Wildlife ahoy

by Clare Johnson

Yesterday I (finally) saw my first whale / dolphin of the trip. There had been various sightings before but I was either too slow getting on deck, asleep, or on watch and unable to leave the lab. However, yesterday when I heard ‘pilot whales port side’ I was able to go out and see them. They were a group of Pilot Whales, a whale that I’ve seen quite often in the eastern North Atlantic. From what I’ve seen, Pilot Whales travel in groups (10-30 animals) and seem to be pretty inquisitive. They tend to turn up whilst the ship is stationary (at a CTD station or mooring recovery) and often hang around until we move slowly off. Unlike for larger whales that often just take a few breathes before diving deep again, Pilot Whales dip in and out of the waves and seem to enjoy being at the surface and playing around us. They remind me more of otters, dolphins or seals because of their interest and playfulness than larger whales.
We have also seen a number of seabirds on our trip. I am reliable informed we have seen Terns, Black-back Gulls, Skuas and kittiwakes – bird identification is not a strong point of mine! By far the most common bird once away from land (and Rockall) is the Fulmar. Even I can identify these white and grey birds. Fulmars spend nearly their entire life out at sea only returning to land to breed, and like Pilot Whales they often hang around a ship in groups as well. [I guess because they are hoping that we are a trawler and will be discarding fish, but also because the ship can provide some shelter from the wind.] Fulmars are wonderfully adapted to their life at sea with the black blob at the top of their beak converting seawater into fresh water for them to drink. In hot dry countries seawater is transformed into drinking water in huge energy-demanding desalination plants, I love the fact that Fulmars have their own little built-in desalination plant! Fulmars can often be the only wildlife I see during a trip to sea and I enjoy watching them bob about on the waves and squabble if a neighbouring bird comes to close. I also think about how unpleasant it must be for them in winter when the wind whips up the sea into spray and I am (hopefully!) all nice and toasty inside somewhere. As we get closer to Iceland we will probably see some other seabirds, and if we are lucky some more whales.

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A pod of Pilot Whales taken by Karen Wilson.

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