Given the plan for the day involved about ten hours on a boat on the Atlantic, the sight of a full English breakfast less than an hour before departure made me somewhat nervous… was this a good idea? Would I regret it later?
As it turned out, I was absolutely fine all day, despite rather choppy conditions following fresh westerlies overnight. Today, we headed out past Annet and around the western isles, passing south of the Bishop Rock lighthouse. Pretty early on, someone spotted a Basking Shark, and skipper Joe Pender was able to get us in fairly close for a look. Much more impressive in real life than on a photo!
There were no more than about 25 birders on board, so there was plenty of room to move about the boat and find the best spot for viewing or photography. (This is a big plus compared to the Scillonian pelagic, where I occasionally found it a real struggle to get clear views past people’s heads etc – ideally you need to bag one of the best seats hours in advance there). I recognised a few faces from around the country – Martin Bonfield from a few junctions up the M11; Dave and Andy Appleton from Norfolk and Kent respectively; Richard Stonier, a Scilly regular in the autumn; and three of the self-styled ASBO birders – Stevie Dunn, Adam Archer and Mike Feely.
Since the majority of people on the boat hadn’t been out and seen the Wilson’s the night before, this was the target again today. We headed out to Poll Bank, about 3 miles SW of Bishop Rock, cut the engine, and opened up the infamous chum. Apparently if you’re a petrel, fish offal and especially liver is a favourite, so Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher deployed a combination of popcorn mixed with dogfish liver, plus bread soaked in cod-liver oil, to create a pretty foul-smelling slick on the surface behind the boat. Mmmm, lovely!
We continued to drift for about three or four hours, scouring the Storm Petrels around the back of the boat. Although there was never a huge number visible at one time, there seemed to be a fairly steady flow of ‘new’ birds coming in, and so persistence seemed worthwhile. The Bonxie pictured above got stuck into the gulls a couple of times, and we saw a Grey Phalarope in flight briefly as it came into the slick. On the whole, it was rather slow going though… until interest picked up when Joe caught quite a big fish!
This is an impressive Blue Shark, just over six feet long; as part of the UK Shark Tagging Programme, it was landed, tagged and released. As this link shows, sharks tagged on Scilly have been recaptured as far away as the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands – up to almost 2000 miles away!
When handling sharks, always wear suitable foot protection.
Unfortunately, we still couldn’t find another Wilson’s Petrel, so took an indirect route back to Hugh Town trying out the ‘steam and chum’ technique. Basically this involves cruising along as normal, while some lucky person gets to throw chunks of mackerel off the back of the boat. Gulls, Gannets and Fulmars move in very quickly, and there’s always the chance that some shearwaters, petrels or skuas will come and join in. On this occasion, though, the interest was provided a group of three Common Dolphins that spent about 30-40 minutes bow-riding. The photos below were taken with a short 10-20mm landscape lens, so you can imagine how close they must have been – lying on the bow of the boat watching them directly below was a fantastic experience!