Day 1: A whale of a time
– log entry by Louise-Océane Delion, BSc Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology graduate
We set sail on Take the Helm, a beautiful 45-foot long yacht owned by the University that we were lucky to use for the trip. The plan? Sailing along the South West of the UK, starting in Plymouth and going west, looking for cetaceans. After many COVID-19 tests and a lot of fingers crossed, we all managed to meet at 8:30 at the Marine Station, ready for the adventure to begin.
The crew for this trip? Al, Clare, Connie, Shauna, Saskia, Alex, Bryony and myself. Al was the skipper that drove the boat, helped by Connie. Our team was mainly made up of students doing their undergraduate and masters in marine biology and conservation related courses at Plymouth. Al and Clare are both lecturers and the minds behind this project. Although they have run this trip annually for five years, they felt a bit rusty because they couldn’t do it last year because of the pandemic.
The day started with a briefing on board by Al about safety and everything that could go wrong, a good test to see whether everyone was truly keen on coming (or a test to see if they could bear Al’s sense of humour). So far, so good.
Following the safety briefing, Clare gave us the protocol for the cetacean survey. On watch were two people, using binoculars on either side of the boat, telling another person about their observations. The latter, also called the person on 'data entry', used an app on a tablet to enter all the information collected about the environment, the species observed, the distance, bearing, number of individuals etc.
At around 1pm, we left Queen Anne’s Battery and set sail out of Plymouth Sound towards Fowey. As soon as we started driving, Clare put us to the challenge of guessing distances at sea, using buoys and boats as points of reference. Being able to guess distance at sea is one of the most important skills to have to survey cetaceans, as they allow us to measure species abundance over the survey area – but it definitely is one of the most difficult skills.
We started the watch, with three people at the front of the boat surveying, while the rest of the crew rested/helped with the sailing/making tea. Every hour we swapped and had different people on watch – usually with Clare, the specialist on board, helping us, and Al, from time to time, shouting from the back of the boat the name of the birds we tried to identify (or perhaps he just wanted to show off his identification skills).
We had a really lucky first day! We spotted common dolphins, porpoises, loads of gannets, herring gulls … and a minke whale! It was the first time spotting some of these species for most of us (especially the minke whale), and although Clare and Al are more used to it, they seemed to always have the same feeling of joy and amazement every time they spotted an animal.
After around six hours of sailing, we stopped and anchored outside of Charlestown. We sat outside on deck, ate snacks while dinner was cooking, having a laugh as everyone got to know each other, as the sunset began to set. The next day we needed to be up at “horrible o’clock” (Al's phrase), so an early night was needed.