Comes the Dawn.
The Gemini Explorer, with skipper Davy at the helm, pulls out of Buckie Harbour just after 7am. The whole team is safely on board and the sea inside the harbour is reassuringly calm.
Will Pine’s decision to re-launch the survey today prove to be the right one?
She has chosen to start the day with a track eastwards and parallel to the coast (about two miles off). As the boat sneaks up on the start of the transect line, the light improves. It is a lovely calm sea (scaly ripples give us a sea state of one). The plan is to continue for some miles along this pre-set line then turn sharply north out to sea, then some twelve miles later a sharp left will take us in a parallel offshore track. If conditions are good, at the end of this track, we will try to complete another similar sized box further out to sea again.
The day is overcast. A grey sky meets a grey sea, hiding some mainly rather grey animals (including some grey seals, which are rapidly noted by the data-logger and sucked into the data set). The out-to-sea journey takes us into increasingly large waves. Fulmars (mainly grey) skim over the waves tops and ride along behind us in the ship’s wake.
Somewhere along the way a few porpoises are also noted.
When we get to the point where we have to decide if we go further out or only survey for half a day, Pine takes the brave option and northwards we go again.
A little later the wind has picked up. Most waves are now tipped with foam and ever deepening troughs separate them. The observer on the bow as the ship faces into the waves is now experiencing something of a bracing roller-coaster ride. This is that special location on the Gemini Explorer where a wave hitting the bow will first throw spray over the top and into the observer’s face and then sneak underneath the boat and up the two anchor wells immediately behind the observer to whack them with a healthy dose of water on the backside.
This is mostly amusing. However, as we approach a sea state 3.5, the bow observer can be getting quite a tricky ride. It is difficult to survey the seas and dodge the spray at the same time.
After a while the sopping bow-observer is called in and we continue with a single observation team up on the cabin roof only. Fortunately within 20 minutes the winds and waves drop and then we resume a full strength survey. (The bow observer still gets the occasional slap from the sea but at least they can now see well enough to spot animals.)
The day ends with an increasingly calm trip back to Buckie. Along the way there are puffins, guillemots, young gannets and a couple of groups of porpoises.
Here volunteer observer Jenny adds a comment:
Wednesday’s survey was fun despite the lack of show-stopping cetacean sightings and some intermittent drizzle. I saw seals, porpoises and a large group of about 25 fulmars.
The fulmars were a personal highlight as these graceful birds are possibly my favourite seabirds and are usually seen solo or in pairs. The gannets are also beautiful at this time of year, appearing in all gradations from the chocolate coloured juveniles, to those dappled with white, to the mature white birds with black wing tips and yellow faces. I also enjoyed our upper deck ‘silent disco’ as the sun set. Watching Bea dance to her music - eyes still fixated on the sea of course- brightened up the last shift of the day.
Wednesday evening – looking towards the dawn.
Survey Leader Pine has been studying the three relevant weather charts on and off all day. It is over a week since we last got out to sea and we are running out of time. However, we also don’t want to spend money (mainly boat fuel) unnecessarily. In the later part of the afternoon (when the decision has to be made for the next day) she consults remotely with Mark (who is over at the wildlife centre). He consults with Alice (who is also there). Pine consults with Alice.
Minutes pass…. still not sure.
Pine calls skipper Davy and consults with him.
Still not sure.
The three weather websites all say slightly different things one from another.
Some time passes. More consultation later in the afternoon:
The three weather websites now say slightly different things to what they said earlier (but still slightly different to each other).
Pine talks to Mark. Mark talks to Alice. Alice and Pine confer. All stare at the websites. It doesn’t help. Several other people at the wildlife centre give an opinion as they pass. Pine talks to Davy again.
A little more time passes.
Pine makes a decision. ‘We go for it she says’ and she makes a number of calls and rallies her team who have wondered off all over Scotland.
‘We start at 7am.’ She says. Some team members rush off to disinter their thermals from the depths of their kit bags and try to remember where they left their waterproofs. Other team members remain missing.
Is it a good decision? Will everyone be there? Only dawn will tell.
WDCS Moray Firth Winter Survey: Tuesday: Gull Politics.
The big climatic depression that is circling around Scotland at this time has today brought foam-tipped waves into life all the way from the shore to the horizon. However, as the depression oscillates overhead it also brings confusion. One moment the seas seem calm, next they have have been whipped back into life. Last night a trip to the shoreline at Portessie found peace and quiet. A friendly sea gently lapped at the rocks. The next morning waves are breaking with some violence. All this makes it very difficult to find a suitable ‘survey hole’ in the weather and calm seas in the increasingly lengthy nights are of course of little use to us.
The stormy seas also seem to chase even the hardy sea birds landwards. There is a large population of gulls living and lurking in Buckie harbour. Out at sea we have noticed them following fishing boats and in one instance they surrounded one vessel in a cloud that may have numbered in hundreds. They are obviously benefiting from fishing discards and perhaps thieving from the nets as they are hauled in, and they obviously know that following a fishing boat can provide an easy dinner. Most of them are herring gulls and many of these are this year’s fledglings, still in browny-grey plumage. These youngsters are now experiencing the teeth of their first winter storm. There are also some lesser black-back gulls. These are birds of impressive size and all the gulls have large sharp bills and a stern eye.
Over the rooftops of Buckie, where the winds are shaking the TV aerials and probably threatening the odd ancient chimney pot, a crowd of gulls are in dispute. One bird obviously has a particularly exciting morsel; perhaps something that it has snatched from the grounds of the nearby fish processors. An acrobatic conflict follows. The gull is harried and pounced on from above by others. But they fail to make contact. It checks and drops, and then twists and soars to new heights trying to shake off its pursuers. It is helped by strong gusts of wings which seem to facilitate the chaos of its flight.
But the other gulls are relentless. Sometimes they seem to chase in teams. Sometimes a particular assault is the initiative of one bird alone. If there really is some team work going on, and if they win the morsel, will they then share the food? Here is a key question of gull politics; are those congregations of gulls malingering in little groups in the harbour all facing into the wind or the clouds of then following fishing boats en masse, actually helping each other, or just there to look after themselves?
Eventually, the gull being chased makes a break for it, suddenly soaring down lower than the roof tops. It flies low just above the ground along a narrow twisty lane, around a shark corner and out of sight. He or she is an adult and this display of skillful flying certainly shakes off the younger gulls. Hopefully the food reward will bring more energy that the bird had to spend in defending it.
The other gulls now spread out around the town. They keep an eye on the bins, monitor the fishing boats, scavenge the shores and patrol the windswept streets of Buckie looking for those opportunities of spilt and discarded food that they need to make their living.
Some words from Davy Still one of the volunteers on the survey:
My first week as a WDCS research volunteer started with a three-day data-collecting mission into the outer areas of the Moray Firth.
This survey has never before, been carried out at this time of year, so I was very excited to be part of something new. My first cetacean sighting came on day one: a porpoise 20 meters off the port side. Over the next three days more porpoise sightings followed; but it was a close encounter with a minki whale, which I will always remember.
It came up for a breath incredibly close to my observation station, before disappearing into the deep and out of sight. Not a bad start to my first week of work!