The unsound approach

A preliminary survey of the vertebrates of the North-east Atlantic: Ultimate Pelagic, August 2007 



*Lees, A.C., Moores, RD, Bird, J.B., Addison, R., Lascelles, B., Stronach, P. & Gilroy, J.G.


*correspondence address:


Great to be looking at Shearwaters (B. Lascelles)



The Bay of Biscay is an important staging area for cetaceans and seabirds and despite the fact that these waters are regularly plied by passenger ferries, systematic, organised searches for rare taxa are as rare as the taxa themselves. Whilst Biscay is undersampled, the deep waters along the Continental shelf off Ireland are virtually unknown. A crack team of East Anglian raconteurs, part-time idiots, full-time supremos and professional novices got on a boat under the auspices of having a good time and finding a new species of storm-petrel to science (well you can never raise your hopes too high).  


Keywords: Biscay, Calonectris, boat, pissed, fish, feck, arse, girls.




Unlike our brothers over the pond, we remain largely ignorant of the pelagic possibilities that await us over the shelf edge, largely because the Continental Shelf is itself very broad, and because the seas in the SW approaches and SW Ireland are among the roughest in the world. The avifauna of these deep water areas is virtually unknown; one would expect South Polar Skuas to be hanging on to complete their circum-Atlantic navigations with the flocks of Great Shears, and Black-capped Petrels may well be regular over the shelf edge. Madeiran and White-faced Storm-petrels also seem likely deep-water candidates. Basically if Ultimate Pelagics continue to run these trips they will get something heinous, and heinous is not some run-of-the-mill rare such as Fea's and Little Shear....  




We looked at the sea, maintaining a presence standing/sitting/sleeping* on deck for all daylight hours. In order to maintain concentration observers would punctuate the survey with i) intensive games of table tennis, ii) shovey-discy (or whatever its called; nb, after the Belgians realised it wasn't dude to play this they hogged it and we never managed to get another game in (always outnumbered, never outgunned we improvised our own game...) iii) binge-drinking iv) madness. Most of us failed to systematically record anything, even how much we were drinking (Fig. S1). In order to ascertain whether altering our alcohol intake might help our prowess at finding and identifying pelagic critters, we adopted a quantitative approach to beverage consumption: evenings (Fig. S2) were spent either drinking a) lots, b) more or c) too much. We also experimented with wearing lots of hats and dressing ridiculously (Fig. S3) but this did not lead to any significant increase in sightings of unusual wildlife**.  

*this did lead to some minor muscular pain, but appropriate mitigatory action (S4) was taken.

** it did lead to widespread ridicule however.


Figure 1. Seawatching - not for the faint of heart; the many faces of Rick: anticipation, concentration, desolation, deliberation, ejaculation (all JG)



Looking at the sea produced more records of pelagic macrofauna than staring at our shoes (n = 403, p = 0.005); however, on occasion, (e.g. Day 2; time period: 0745-0845; results: Black Tern, Painted Lady, Reed Warbler, expanse of water, hungover RDM) similar results could have been acquired at Whitlingham Lane Gravel Pits, Norwich. Drinking (Fig. S5) did not affect our ability to find rare birds, but did affect levels of idiocy and the ability of some players to get up before 10am (Figure 3).  Blow-by-BLOW! accounts detailed below:

Figure. 2. Bay of Biscay contentment curve, and one other thing, its been emotional.


Figure 3. Left: 3am (BL), right: 6.30am (AL)


Sea-date Saturday 25th August 2007

AL, JG & RDM left Norwich at 0710 on the Saturday morning with AL at the helm. We arrived in Reading in good time (Rick was pleasantly surprised), but signs on the M4 did not bear good tidings – long delays on the M5. We all packed into Rick’s Japanese behemoth and opted for the A303. Three hours later we really hadn’t got anywhere, the 303 was effectively a car-park and time was ticking away on the 5pm last call for the boat. Tensions were rising; we turned off the 303 on to the next red road down, and managed to make Exeter. Relief because we might actually make it without further delays. Traffic was however at a complete stand-still at Colliford; we turned off an unclassified road and relayed the news to Jez and Ben who were behind even us.


When we ended up on a public bridleway in Cornwall with 45 minutes till D-hour, we were seriously shitting it. The GPS was calculating our arrival time as we drove through a field: 1900: f8ck. Then suddenly we refound a road with markings and Rick maxed out the revs as we entered Falmouth city limits at 1655*. We made it, 30 car loads didn’t. Lesson: look at calendar and make calculations based on nice weather and Bank Holidays….   We boarded and went straight to the bar….. only to be recalled to be told where we should go in the event of everyone drowning. Some people kicked-off because they couldn't get some Cornish seabirding in**, we kicked off because it set-back our inebriation by at least 40 minutes....

*Apologies to other drivers on the section of the newly laid road outisde St. Austell. At least subsequent drivers weren't troubled by 'loose chippings', after we booted them all into the hedges (and windscreens of nearby cars) 

**see and for some nice photos




All day in the northern part of the Bay and pretty slow going; a couple of Sooty Shears, Sabs Gulls, a single Wilson's Petrel and some hyper-dross were all we had to show for ourselves. Fin Whales were abundant, and a strong claim of a Sei Whale (Fig. 4) with Fins was made (considering the lack of genetic differentiation between baleen whale taxa we think they should all be lumped*).For those of us that had done Biscay in the late 90s as itinerant youths, the lack of seabirds was incredibly striking. Presumably the 4000+ Great Shearwaters that AL had seen on a '99 crossing were all off NW Scotland. The declines in dolphin abundance this year had already surfaced in the press, but numbers of large shearwaters have been at a low ebb for most of the 21st century (Hobbs et al., 2003).


Changing sea-surface temperatures and over-fishing are almost certainly leading to distributional changes and population declines of pelagic fish species, but one has to wonder what effect the resurgent Fin Whale population has, considering the proportion of primary productivity they must take...? Cetaceans off the Northeast Shelf of the USA were estimated to consume nearly 1.9 million tons of stuff annually, including about 1.3 million tons of fish, 337 000 tons of squid and 244 000 tons of zooplankton (Kenney et al., 1997). Food for thought.  The rest of the day was uninspiring, a few migrants came and went and as did various pleas for egits to stop harassing them. It was a toss-up for bird of the day between a point-blank Fin Whale (a near ship-strike) (Fig. 5) and a close logging** Sperm Whale (Fig. 6).

*they don't even have different moult strategies

** logging is cetaceologist speak for floating in the water like a big shit. 


Figure 4. Putative Sei Whale; estimating the inclination of the dorsal fin is difficult from this angle, but is it really greater than 45 degrees? (B. Lascelles)


Figure 5. Fin Whale: who ate all the stuff? (B. Lascelles)


Figure 6. Moby, on tour. (B. Lascelles)


Figure 7. North-east-Atlantic-short-Beaked-type2-phase-formerly-commonbutrecently-crashed Dolphin (left: P. Stronach, right B. Lascelles)



Best action of the day was provided by a close group of three Cuvier's Beaked Whales (a bull and three hoes), plenty of Fin Whale action still. Plenty of British Storm-petrels knocking around, several Sabine's Gulls and a half-dozen Sooties. A Purple Heron was noteworthy and ID guru Keith Vinicombe picked a juv Med in 0.02 seconds. A call of Little Shear on the tanoy at lunch emptied the bowels of the ship (all except JG and AL who invented Little Shears in Biscay back in the day - and had to finish particularly nice cream cakes). Passerines were still knocking around including a couple of Melodies (Fig. 8). The rest of the day was rubbish, fortunately lots of table tennis (Fig. S6) was played.


Figure 8. Check out my melody (P. Stronach);  Moth, can somone be more specific? (boarded mid-Biscay)* (A. Lees)

*Dark Sword Grass apparently (just sounds like some disjunct nouns)  - thanks to Andrew Cockroft and Guernsey Dave for the ID


Figure 9. Cuvier's Beaked Whales (left: P. Stronach, right; A. Lees) 


Figure 10. Pilot Whale sp., photo on the right depicts the behaviour known as spy-hopping, cetaceobuffs think that this enables the animal to get its bearings in the sea - look for landmarks, like particularly tall waves etc. However we consider that Pilot Whales really regret the decision made by their primtive terrestrial ancestors to live in the water and are in fact trying to get out of it. Ths explains why this species so regularly strands - when people find them on beaches they should leave them alone, they are actually having a great time. (left, J. Gilroy, right B. Lascelles) 



A Red-backed Shrike early am provided some interest, as did showing punters where we actually were on AL's GPS. Things were pretty quiet for much of the morning barring a few Cory's Shearwaters. Things picked up with the first useful trawler of the day, here we had another smart Sabs, a few Sooties and another Wilson's. A rash shout of Orca caused pandemonium and suddenly we had changed course for Risso's Dolphins;  heated interchanges between Team PB and the Bridge just led to shaken heads and disdainful looks from on high, fortuitously PS had some grab-shots and evidence-based science dispelled any myths of Orcas...


Things died off for a bit and we had to entertain ourselves by any means possible; some of us fell asleep but fortuitously kid-whale-lister Steve was always on hand to make sure that any dozing was short-lived (and rejected any of our claims of mermaids out of hand). A dark juv. Long-tailed Skua sat on the water with storm-petrels caused near heart-failure (read looking like a Bulwer's) for AL & BL mid-afternoon, until it flew (and was miscalled by the bridge). Pay day came late pm, espying the trawler on the horizon AL & BL usurped the punters from the bow who took the comment that they wouldn't see anything unless we found it reasonably well. Fortuitously 2 Wilson's, a Sabs and a Great Shear within 2 minutes justified this arrogance and with the first professional chumming under way at least two Wilson's and several Great Shears then came into the stern and a close Cory's went through the wake. Most of this happened outside UK waters though (this was never officially announced however). The last of the light was spent watching 5 Great Shears racing along beside us (while everyone else was eating dinner)...  


Figure 11. Left Risso's or Bagpus (that's what the yanks call it right? - sometimes affectionately known as 'Orca' ; ) right, Striped Dolphin (left: P. Stronach, right B. Lascelles)

Figure 12. Big shears, note atypically pale-underwinged Great(er)* (P. Stronach)

*for the benefit of our Neartic fan-base. Both of you....



Early efforts at chumming over the Porcupine Bank - perhaps instigated at our suggestion that cookalaria petrels often check-out boats at night in the Pacific, drew a blank and despite excellent sea conditions number of birds were painfully low, the words 'total ecosystem collapse' rung in some peoples ears. JG got his sf Cory's and we all got BI Fin Whale, but all was quiet until brunch time... After several of us bordered on rioting the previous evening*, the detection of a couple of trawlers coupled with a Cape Town style seabird entourage resulted in pleas of "can we go" to anything with a yellow jacket. Go we did, the first trawler was a little diasppointing with nothing better than Sabs. The 2nd trawler was however rammed, the whole boat was totally silent as we passed a raft of shears - 160 Sooties and a single Great and a seething mass of storm-petrels, in the mix of Hydrobates we picked at least two Wilson's - and despite our efforts to get the birds on the tanoy, only those within shouting distance got on them. Birds were coming and going and on the face of it (and we appreciate time-constraints) it was a travesty that we did not make another pass of this spectacle (Howells & Day 2002).


The rest of the day was quiet until we ran up against another trawler last thing, whereupon JG picked another two Wilson's on the port side (furnishing a tick for at least a handful of birders who hadn't connected to that point). BL got on a bad-boy Leatherback Turtle in the confusion and some more dross dolphins floated by. Then it got dark, and we realised that we really weren't going to find Herald Petrel after all.   

*after we left the most bird-filled slick of the trip to chase our 400th sighting of Fin Whale.


Figure 13. How good are Great Shears? (B. Lascelles) right: somefish (B. Lascelles)


Figure 14. left: always use adequate sun-protection, right: Jez's photoshoot for GQ was rather time-consuming.. (JG)



In a few rapid semi-structured interviews with boat contestants, we were given mixed reviews. No-one could fault the staff or crew and for the most part the good folk in yellow jackets. Ultimately watching cetaceans and watching seabirds are not mutually-exclusive pursuits but there are trade-offs between the two activities, as was exemplified when we apparently sacked off the best slick to chase some blows late on day 3, our disappointment was reflected in the faces of many of those in yellow jackets*. We agree that many announcements did not make the tanoy; and although we saw at least 7 Wilson's Petrels between us, we sympathise with those that never connected, this should have been possible as one bird was on view for 5 minutes to starboard on Day 4 and another for an equal amount of time in the wake. They really need  a non-birder who doesn't care about what he/she's missing to relay news on the tanoy.


These trips will doubtless deliver more as we better understand the best areas (seamounts, canyons, warm gyres etc) for birds (Haney 1987) - a lot was gambled on going all the way to the Porcupine Bank without actually knowing what to expect - this was super-exciting but left us with no temporal plasticity and hence we had to sack off areas where we were awash with birds because of time constraints. This year has been shite for seabirds in the south-west, instead of trying to skor on a cruise we would have been better-off going up-the-Butt**. In a good year this trip might well be unbeatable.... 

*AL would like to apologise for the minor riot and property damage that ensued 

** stop press, or Sheringham for that matter



Generally, thanks.




Kenney, R. D., Scott, G. P., Thompson,  T. J. & Winn, H. E. 1997. Estimates of prey consumption and trophic impacts of cetaceans in the USA northeast continental shelf ecosystem. J. Northw. Atl. Fish. Sci. 22: 155- 171.


Haney, C. 1987. Aspects of the pelagic ecology and. behavior of the Black-capped Petrel (Pterodroma. hasitata). Wilson Bull. 99: 153-168 PDF.


Hobbs, M., Brereton, T.M., Weir, C.R. & Williams, AD. 2003. Baseline Monitoring data on Procellariformes (Shearwaters) in the Bay of Biscay. Ornis Hungarica 12-13: 115-125. PDF

Howells, K. & Day, A., 2002. Readiness for anger management: Clinical and theoretical issues. Clini. Psychology Rev. 23: 319–337


An Apology

We would also like to take the opportunity to apologise to the important girl who took a Jez Bird flip-flop in the face during a particularly ebullient dance-move in the disco in the early hours of the 29th August.  


Supplementary online material:


Figure S1. Bar bill for the entire boat, note major outlier. Please remember this graph Rich, [Mr Mackey] "gamblingzbad, okay".


Figure S2. some pics of semi-naked, sub-hot girls (and a disenfranchised JG) (RDM)


Figure S3. Dress appropriately. (R. Addison)


Figure S4. Fatigue set in late on Day 4 and we had to search for alternative options to reduce the pain of carrying optics all day....(AL)


Figure S5. GBC. (BL)


Figure S6. Now what were we on this boat to do again....? (RA)



Recommended citation: Lees, A.C., Moores, RD, Bird, J.B., Addison, R., Lascelles, B., Stronach, P. & Gilroy, J.G. 2007. A preliminary survey of the vertebrates of the North-east Atlantic: Ultimate Pelagic, August 2007. Journal of who-ate-all-the-fish, 1: 1-8.