15 Jun 2018

15 Jun 18 - A Risso's In Plymouth

On Mon 11 June, I saw an interesting tweet from my old mate, Pete Aley, that he had found a Risso's Dolphin in Plymouth from the Torpoint ferry. This is a car & passenger ferry between Torpoint on the West side of the River Tamar & the South Western corner of Plymouth. Having never seen a Risso's Dolphin in UK waters, then I was keen to give it a go. However, as it was around 17:30 & I wouldn't have been able to get there before 20:00, I decided that dashing straight down probably wasn't the best policy. I had a quick chat with Pete with a request to give me a shout if it was seen the following morning. Sadly, there was no news the following morning, but it was seen late afternoon again. So again there wasn't much of a chance of dashing down, but at least it had been seen again. I kept an eye on news from Plymouth as the week progressed. Pete saw it again on Weds in the late afternoon & there was also an afternoon sighting on the following day. I had a free day on the Friday, so an afternoon visit seemed the best option. Pete was around in the afternoon, so I arranged to pick him up early afternoon, before we headed across on the ferry to Torpoint as most of the occasional sightings were being seen on that side of the river. This wasn't surprising as the large Devonport dockyard occupied a large part of the waterfront on the Plymouth side to the North of the ferry. But there were some viewpoints from Torpoint's waterfront streets on the Cornish side of the river. It didn't take long from Pete's house to get to the ferry, where there was a nice view of the Devonport dockyard. Having worked with the Royal Navy in my first couple of jobs, then I'm always keen to see naval ships.
HMS Kent (F78): Type 23 Frigate
HMS Somerset (F82): Type 23 Frigate
HMS Argyll (F231): Type 23 Frigate
HMS Talent: Trafalgar Class submarine. We were looking for something a lot smaller that could dive under water
The first place we tried was Marine Drive in Torpoint which gives a nice view over a side bay to the Tamar known as St John's Lake (although it is an estuarine channel). The tide was relatively low & it wasn't ideal. After a while Pete suggested we tried another viewpoint further upriver at Wilcove which overlooks the deep channel at the Northern end of Devonport close to where the River Lynher joins the Tamar. It had been seen in this area on one occasion during the week. This area looked good, but after an hour of looking we had had no joy.
German Navy FGS Augsbury (F213): Type 122 Frigate
PHeM Atlantico (A140): Formally HMS Ocean which has been sold by the MoD to the Brazilian Navy as one of the many defence cuts the Tories made to try balancing budgets so they could continue to cut taxes for their mates. It is currently being recommissioned & is expected to be handed over to the Brazilian Navy by the end of 2018
As the tide was now rapidly coming in, I suggested to Pete we returned to Marine Drive as there should be more water there now & the Risso's Dolphin had been seen from there on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, there was a lot more water in St John's Lake & we settled down on a bench to scan the area. After about five minutes of scanning, I picked up a tall fin which briefly appeared 200-300 metres straight out in the side channel. Given the shape & height of the fin it was clearly a Risso's Dolphin. The couple of prolonged periods of watching Risso's Dolphins on the Atlantic Odyssey in the last few weeks had been really helpful in getting used to their features.
Risso's Dolphin: Unfortunately, it wasn't close
Risso's Dolphin: It was a tall fin
Risso's Dolphin: More of the rear body appears as it starts to dive
Risso's Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin: It is very graceful as it dives
Risso's Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin: That's it for another five minutes
There were two groups of barges tied up in the side channel & it was between these two groups, but it quickly disappeared before Pete got onto it. I nipped back to the car to grab the telescope hoping to get some better views. The next time I picked it up it had moved about 100 metres to the right & was near a pale yellow buoy. This time it was up long enough for Pete to get onto it & for me to grab some quick photos. It then disappeared for another five minutes before I finally picked it up back near the barges. A few more photos before it dropped below the surface. I picked it up for the final sighting after another five minutes, when it reappeared back near the pale yellow buoy. This was a bit closer & the chance for some better photos. However, it was never really close for decent photos. Clearly, all the practice at Cetacean watching from the Plancius has paid off.
Risso's Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin: The grey colouration & the pale scaring is typical for Risso's Dolphins. The scaring is believed to be caused by the beaks & suckers of Squid: their main food. However, scars may also be due to the teeth of other Risso's Dolphins
Risso's Dolphin
I thought the identification as a Risso's Dolphin was straight-forward. However, since I saw it there have been Cetacean sightings from other members of the public in the Plymouth area with reports of an Orca being present in the Plymouth area. I have seen a still photo of one of these reports & feel confident that was the Risso's Dolphin. I've also seen a very shaky video which I'm struggling to identify. I've also forwarded one of my photos to Marijke de Boer who was one of the Expedition guides on the Atlantic Odyssey & was one of the Cetacean experts on the Plancius. Marijke has spent a fair bit of time studying Risso's Dolphins & working on Cetaceans in the South West. She has confirmed we saw a Risso's Dolphin. I've subsequently forwarded some of the other photos to Marijke, in case it can be identified to a known individual by the Penzance Dolphin team. I will update the Blog if there is any news on this in the next few weeks.
Risso's Dolphin: A couple of final photos & it was gone
Risso's Dolphin
We carried on looking for at least another 30 minutes but it didn't reappear. There are quite a few moored boats in the side channel so we weren't sure if it had surfaced close to one of those boats & we had missed it. Given it didn't appear to be in the side channel any more, we walked back to the ferry & viewed from there for a few minutes in case it had decided to carry on up towards the dockyard. Again, we had no joy. Finally, we returned to Wilcove & had a quick look from there. We checked with the couple who were still fishing there & they hadn't notice the Risso's Dolphin swimming up the channel. It was early evening now & it seemed a good point to give up, although we had a final scan from the ferry. It had been a successful afternoon.
Time for a celebratory drink & meal with Pete & his wife Ali: It had been a good afternoon & it was good to catch up with two old friends