and I saw two certain Leach’s Petrels. Thank heavens for Leach’s unmistakeable large size and aura of ‘dark phase juvenile Long-tailed Skua’. So the canyon rims really do hold petrels. But nothing else. The underwater relief resembled inselbergs or giant sea-stacks; outliers rising from braided valleys running towards the canyon’s steep drop-offs. That’s enough theorizing. It is one thing to collect the observations but quite another to make sense of them. It is important to remember what the birds are up to, which will help explain their distribution. They are here for one of three reasons. One: they are finding food. Two: they are flying to or from feeding areas. Three: they are on migration and not feeding while en route. With so much high-tech kit on this ship it is easy to make the mistake of leaving common sense behind.
It was a long day. I kept watching, shift or no shift. Few birds were seen. A single adult Sabine’s Gull (still no juveniles) was scarcely enough to save the day. In fact, cetaceans stole the show. I saw a blow while astern. Independently, Dermot saw it too – plus a view of the majestic beast, a Fin Whale. Around 1700hrs I could take no more binocular scans and went off to the cabin for forty winks. I went out cold. Dinner was slept through but then the ship’s phone rang. It was David. The sea was boiling with Bottle-nosed Dolphins. And so it was. Dermot rushed down to fetch me. The camaraderie of our foursome is superb and also that of everyone on this ‘happy hippie’ ship. If it is possible to sprint up stairs then that is what I did. The sea was different from that which I left 90 minutes earlier. It was calmer and had a new, oily complexion. Its surface was strafed and punctured by an armada of fins and leaping pods of dolphins.
White-water depth charges gave a clue to where the action had just been or was about to start. Mothers with calves by their sides could be picked out. ‘Copy mum’ leaping lessons were being enacted in front of our very eyes. The vinyl black backs of Pilot Whales rolled ponderously into view, high fins evoking the menace of Killer Whales. It was a scene out of Genesis. As far as the eye could see, squadron after squadron of Bottle-nosed Dolphins hove into view. Estimates varied from at least 100 to maybe double that amount. Jubilation was all around, crew included. The show had so many encores that someone should tell the compilers at The Guinness Book of Records. In its aftermath I was given leave to grab some dinner but sneaked off to photograph the low evening sun through a tumble-drier load of clouds. Not yet a sunset but rapidly turning into a Turner in pastels.
Day 9: Thursday 27 August
Hurricane Bill has been and gone. It was, almost literally, airbrushed out. Nobody seems to know what piece of cloud and rain
belonged to Bill. Today began as an ashen morning. Sea and sky separated by texture not colour. It looked so uninviting outdoors that I decided to catch up with breakfast (I usually miss it through being on deck) and rest my eyes until around 1000hrs. I had no sooner stepped outdoors when – Bam! – an adult Sabine’s drifted by. Not long after a Pomarine Skua sailed low and away. But that was it. The taps were turned on and sheets of heavy soaking rain obscured sea and sky. The ship was enveloped in a smoky curtain, its hem consisting of dancing raindrops over a shiny sea. However, the omens felt good. Especially the news that the Celtic Explorer was being redeployed on a thirty-hour detour. We were required to up sticks and head back down to the position of Databuoy M6. It was faulty and its replacement has been perched above the stern since we left Cobh. Apparently, the weather might improve sufficiently for it to be moored on Saturday, although no one seems to have located the aforementioned benign meteorological prediction. This signals an end to ‘canyon fever’ and it will be good to take off and cruise through the huge transect all the way from where we are at present (30 miles west of The Mullet, Mayo) and finish up 240 miles west of Cork. Wind and sea got up and lifted spirits. We were back in a Roaring Forties seascape, minus albatrosses. By recent standards a veritable horde of seabirds accumulated around the boat and rode the wind astern. Almost 30 Fulmars were there, including a Blue Fulmar. It made one close pass and I got some pictures.
Its bill pattern was no different to other Fulmars (in the past I thought that Blue Fulmars had a more clearly ‘ring-billed’ pattern, now I see this as present in many Fulmars too) but it did have more extensive dark eye patches and grey underwings: features that make Blue Fulmar more than just a Fulmar turned grey. A super bird, they always look rare. Among the Fulmars were Gannets, two Sooty Shearwaters and occasional others: Bonxies (4), Arctic Tern (3), Sabine’s Gull (1). At sea, there were Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. However, for the second time on this voyage, attention switched to landbirds. Dermot saw a warbler flit past over the rear decks. We looked for it in vain. Almost certainly it was a phylloscopus – most likely Willow Warbler. Next up was a Sand Martin. It fluttered around the more sheltered amphitheatre of the rear lower decks and was probably the small bird spotted by a crewmember perched near a doorway at 2115hrs. The sighting caused Dermot, Maggie and me to abandon Mock the Week. When there was no sign of our quarry we went scurrying back for more Frankie Boyle. The search was called off in record time. If The Rose of Tralee had been on again we would probably have donned snorkels and checked keel n’ all.
Day 10: Friday 28 August
Good news: Great Shearwaters are back in the wake.
About 20 were skimming and banking, strung out behind the ship like prayer flags in the wind. The sea was running high with six metre swells. Walls of white water spontaneously combusted into spray. As the shards of water droplets metamorphosed into mist, a rainbow was formed arcing over an erstwhile turquoise blue trough. Only large waves were commemorated in this way. A fitting finale to a life ended by hitting the self-destruct button. The sunshine coupled with high seas and air saturated with spray provided a cocktail for a bizarre phenomenon: salt crystals festooning decks and handrails. Holding onto rails, or brushing against the white superstructure, coated hands and clothing with sea-salt. Jackets looked as though they had just come out of the freezer. I had to lick salt off the camera for fear that it might do some damage. The first mouthfuls tasted delicious! We were steaming at full tilt to rendezvous with Data Buoy M6. Slamming into the heavy weather 100 miles west of Achill Island (wind WNW Force 6-7) we were travelling into the oncoming rollers rather than heading straight for our destination. Doing that would create even more roll. Apparently, we were often over the edge of the continental shelf. That seems irrelevant today. Seabirds will probably be making the most of these conditions and shifting elsewhere by running down the wind. Dermot managed to get through to the Internet and discovered that 42 Sabine’s Gulls had passed the Bridges of Ross, Clare, by lunchtime. We had not seen any. We are a speck in the ocean with no ability to concentrate birds. There is no food on offer to detain a passing seabird. I watched the morning’s loose line of Great Shearwaters gather themselves into a flock and head away. The species is phenomenal in its ability to synchronise and go. I have seen them do it before. In 2006, a roosting flotilla off Tory Island, Donegal, rose and curled into formation for departure. We ploughed on across a spectacular sea dotted with the serried white pinnacles of giant waves, glimpsing little but taking it all in. A tally of (one apiece) Pomarine Skua, Bonxie, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel and Arctic Tern sounds not so bad. In truth, it was a famine.
Day 11: Saturday 29 August
0730hrs. Bang on target, there was defunct Data Buoy M6 bobbing up and down off the starboard bow on a relatively smooth sea. So began the slow manoeuvring that eventually led to the deployment of a new Data Buoy. [Note: if being read aloud, stress Data Buoy to avoid confusion with ‘date a boy’.]. There was much unrolling of cables and winching. Knots of hard-hatted crewmembers watched inscrutably as coils of steel rope were fed astern. The upshot of all this activity was a ship virtually becalmed on the high seas 240 miles west of Cork. Time to deploy my secret weapon – chum. Like a sorcerer I crumbled rice cakes into a large Tupperware bowl and added cod-liver oil. I emptied the potion over the side and legged it. By the time I got to one of the higher decks it was obvious that the experiment had worked in its first objective, which was the creation of a slick. But what would it attract? A couple of Fulmars came over for a sniff and an adult and juvenile LBBG pecked at the desiccated rice cakes. That was it. I kept a surreptitious watch on the slick that remained intact and not too far adrift for the next half an hour. On a pelagic trip, a few Stormies would have appeared within minutes. I found it fascinating that none did. Proof that there just weren’t any out here. Eventually a singleton materialized. Alas, slick and ship had by now parted company and I was left squinting at an unidentifiable black dot. Steadily the engineering machinations reached a conclusion and by late morning the new M6 was plopped in the water. Its maiden float created a glassy envelope of water. The effect was incredible. Birds were attracted to the Data Buoy! Two Wilson’s Petrels began to pitter-patter right beside it and were joined by a brace of Great Shearwaters that glided around it. One of the shearwaters indulged in a peculiar activity of throwing itself flat onto the sea surface in a series of belly flops. What it was up to I do not know. On one occasion it also made shallow dives. Were its antics designed to startle fish or other prey? Was it crashing about to rid itself of lice? The Wilson’s Petrels were interesting too. They were not close enough to see well but there was no doubt about their identification. Grey carpal bars were on show and so too the lack of a white underwing stripe. However, the shape they presented was reminiscent of a short-winged Common Swift. The wings looked long and swept back, rather than fat and wide, until the owners fanned them and broke into feeding flutters. Telling Storm Petrel from Wilson’s Petrel has been surprisingly difficult.
Rather, it has been made so by, not just distance from the birds, but the angle of view. Seen from a tall deck, it is often tricky to see the diagnostic white underwing stripe of a Storm Petrel. You have to keep watching and hope that the bird twists sufficiently to ‘turn on that light bulb’. The heaving swells bring out a different jizz in the humble Storm Petrel. It is less of a beetling mite and more of a battling Ellen Macarthur. Storm Petrels glide more freely and can look larger and more ‘powerful’ than before. Yes, Wilson’s
is a strong, fixed-wing glider but Storm Petrel gives it a good run for its money. What about Wilson’s? The bend on its wing (yes, it has a carpal joint) is actually closer to its body than any other small North Atlantic petrel. From the bend there is a long sweeping wing chord that finishes in a point. When looked at side-on with the bird sweeping along in a ‘power glide’, the wings look long and pointed. Cripes! However, when the bird banks (or breaks into a foraging flutter) the wing is presented in a different plane and appears as a fat sail with a hooked tip. Fluttering is, of course, not a definitive guide to species: Storm Petrels flutter too. However, the bigger, more rounded wings of Wilson’s are dark below. Although slightly two-toned, and a few even show a lighter median strip, they lack the telltale white underwing bar of Storm Petrel. To my eyes Wilson’s wings look as if they are made of thinner black paper than the wings of Storm Petrel. With hindsight, I should have brought a telescope.
Since the Celtic Explorer moved exceedingly slowly for most of the day (and was often parked for long periods) it became a target for passing seabirds. They checked us out. Presumably, we might have been a fishing boat offering surrogate food. For the first time since leaving Cobh we turned Pied Piper and drew a following. The cast was tremendous. I guess most birds were migrants and simply dropped in on the way south. Saturday 29 August 2009 became Skua Day. First up was a Pomarine,
followed by Bonxies, then another Pomarine, then Arctics and, eventually, a splendid adult Long-tailed Skua.
Two of the Pomarine Skuas circled so low overhead that they must have felt the blast of heat from the ship’s funnels. The totals were: Bonxie 6, Pomarine 4, Arctic 3, Long-tailed 2. The first Long-tailed Skua might still have had streamers but the second did not. Both adults (and a streamer-less adult seen several days ago) had developed scattered dusky blotching high on the chest and side of the face. This must be the onset of winter plumage. The effect, at distance, can suggest a breast band and might spark thoughts that the bird is not a Long-tailed Skua and is, instead, an Arctic? Few observers seem to be aware of the blotching. Never mind. The combination of unicoloured grey underwings and belly (including all of vent) is characteristic. So too the merged transition of grey belly to small white chest. As I said to others watching the bird with me, in plumage and structure adult Long-tailed Skua resembles an anorexic Peregrine. All agreed. Other passers-by today were: Blue Fulmar (fourth of trip), Fulmar 40, LBBG 3, Gannet 6, Arctic Tern 8, Great Shearwater 5, Sooty Shearwater 1, Manx Shearwater 8.
Once again, all Manx Shearwaters were powering along and seemed to be saying, “South America here I come.” Some floating plastic rubbish appeared in the wake of the ship at just before dinner. A sad sight but there was a silver lining: Dermot saw a Wilson’s Petrel pitter-pattering over it in the off chance that something was edible. Sauce bottles were among the detritus, so perhaps the Wilson’s had been attracted by the smell? A Fin Whale surfaced just behind the boat at 2115hrs. Several times today I saw blows that were put down to Fin Whales. No hydrophones were operational due to all the cable hauling. Probably, they would have confirmed the whales’ identity.
Day 12: Sunday 30 August
The final day dawned murky and stayed that way. Poor visibility and, by late afternoon, continuous rain did its best to smother us. However, a little miracle was played out on a stage that spanned just a few hundred metres. Into our orbit passed a succession of stars. At 0500hrs we were on the eastern edge of the Porcupine Bank and were over relatively shallow seas – depth around 300 metres – for the rest of daylight. Storm Petrels were back in numbers (easily 100 in the course of the day) and so too Gannets (75). We encountered a group of 22 LBBGs around 60 miles west of Slyne Head, Galway. Apart from three adults, all were juveniles. It was as if we had run into a mob of Flying Foxes. A parade of seabird glitterati kicked off with an adult Sabine’s Gull in full summer plumage. After that, it was like watching an encore of the last fortnight’s highlights. There were adult Pomarine Skuas (ten), Long-tailed Skuas (two adults), two more Sabine’s Gulls, three apiece of Great and Sooty Shearwaters, a few Manx Shearwaters, six Bonxies
including the only juvenile of the trip, three Arctic Skuas and then a mint condition Blue Fulmar. Heavy rain closed everything down around 1800hrs but not before a final Pomarine Skua lumbered by. Its sinister bulk slunk off into the gathering gloom, disappearing enigmatically like a U-boat into the grey of the North Atlantic. Lost to mist, it left you there, on your own, marvelling at the mysteries of this vast watery wilderness.
Photos by Anthony McGeehan and Dermot Breen