11 May 2018

11 May 18 - West African Pelagic - Day Eleven: Cruising In The English Channel (The Final Post)

This Blog Post covers the end of the West African Pelagic. We had enjoyed a successful day in the Southern Bay of Biscay with a Fin Whale, Short-beaked Common Dolphin & Seabirds, as well as, a great encounter with some Long-finned Pilot Whales. The day had started with flat calm seas & still conditions. As the day progressed, it had become steadily choppier as we ran into the front that was heading for the central part of the Bay of Biscay. The seas continued to increase during the evening, but for the passengers who had come up from Ushuaia it wasn't as bad as we had encountered in the Southern oceans. However, some of the passengers who joined at Cape Verde were less comfortable. By the following morning, we were in the Northern part of the Bay of Biscay. The seas were still lively & the bows were closed for most of the day. However, the rest of the decks were still open to passengers, so it still wasn't that bad. I've travelled through the Northern part of the Bay of Biscay on several occasions on ferries from Portsmouth to Bilboa & had an idea of what would be seen during the day. It is beyond the likely range of most interesting Seabirds i.e. the ones that breed around the Canaries & Madeira, especially in May. It is an excellent area for seeing Dolphins: but these would be Short-beaked Common Dolphins, Striped Dolphins & Bottlenose Dolphins (in that order). As we were now out of the deepest parts of the Bay of Biscay, we had a lower chance of seeing some of the more interesting Whales & Beaked Whales, which occur in the Southern part of the Bay of Biscay. Therefore, with the expectation of nothing new from the decks & the choppier seas making it unlikely to see many Cetaceans, then it was a day of mainly sorting photos from the trip. Bob Flood was interested in copies of my photos of the Zino's Petrels & a number of the Storm-petrel photos from the Atlantic Odyssey. I had only installed a copy of Adobe Lightroom a few days before joining the Plancius & so I was still trying to get used to it. Having edited all the photos from the Plancius, it would only take me a few hours to sort all these photos for Bob. However, it took me most of the day to sort the photos, plus the time I had spent off Northern Portugal. I wasn't missing anything, as reports from those on deck were confirming the only Seabirds that were being seen were species I could see off my local Dorset coastline. There was the occasional Short-beaked Common Dolphin sighting, but they were few & far between and not being seen well in the choppy seas & 20 knot winds. By the following morning, the photos had been sorted, the winds & sea had moderated & we were sailing steadily up the English Channel. By late afternoon, the seas were flat calm.
There was a large number of ships constantly passing in both directions: Boulogne-sur-mer is in the background
The seas were very busy: especially as we had been used to one or two fishing boats a week
A fair bit of the day was spent enjoying the cruise up the English Channel. There were few Seabirds to watch & the ones we did see were easy to identify.
Gannet: These are a common sight off the Dorset coast, although the nearest breeding colony is on Alderney
Fulmar: When the most exciting Seabird is a Fulmar which breeds on my local Studland & St Aldhelms patches, then you know you are close to home
Kittiwake: Another local breeding species in low numbers
Floating Seaweed: We saw a few small patches
Many people were on deck enjoying the views & just chatting. By now I had made a number of friends with the new Dutch passengers, as well as, the friends who had travelled all the way up from Ushuaia. Unfortunately, it was hazy which combined with the distance, reduced the quality of the coastal photos. We were several miles at least off the French coast & probably around fifteen miles or more off the English coast.
Dungeness: The power station & lighthouse were miles away in the distance, but easily visible for migrants on a good day
Boulogne-sur-mer: It was a hazy day
The Cap Gris-Nez Lighthouse: At 21 miles away, the Grey Nose headland is the closest point of France to the UK
The French equivalent of our Border Force off Cap Gris-Nez
The clear wildlife highlight of the day was a couple of Harbour Porpoises: my twenty sixth & final Cetacean on the Plancius (until I return for another trip). Unfortunately, both were short sightings. Despite the perfect flat seas & I only managed to get one worthwhile photo.
Harbour Porpoise: One day I will manage to get a good Harbour Porpoise photo
Earlier in the day, I had packed & sorted my bags for my departure the following morning as I needed to be off the Plancius as soon as possible. By early evening, we all headed down to the Observation lounge for a final wash up for the trip & to hear the plans for our arrival into the Dutch port of Vlissingen the following morning. This is the home port for Oceanwide Expeditions who own both the Plancius & Ortelius, which we had last seen in Ushuaia. Everybody was happy that evening as there were a few free drinks with the meal. I hadn't been ready to get off in Cape Verde, but now finally felt like the right time.
The final supper: (left to right) Roy, Lorraine, Hadie, Neil, Ian, Mike, me & Henrik
The following morning, I packed the last few items in the bags at first light & headed up on deck. Vlissengen is on the North bank of the River Scheldt river which continues to Antwerp.
Entering the channel leading to Vlissingen: We must be here will all these modern Dutch windmills
I had been told by Wildwings to expect we would be docking & able to disembark around 09:00. We were now being told by Inezia that while they were expecting us to be docking by 09:00, the likelihood was that passengers would not start disembarking until 10:00 or 10:30. The first passengers allowed off the Plancius would be passengers who were going to be dropped by coach at Vlissingen station. The coaches would then be returning to collect the remaining passengers who wanted to go to Schiphol airport. By the time, everybody had got off the ship, found their bags & got loaded onto the coaches, it was clear that it would be close to lunchtime before the coaches were finally leaving Vlissingen for Schiphol (about three hours away by road or rail). This was far too late for me, given I had taken the times I was given by Wildwings as accurate & had a mid-afternoon flight booked for Southampton. I had the tightest flight of any of the passengers. As a result, Pieter, the Inezia coordinator, had arranged with the Plancius, that my passport would be checked first by Dutch customs. Once checked, he would escort me to the dock gate where a taxi would be waiting to take me to the station. The taxi got me to the station with perfect timing: the twice hourly train to Schiphol & Amsterdam was just pulling in as I got on the platform. By the time the coaches were finally leaving Vlissingen for Schiphol, I was checking in for my flight, with enough time for some lunch. The taxi had cost me a bit more money, but it was much cheaper than the costs to rebook a missed flight (if that had been possible). Just over an hour after we took off, we were landing in Southampton airport. It was a short walk to the station & a short wait, before the train to Wareham arrived. A final taxi ride & I was home after six & a half weeks of travelling from Ushuaia. A number of my mates were still at Schiphol waiting for their flights when I was drinking for first English cuppa for three months. The end of one of the most amazing trips I've been on since my first foreign trip in 1983.