On the evening of Saturday 28th June, the Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch team (Bryony, Rosie and I) set sail aboard the Ben-My-Chree for the fantastic Round the Island Cruise. This was the first time we have joined The Isle of Man Steam-Packet Company’s Round the Island Cruise, and felt very privileged to have the opportunity to survey for whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) from the Ben-My-Chree purely in Manx waters, and to speak to hundreds of people who live on or visit our beautiful island.
Upon setting foot on the Ben, we made our way up to the first outside deck and took up our positions on either side of the vessel just in front of the seating area so everyone could see us. We also saw for the first time, our beautiful display boards which have recently been installed on the outside decks on Ben-My-Chree and Manannan. They look fantastic, if I do say so myself! As we departed Douglas, our knowledgeable commentator for the evening, Captain Stephen Carter, announced our presence on board and spoke for a while about our survey and what we potentially might see. We made our way South in a calm sea state and chatted away to some eager passengers who were hopeful to see something. Our first sighting was just after we passed Langness Lighthouse; Rosie and I saw a Gannet diving just in front of us which caught our eye. We focused on the area, when all of a sudden, a Minke whale surfaced in the middle of the birds! It was a fantastic sighting, but unfortunate that everyone else was on the other side of the boat admiring the coastline. By the time people came running over, the Minke whale had disappeared! One gentleman stayed with us as we continued southwards, and as I was busy filling out forms, he and Rosie spotted another Minke whale. The presence of birds, either diving or sitting on the surface, is usually an indicator of cetacean presence. When cetaceans feed, they drive shoals of fish up to the surface which provides easy pickings for marine birds.
As we powered towards the Calf, we could see what looked like hundreds of birds sitting on the surface. Sure enough, as we got closer, and passed the Chicken Rocks there were hundreds upon hundreds of Gannets; some were sitting and many were diving. There must have been an incredible amount of fish they were feeding on, and surely there must have been cetaceans getting involved in the picnic. As we turned around the back of the Calf, the conditions at sea completely changed, the wind was a strong North Westerly and we were no longer protected by land. The swell and sea state picked up and the evening sun, low in the sky, glared out at us making the conditions extremely difficult to survey in. It was then that we stared seeing it; a large ‘blow’ in the midst of the gannets, we squinted through the glare wondering what on earth was out there. We saw it again, a big tall blow, a total of seven times as it moved off into the distance. We were frustrated not to have identified what animal was creating the blow, but it was unlikely to be a Minke whale, which is most frequently seen species of whale in Manx waters. It is very rare to see a Minke whale blow unless the conditions are perfectly calm; the reason for this is that their blow is very light and bushy and usually disperses at the surface. Although rare in Manx waters, we think the animal we saw whilst on this survey was most probably a Fin whale, as they have a distinctive tall, thin blow. On the following day and a couple of days later we had two further reports of a suspected Fin whale, one off the Calf and the other off Douglas. Fin whales are huge; reaching 28 metres, making them the second largest animal on earth second to the Blue whale.
Back to the cruise and following our excitement and frustration, we spoke to many people on board who thought they saw something by the Calf. It is likely that there were other cetaceans around that area that we didn’t spot due to the conditions.
The remainder of the West of the island was choppy, and we didn’t have any sightings until we reached the North. We were however, treated an absolutely stunning sunset and a fantastic 360 degree turn in Peel to take in the iconic scenery of the horseshoe bay and red stone castle.
We cruised on to the North and around the Point of Ayre, where upon hitting the East coast, the sea was once again protected by the land and we were treated to flat calm seas for the remainder of the trip. Just as we passed the Point of Ayre, we had our final sighting; I was surveying on the starboard side of the vessel, looking out to the coast, when all of a sudden, a Bottlenose dolphin leaped out of the water! Her whole body cleared the surface as she twisted in the air and came down on her back. It was the perfect sighting as so many passengers were out on deck to witness her acrobatics. I ran to the others and to get the camcorder, but typically, we didn’t see her again. One gentleman said that she breached again twice before disappearing.
The light was rapidly disappearing and Bryony and Rosie had to stop surveying out to sea. I continued surveying in the faint light from the houses along the coast, but didn’t see anything else. We were welcomed back into Douglas at 23:00 by the twinkling line of lights along the promenade.
It was a fantastic survey; we had the rare opportunity to speak to so many people who were all eager and excited to have us onboard, some of them were even lucky enough to see cetaceans with us so close inshore to the Isle of Man. The trip was superb; we hugged the coastline all the way and were treated to Captain Stephen Carter’s interesting and knowledgeable commentary throughout the trip. We were so lucky to have a perfect evening for it too, with a blazing red sunset and good visibility.
We would like to thank the Isle of Man Steam-Packet Company for inviting us to take part in the cruise, Captain Stephen Carter for our introduction, and to all the staff on board for making us feel welcome and helping us out.
Thank you from the MWDW team, Jen Adams, Bryony Manley and Rosie Sampson.