AK weekend wildlife cruise

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to help out with several superb AK wildlife cruises around the surrounding coast. AK wildlife cruises was set up by Cap’n Keith over fifteen years ago in Cornwall. He runs his 12-seater vessel out of Falmouth docks, and takes groups of people to see the spectacular marine and avian wildlife that can be encountered along the Cornish coast. Trips are typically four hours long, and can range over 40 miles in distance, being taken east towards St. Austell, or west to the Lizard Peninsula. Cetaceans are regularly encountered throughout the year, from the incredible Fin Whale and Basking Sharks, through to the more commonly-seen Harbour Porpoise, Common and Risso’s Dolphins, and Minke Whales.

St. Mawes Lighthouse from the cruise

I joined two trips over the weekend, with fellow student and crew member Gemma Haggar. On Saturday, with a howling north-west wind and threatening skies, we headed east up the coast, past St. Mawes head, Portscatho and Veryan, all the way towards Gorran. It was a superb trip, and we came across a fantastic array of wildlife: we saw three separate pods of Harbour Porpoise, amounting to a total of 27 individuals- a great tally; Grey Seals were scattered along the coastline, with a single three-week old pup giving good views in one of the bays. Flocks of Gannets were the main pointers to any cetaceans seen, and we also had great views of these superb pelagic wanderers as they dived into the water to pluck up fish and sprats. It was great to see some of the winter’s first divers, with singles of Great Northern and Black-throated Diver representing the first of what can be an impressive wintering population in the south-west; views of Peregrines along the coastal cliffs were great, especially when one sliced through a flock of Linnets and managed to catch one. We saw over 40 Mediterranean Gulls, a single Whimbrel, Little Egret, and a lonesome Chough, which was great.

We had a great Harbour Porpoise (Phoecena phoecena) day on Saturday, encountering 27 individuals in three pods. These shy little mammals are the smallest of the UK’s cetaceans, measuring between 1.4 and 1.7 metres long. They feed on a broad variety of prey, from fish and shellfish, to squid and octopuses. They commonly surface two or three times for air every 10-20 minutes, making relocation a little tricky at times. 
Most of the Grey Seals we saw were bulls, but we did come across this one seal pup, which may have been the same as a fluffy white individual Keith came across two weeks ago

Gannet

Watching these apex predators from the boat was great, especially as it allowed views which could rarely be achieved on land

We had an equally productive trip on Sunday, heading the opposite direction along the coast: first to Maenporth, crossing the Helford passage to the Lizard, working up to Manacles Reef and the Black Land, before returning at a fair distance to try and pick up any cetaceans. We had much calmer weather conditions, but a slight south-east wind made for tricky observations, with the lighting also making it hard to pick up any fins breaking the surface. Earlier in the morning, Keith had spied a pod of three Bottlenose Dolphins working along Gylly Beach, which are quite unusual for the area. We were fortunate enough to connect with these on our way out of Falmouth docks, which was great. One individual sported a fair number of scars the dorsal fin, and so hopefully we may be able to photo-ID this individual against the database. Aside the Tursiops, we also came across a playful pod of 15 Common Dolphins off Black land, and we spent a good ten minutes watching these acrobatic animals playing in our bow wave. Birdlife did not disappoint either: we had more superb views of Peregrines along the cliffs between Maenporth and The Lizard; flocks of Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes passed by during the afternoon, along with the odd Mediterranean Gull; a Little Egret passed overhead on our way of the bay; and plenty of Buzzards and Kestrels hovering over the cliff edges gave good views.

Bottlenose Dolphins have to be one of the most well-known cetacean species in the world. They are fantastic animals, and incredibly intelligent. Interestingly, there are said to be two different ‘varieties’, with a smaller form which tends not to stray further than five miles from land, whilst a larger pelagic form rarely strays that close to land. The markings and wear that accumulate on the back and dorsal fin can provide a great natural way of idenitifying individuals. Keith was telling me about a particular individual called Clett, who has an incredible story spanning 20 years. He even has a Fecbook page, so check him out! After widely ranging around the UK, he was last seen this spring.

 One of the many Gannets that afforded brilliant views

 Mediterranean Gulls
Grey Herons
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