Dolphin Encounter – a superb weekend wildlife cruise

I was lucky enough to be crewing an AK Wildlife Cruise last weekend, when we had a rather special encounter with numerous Common Dolphin pods and feeding frenzies off the coast around Falmouth. It was a pretty special experience, and so I thought I’d write up a blog post on the trip, including some of the other wonderful wildlife that we saw.
The day of our cruise dawned calm and cloudy – a slight breeze from the north and somewhat chilly, which were promising conditions for the day’s trip. After preparing the vessel – ‘Free Spirit’ – for her day’s work, and collected our clients for the day (a group of students from the university), we motored out of Falmouth marina with high hopes and anticipation for what the day might bring. 
St Mawes Lighthouse
Even just cruising through Falmouth harbour can be great for wildlife, getting close views of Little Grebes, Shags, Cormorants, Little Egrets and a broad selection of gull species; and further out in the bay can often reward with Great Northern Divers and the odd Black-necked or Slavonian Grebe. On this particular occasion, were weren’t treated to anything extraordinary as we headed out to sea, but it is nevertheless great to see these smart and under-appreciated species.
Our immediate course for the morning took us in a series of zig-zags out from Falmouth Bay heading east past the Roseland Peninsula. Our aim was to scan the sea and pick up on some pods of dolphins. The sea was relatively flat, and the lighting reasonable for spotting our quarry, but disappointingly they just weren’t there! We scanned and scanned for the best part of two hours, right and left; front and back; but there was no sign. Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets and Kittiwakes sidled by, but our target cetacean species were just not out there. Somewhat disappointed at this lack of activity, we headed due north to take a look at the adjacent coastline, which is home to a diverse range of seabird and coastal bird species…
Working along the cliff-dominated coastline near Gerran’s Bay, we stopped off at various seabird breeding colonies, where breeding adults were already busy constructing nests and congregating on the cliff ledges: Cormorants and Shags with their large messy nests of sticks and rope and seaweed; Fulmars pairing up on ledges with crying calls as squabbles between individuals became vocalised; and Guillemots lining up on their precarious perches too, though perhaps not thinking of breeding quite yet. We also had the fortune of coming across a pristine pair of Velvet Scoters in the bay, which gave a superb fly-by before heading out to sea. Great Northern Divers, Shags and Slavonian Grebes were great to see here too.
The gorgeous Velvet Scoters – a scarce species around the coast here, and a new one for me. The drake (left in the above image) is a stunning bird!

One of the breeding colonies of Cormorants. Apparently, the collective noun for these stocky seabirds can be a ‘flight’, a ‘gulp’, a ‘sunning’ or even a ‘swim’ of Cormorants. Which one to use depends on context I guess! What I do know, however, is that their long-winded scientific name (Phalocrocorax carbo) translates to a ‘Bald Raven’ (Phalakros and korax), with carbo translating to ‘charcoal’. Not a particularly glamorous description!
There were plenty of Shags around the coast, and many of these glistening adult birds had already partially constructed their twiggy nests

After this great selection of birdlife, it was time to head seaward again, this time a little more E of the St Mawe’s, but more or less to our previous position. As we headed out of the bay, we could see two gull and gannet feeding flocks on the horizon – no more than a mile distant – and so set our bearing and steamed off to find out more. Half way to one of these work-ups, the familiar dark shape of half a dozen dorsal fins broke the surface some 200 metres away: they were Common Dolphins. Finally! Obviously attracted to the fish the birds were feeding on, the dolphins were moving in that direction, but came to check us out and gave great views for everyone on board…but we didn’t expect what ensued in the following two hours!

A short film that I compiled from video footage taken on the trip

Common Dolphins – always a delight to see, especially as they are particularly playful and will readily come and bow-ride 
The next two hours were utterly superb: where previously had been nothing at all, now it was full of cetaceans! The feeding flocks of birds were concentrated on bait balls of Herring, which was attracting more and more Common Dolphins in for the free-for-all. As we drifted alongside the developing feeding frenzies, dolphins began appearing out of nowhere and we spotted pod after pod all around us. We watched on as some of the pods closed in on the bait ball of small fish, working it into a tighter and tighter ball as the dolphins encircled on all sides. It was amazing to watch, especially with various other pods joining in and splitting off to come and eye us and the boat out – swimming alongside and riding the bow just a metre from our feet! Here is a video the shows some of the events unfolding: 

It really was pretty awesome, and not just because of the dolphins: just as much action was taking place above water, with Gannets and tens of gulls frantically trying to pick off any fish they could get a hold of. We came several of these bait balls, and in between the feeding flocks we were constantly surrounded by Common Dolphins, with our final estimate numbering some 180 animals! We were busy trying to get records inputted to our GPS database and sightings forms every few minutes – ultimately this data is going to be used to advise for areas of conservation importance for cetacean hotspots in the area, and allows for particularly good foraging areas to be pinpointed.
Some more images from the encounter:
A lovely juvenile, with rich yellow colouration
Most of the above images were taken of bow-riding dolphins, which species such as these Common Dolphin thoroughly enjoy! It is great fun lying on the bow of the boat, looking down on the sleek fusiform shapes of these superb creatures as they power ahead of the boat on the preceding wave

And a few shots above concentrating more on the feeding side of things, although the videos show this much better!
 I had great fun trying to photograph the Gannets as they dived like arrow shots into the water after the fish below. It is quite a challenge to stay locked on as they tuck in their wings and assume an amazingly streamlined shape. I was lucky to get a few reasonable images as they went about this brilliant spectacle
And so all-in-all it was a pretty cool day, with 180+ Common Dolphins, two Velvet Scoters, a host of fantastic seabirds and perfectly calm seas to accompany. AK Wildlife Cruises run throughout the year, and almost always see cetaceans on the trips out around the coast – they had 500 Common Dolphins on Saturday! If you are interested in coming along to one of these trips, then check out the website or facebook page for more details.

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