17 Sept 2022

17 Sep 22 - A Day Trip To Cherbourg With ORCA

The alarm went off very early to allow me plenty of time for breakfast & to get out of the house, in time to arrive at Poole ferry terminal just before 07:00. Today was my first trip on an Orca survey from Poole to Cherbourg & back again and there was no option to arriving late. I arrived a few minutes early & the others all appeared within a few minutes. It turns out our team leader, Moira Gainey, had driven down from Oxford & spent a cold night in her camper van, Conor Aynsley had driven down the previous night from Birmingham and stayed in a local hotel and Chris Northwood had had an early start to drive along from the Selsey area. As a result, my thirty minute drive was the shortest journey.

The nice thing about being on an official Orca Cetacean survey is Brittany Ferries kindly provide free parking & boat tickets, as well as, allowing access to the warm bridge for the survey. We were quickly through passport control and waiting to be called to board the ship. The Barfleur left about 08:30 and we headed for the upper deck to enjoy some views over Brownsea & Studland. While I've seen this views on many occasions from the Poole Harbour Bird Boats & ferries, I've not seen the views from such a high viewing position before.
South Haven & the Studland Ferry
As we were now outside of Poole Harbour, we asked if we could go up to the bridge. The drawback of the bridge is the photos had to be taken through the ship's dirty windows.
A final view of the chalk cliffs of Ballard Down with Old Harry at the right hand end taken from the bridge
It was time to start the Cetacean survey. The surveys have a team of four. This allows one of us at each end of the bridge wings, one logging our position and one stood down to give the eyes a break, for food or toilet breaks. Clearly, as a birder used to many hours of dull Isle of Purbeck seawatching, stood down meant the chance for some Birding & looking for Cetaceans. We rotated through the positions every thirty minutes.

When we were surveying we used the Orca binoculars which have a vertical grid on the left eyepiece. The idea is every Cetacean, Seal, Shark or Turtle sighting, has the vertical distance from the horizon to the initial sighting noted, along with angle to the ship's bows with an arrow marker board. This information along with the species, number of individuals, behaviour is all logged. Additionally, the ship's position, course, speed, visibility & sea state are noted. The same ship's details are noted every thirty minutes or for a change of course. This information is submitted by the team leader at the end of the survey and it helps to build up a detailed analysis of Cetaceans along the ferry routes which are regularly surveyed. It's a great system.

The only drawback being the binoculars we use are bulky 7 x 50s with focusing on the individual eyepieces: it's hard to understand why the manufacturer thinks focusing on the individual eyepieces is a good design feature. Fortunately, once the binoculars are focused, then it wasn't really necessary to refocus them. If a Cetacean is seen, it would be possible to switch back to the Swarovski's to improve the chances of identifying the Cetaceans, after the initial details are noted.

The only Cetaceans seen on the crossing were a brief sighting of a pod of three probably Harbour Porpoises as we approached the French coast. Unfortunately, I was on the other side of the bridge wing at the time. But in cases like this, the survey should continue without me racing to the other wing to watch the sighting.

We were there to look for Cetaceans, but not Birds. However, there was enough time to quickly ID & call the more interesting Birds to those nearby, before switching back to Cetacean watching, without losing any survey time. There weren't a lot of Seabirds, but on the crossing to Cherbourg I saw:
  • Five Sooty Shearwaters West (all in French waters)
  • Five Manx Shearwaters West (one in UK waters and four in French waters)
  • A Grey Heron North about ten miles out to sea off the French coast and presumably heading to the UK
  • Singles of Bonxie and Arctic Skua West (in French waters)
  • Ten Razorbills West (in UK waters)
  • Ten Kittiwakes West (six in UK waters and four in French waters)
  • Three Mediterranean Gulls West (one in UK waters and two in French waters).

It was hardly busy for Seabirds, but it helped to keep scanning. I heard the next day that there had been a really good seawatch off Gatteville on the Cherbourg Peninsula involving over five hundred Sooty Shearwaters during our crossing, so it looks like most of the Seabirds were off the French coast and being pushed by the wind in the direction of the Normandy beaches.
It got fairly busy as we crossed the main shipping lanes
After a few hours we were close to the Port of Cherbourg. There is a large outer breakwater which is five and a half miles in length including the two large entrances. This breakwater is protected by a number of historic forts which date to about 1860.
Cherbourg: The main shipping channel into the outer harbour passes the Fort de l'Est
Cherbourg: The Fort de l'Est was totally destroyed during the WW2 Battle of Cherbourg
Cherbourg: The Central Fort appears to have largely survived the WW2 Battle of Cherbourg, but there is clearly a fair bit of battle damage when looked at carefully
One of my local Birding mates, Rob, works on the Condor ferry which also runs into Cherbourg. He said he sometimes sees a pod of up to six Bottlenose Dolphins in the outer harbour. Although we had finished the survey just before we reached the outer harbour, the ship's Captain was happy for us to stay on the bridge. As we entered the outer harbour, I picked up a pod of three Bottlenose Dolphins in the main channel between the inner and outer harbours. We watched as they headed for the fish farms to our right and inside the outer harbour wall. They were noted as an incidental sighting, as they were not seen during the formal survey.

It was time to leave the bridge and join the passengers heading for Cherbourg. We got on one of the three or four coaches for foot passengers heading for the arrivals terminal. We were quickly through immigration & my nice new passport now has two passport stamps: thanks to the dogmatic stupidity of the tories & their poor brexit deal. We had around three hours before we had to return to the ship. It is about a mile and a quarter walk into the town centre and it was a good opportunity to stretch our legs.
Saudi Fast Patrol Boat: I had assumed this was a French Navy Patrol Boat, but apparently it's one of a large order of Fast Patrol Boats being built in Cherbourg for the Saudi Navy
The Sailing Ship Gunilla: She was built as a motorsailor in the 1930s and used as a cargo vessel until 1997, when she was rebuilt into a three-masted barque. She is now used as a Swedish sailing ship for sailors ages 16 to 18 to learn to sail
It was a bit run down in parts on the walk into the town centre, but to be fair, that's typical for a number of ports I've visited over the years. There was time for a leisurely lunch in the sun at a street restaurant in Cherbourg, before rejoining the ship for the return crossing.
A French street lunch for Moira, Chris, Conor & myself (taking the photo)
Titanic Memorial Stone: I wasn't aware that after the Titanic left Southampton, she visited Cherbourg on 10 Apr 1912, before her last port visit to Cobh (formally Queenstown) in Ireland
We were back on ship with plenty of time before we sailed. We waited for the Barfleur to leave the harbour, before asking for permission to return to the bridge.
Cherbourg: Despite a good search before & after the Barfleur's departure, we failed to see the Bottlenose Dolphins again
We didn't see any Cetaceans on the return crossing, but did see a further four Sooty Shearwaters heading West before it got dark. It was dark just before we reached mid channel. We thanked the bridge team and headed to the restaurant for an evening coffee. My first ORCA Cetacean survey had been a lot of fun & I will look forward to the next one.
This sunset confirmed the survey was nearly over