29 Apr 2018

29 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Thirty One: Entering Western Palearctic Waters

Today was a day of mixed emotions as it was our last day at sea on the Atlantic Odyssey as tomorrow we would be just offshore from Praia at first light: Praia is on Santiago Island & is the capital of the Cape Verde Islands. Most of the passengers would be departing, including a number of good friends I had made over the last month. However, some of the Wildwings punters were staying on for the follow-on West African Pelagic, so I would still have some good company for the following two weeks. As a result of it being the last day, then there were a number of tedious admin tasks to complete such as settling bills with the Plancius & finalising the plans for our run ashore the following day. There was also the pleasant task of saying goodbyes to all the friends who were leaving. There was also the important discussion with Mike & Glenn of the top three annoying passengers over the last month, but we agreed to give awards to five passengers as there was such strong competition. Just one candidate failed to get into the top five passengers, along with a couple of others who put in a good effort. Thus, around a hundred had been pleasant to excellent company. I guess that is pretty good going after a month together. In addition, we were losing nearly all the Expedition staff & Doc Laura, the ship's medic: all of which had been excellent company & had been essential to making the trip a success. Only Marijke was staying on for the follow-on West African Pelagic. For the passengers, it had been a month at sea, but most if not all of the Expedition staff had been in Antarctica before we joined the Plancius. For some this final day was a chance to wind down as it was all over.
Belgium Birder Filiep was caught being a bit more relaxed that about his last day of Birding
Argentinian Seba & Christophe (right) sharing a mug of the South American drink mate: Seba had been the Expedition Leader and had done a sterling job behind the scenes to make the trip a success. Both were probably looking forward to the chance to return to their respective families
However, for many of the British & European Birders we crossed the two hundred nautical miles line to the Cape Verde Islands & thus we were in the WESTERN PALEARCTIC at first light. Around Cape Verde we were now in range of the next batch of Seabird Ticks: Cape Verde Shearwater, Boyd's Little Shearwater, Fea's Petrel & Cape Verde Storm-petrel. Additionally, a number of other Seabirds we had been watching for the last few days were now potential Western Palearctic Ticks. So, the keen Birders were aiming to make the most of the last day running into the Cape Verde Islands, albeit we would still be around ninety nautical miles from Praia at dusk. I take my Western Palearctic List semi-seriously and so the next couple of weeks had potential to add between fifteen & twenty Ticks including a number of far more serious World Ticks.
Cory's Shearwater: This is the borealis subspecies of Cory's Shearwater which is the Atlantic breeding subspecies. They have more extensive grey in the hand of the underwing. They are larger and heavier than Cape Verde Shearwaters & have a pale yellow bill with a dark subterminal band
Cory's Shearwater: Another view of the same individual
Cory's Shearwater: Another view of the same individual. They have paler secondaries compared to the primaries
Red-billed Tropicbird: This & Bulwer's Petrel were the two Western Palearctic Ticks seen during the day. I also saw my first Cape Verde Shearwater, but didn't manage to get any presentable photos
Frustratingly, the sea, which had been calm since leaving Ascension Island, had changed & the sea was distinctly choppy. This didn't help with trying to pick up Cetaceans on this final day at sea. I was also looking hard for Seabirds given the potential Ticks. I only managed to see & photograph Leach's Storm-petrels, but without good photos I would have been reluctant to identify a Cape Verde Storm-petrel this far out from Cape Verde from a Band-rumped Storm-petrel.
Short-finned Pilot Whale
Close to lunchtime we ran into a large pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales. We carried on as we had had a number of excellent encounters with Short-finned Pilot Whales over the previous few days. But there was time to grab a few photos before we were past the pod.
Short-finned Pilot Whale: A tail flipper of this diving individual
Short-finned Pilot Whale: This individual's tail flippers looked much thinner (but it is just the wrong angle to the camera)
Short-finned Pilot Whale: A spyhopping individual
The Short-finned Pilot Whales were accompanied by a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. Both the Pilot Whales species tend to be messy eaters, so perhaps the Bottlenose Dolphins were sticking with them for scraps.
Bottlenose Dolphin: A mere beginner compared to the Spinner Dolphins & Clymene Dolphins seen on recent days
I had the most frustrating near sighting of the Odyssey in the late morning. There was a Cetacean shout from the starboard side when I was on the port side. I quickly got across to the other deck & got put onto a distant breaching Beaked Whale. Several times I saw the splash, but I didn't see the Beaked Whale itself. Hans & Glenn did & their photos confirmed it was a True's Beaked Whale. This is one of the rarer Beaked Whales & it was very annoying to scrutinise my photos later & confirm I had missed it.
True's Beaked Whale splash: Given its rarity, then there is a fairly good chance this will be as close as I every get to a True's Beaked Whale
One of the main highlights of the day was seeing another Loggerhead Turtle.
Loggerhead Turtle: The initial view didn't give away too many identification features
Loggerhead Turtle: Flippers out, but no great help with identification
Loggerhead Turtle: Coming up for air
Loggerhead Turtle: A close up of the head pattern. There are two pairs of scales at the front of the head. This rules out Green Turtle which only has one long pair of scales. The head shape would be more pointed & thinner if it was a Hawksbill Turtle. The overall colouration makes it a Loggerhead Turtle & rules out Olive Ridley's Turtle
Loggerhead Turtle: It's caught its breath & is off. Unfortunately, I failed to get any good photos of the scales on the shell
We also saw the first Jellyfish species.
Apparently this is a Medussa Jellyfish
This flag & buoys may indicate that a long liner fishing vessel has deployed miles of fishing lines in this area
There was a final farewell from the Captain & some celebratory drinks in the Observation lounge in late afternoon. But like a few other keen Birders, I skipped the offer so I could spend a bit more time on deck on the final afternoon. It had been a fantastic trip with 5 species of Penguins, 8 species of Albatross, 25 species of Shearwaters & Petrels, 6 species of Storm-petrels, 2 species of Tropicbirds, my final species of Frigatebird & 3 species of Boobies. Additionally, there were a number of other endemic species seen on the various islands we visited. The only landing or zodic cruise that we had hoped to make & didn't was to Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha group. Very few people ever get the chance to land on or zodiac alongside Inaccessible Island, so I never expected that to be a possibility. Many Birders I know think that being away for a month on an expensive trip & coming back with only 22 World Ticks is not cost effective. However, this for me trip was more than just a chance to see a few Ticks. It was the overall experience of a Seabird extravaganza, along with 22 species of Cetaceans (nearly 25% of the total species), 4 of the 7 species of Sea Turtles, excellent memories of Whale Sharks, the days of Flying Fish & many other sealife. Additionally, there was the opportunity to spend some time visiting some of the most remote British Overseas Territories. All this with some great company & experienced Expedition staff. Overall, it was one of the best trips I have ever been on. I was not ready to come home yet. Fortunately, I wouldn't have to as I had another two weeks on the Plancius after we left Praia as we sailed back to Holland on the follow-on West African Pelagic.

28 Apr 2018

28 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Thirty: A Frustrating Cetacean Day

On the fourth day at sea between Ascension Island and Cape Verde, we started the day with some close views of Cymene Dolphins & more distance views of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins. Additionally, there had been good, but short, views of Sea Turtles during the morning. We had a good Cetaceans list by the end of the day, but despite seeing most species, it was a frustrating day for me for Cetaceans. There was been a shout for some Dolphins on the port side of the Plancius. I didn't react immediately as I assumed they were more Clymene Dolphins or Pantropical Spotted Dolphins. Then I heard they were Rough-toothed Dolphins. I headed over to the aft side of the top deck & had brief bins views of the small pod heading rapidly down the side of the ship. I had seen them, but briefly. It was the only ones I saw on the Odyssey & there weren't any seen on the follow-on West African Pelagic. Some of the others who were better positioned managed to get some decent photos of the pod. Late morning, there were a couple of Orcas seen at long range on the port side: one of which was breaching. Again, I saw them with the bins, but failed to get any photos other than the splash the breaching Orca made.
Splash from the breaching Orca
Just before lunchtime, we had views of a couple of Dwarf Sperm Whales. One was logging on the surface, while the second slowly surfaced next to it. Again, it was good to get some photos of them, but the views weren't fantastic.
Dwarf Sperm Whale: A second individual starts to surface to the left of the logging individual
Dwarf Sperm Whale
Dwarf Sperm Whale
Dwarf Sperm Whale
Dwarf Sperm Whale: A close crop of the right hand individual
Dwarf Sperm Whale
While everybody was at lunch, I was heading down to the Observation lounge to top up on coffee & biscuits, when I ran into Marijke & several of the Expedition staff who appeared from the staff mess room. Apparently, there was a shout of a close Whale. There wasn't time to head back to the bridge wing, so I headed out to one of the forward decks to see a couple of Short-finned Pilot Whales right next to the bows. There was time to grab a few photos, before we were sailing past them. I then headed back to get the coffee & biscuits. After lunch, Marijke explained the full story. She had gone to the opposite side of the Plancius to me & also seen a Short-finned Pilot Whale go down her side of the Plancius, followed by a large pool of blood. Apparently, some of the Birders who were at the bows had also seen a close Orca, which both Marijke & I had missed. What Marijke thinks is that one of the Short-finned Pilot Whale calves became separated from the rest of the pod and was attacked by the Orca. I ended up getting a good close photo of one of the Short-finned Pilot Whales going down the starboard side. But it was frustrating & sad to hear of the demise of one of the pod.
Short-finned Pilot Whale: This photo shows the blunt head shape and the right-hand flipper can be seen. This is shorter in length than the overall length of the dorsal fin. Long-finned Pilot Whales have a flipper length that is similar to the overall dorsal fin length
In late afternoon, we had brief views of a Gervais's Beaked Whale.
Gervais's Beaked Whale: Quite a few people managed to miss this completely, so getting a record shot photo was doing better than many. Fortunately, Hans or Marijke managed to get decent photos to confirm the identification
Overall, it had been a fairly frustrating day with generally poor photos of the Whales, not to mention the unfortunate Short-finned Pilot Whale.

28 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Thirty: Two More Turtle Species

Another early morning start on the Plancius wondering what would be seen during the day. The early morning Clymene Dolphins & Pantropical Spotted Dolphins had got things off to a good start. It was another hot & sunny day. With only a couple of days before we reached the Cape Verde Islands, there was anticipation of an increase in Seabirds as we were now closer to Cape Verde, than Ascension Island. However, we would be in deep water until we were very close to the islands. In the end, the day turned out to be similar to the previous day for Seabirds with a few Bulwer's Petrels, Cory's Shearwaters, Red-footed Boobies, Long-tailed Skuas & Arctic Terns. Around half the Seabirds seen were Leach's Storm-petrels. The highlight was my only Pomarine Skua of the Odyssey. There was also a Storm-petrel sp. that I didn't get to photograph. It could have been a Band-rumped Storm-petrel or my first Cape Verde Storm-petrel. Cape Verde Storm-petrels have been recently split off from Band-rumped Storm-petrel & without photos, it would have been tricky to be sure.
Three more of the good company from the Odyssey: Chris Gladwin, Chris Keher & Mark Newsome
With the Birding being uninspiring again, it was down to the sea to provide the main interest to keep us on the decks. Fortunately, the sea came up trumps with Sea Turtles. The Sea Turtles were tricky to get onto as they are so low in the water that they needed to be much closer than a hundred metres to stand a chance of seeing them. But at that distance, when they realised they were right next to the Plancius, their immediate thought was to dive & try & get away from us. Therefore, even when we were lucky to see a Sea Turtle it was generally diving by the time it was level with the bridge wings. You also needed to be close to the finder, as there wasn't time to move closer to an observer, as they were already thinking of diving as they were spotted. We saw two Loggerhead Turtles & an Olive Ridley's Turtle in the morning. Fortunately, I managed to see & photograph both species. Just getting to see a Sea Turtle was tough, given the brevity of views but we generally needed to get photos to confirm the identification. A useful identification chart can be downloaded from the Sea Turtle.org website.
Loggerhead Turtle: The shell is not circular, but is longer than it is wide. The have five or 6 costal scutes (which are the segments along the side of the upper shell). I seem to remember Marijke saying that Loggerhead Turtles were very prone to having Barnacle encrustaceans on their shells
Loggerhead Turtle: The first coastal scute touches the nuchal scute (which is the narrow segment on the shell immediately behind the head). Unfortunately, my photos do not show either of the key features associated with the scutes, but other people managed to get better photos allowing Marijke to confirm the identification of both Turtle species seen
Olive Ridley Turtle: This was the smallest Sea Turtle we saw & had this distinctive shaped shell which was far more rounded than the other Sea Turtles we saw. The shape was still noticeable even when it was underwater
Olive Ridley Turtle: The only other Sea Turtle with a similar shell shape is Kemp's Ridley Turtle, but that is restricted to the Gulf of Mexico & Atlantic coast of the US. Olive Ridley's Turtles occur in the Pacific and Indian Oceans & South Atlantic (& just into the North Atlantic as we crossed the Equator the previous day)
Olive Ridley Turtle: It was great to see it pop its head out of the water for a breather. They have six or more costal scutes
Olive Ridley Turtle
Olive Ridley Turtle: Having got its breath, it was quickly off
With just seven species of Sea Turtles in the world, we had managed to see four species on the Atlantic Odyssey & today's species were both Ticks. There was a realistic chance of seeing a Hawksbill Turtle on either the Odyssey or the follow-on West African Pelagic. However, we were unlucky not to see one. But we had seen more Sea Turtles species than any of the previous Odyssey trips, so I can't complain too much about not seeing a Hawksbill Turtle.
Marine rubbish: Fishing float
Marine rubbish: Oil barrel
It was depressing that we were still two days sailing before we reached the Cape Verde Islands & we hadn't seen any ships since we left Ascension Island two days earlier. But even this far out in the Atlantic, we still encountered evidence of human rubbish.

28 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Thirty: Dolphin Dawn

Soon after first light on the last but on day at sea between Ascension Island & Cape Verde we encountered the first of several pods of several hundred Dolphins. I saw around three hundred Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, along with another forty of more Clymene Dolphins.
The first pod of Clymene Dolphins appeared at 06:45: They were on the side of the Plancius with the poor light
Clymene Dolphin: They are also called Short-beaked Spinner Dolphins for reasons that will become apparent
Clymene Dolphin
Clymene Dolphin: This photo is the right way up & one of my favourite Cetacean photos from the trip
Clymene Dolphin
Clymene Dolphin
Clymene Dolphin
Clymene Dolphin: Entering the water the right way up would be dull
Clymene Dolphin: I've cropped & rotated the upside down photo to allow a field guide view of this individual
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin: Some of the several hundred Pantropical Spotted Dolphins. Unfortunately, none came close to the Plancius
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin: A close crop to show the distinctive markings & short beak

27 Apr 2018

27 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Twenty Nine: Acrobatic Showoffs (Spinner Dolphins)

After a morning with a few Seabirds & the first Risso's Dolphins of the cruise. however, we were all hoping for some more Cetacean action, as the Pantropical Spotted Dolphins & our first Spinner Dolphins in the morning had all been distant. Finally, in mid afternoon our persistence was rewarded with a large pod of at least four hundred Spinner Dolphins. Some came close to the Plancius & the Expedition staff & ship's crew agreed to stop the Plancius. For the next hour, we had good numbers of Spinner Dolphins around the Plancius. Eventually, we had to get underway again, but some of the passengers had already headed down to the Observation lounge to wait for happy hour. As far as I was concerned happy hour finished as we started getting underway again.
Spinner Dolphin: Soon after we picked up the Spinner Dolphins & were discussing their identification, we started to see individuals jumping out of the water
Spinner Dolphin: They were clearly Spinner Dolphins when they behaved like this
Spinner Dolphin: Another impressive leap
Spinner Dolphin: Just a small part of the four hundred plus Spinner Dolphins in this pod
Spinner Dolphin: They very rapidly starting getting high scores for their performances
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin: This Spinner Dolphin put any act from one of those nauseous Simon Cowell talent programs to shame
Spinner Dolphin: It was difficult to know where to look with so many Spinner Dolphins around
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin: The acrobatics, slim appearance, long beaks, dark line from the beak & through the eye, pale underparts & pale pink bellies made this species easy to identify. The Eastern Pacific population are a more uniform pale grey colouration
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
It had been another good day on the Atlantic Odyssey & I was pleased to have seen such good views of these Spinner Dolphins. I saw them a couple on the ferry between the two islands of Western Samoa in 2002, but they were feeding & not showing off like these individuals.