Troubled Waters: at sea, 13th-14th January 2019

We had a little excitement mid-morning on Sunday 13th January when we noticed that the ship was changing course. There was an announcement on the tannoy to tell us that we were approaching a small vessel on our port side which had not responded to a radio signal, so we were checking if they were okay. The boat was named The Odyssey, and was being rowed across the Atlantic, but there was clearly no-one rowing as we approached. One crew member was visible, though, and the other soon emerged, and they radioed the bridge to tell them they were okay, and to thank us for the attention. They were two South Africans named Riaan Manser and Fanafikile Lephakha and they completed their crossing in Barbados on 23rd February.


Crossing the Atlantic by bath-tub

There was a stiff SE wind in the morning and so there was a slightly choppy sea with white-capped waves. During the morning I saw three Gannets, although a Brown Booby had been seen earlier. Around mid-day we went through an area, right on the edge of the Canary Islands EEZ, about 300 km SW of Gran Canaria, where we saw Grey Phalaropes regularly for about an hour so; maybe 40-50, in groups of up to five, and this was just what we saw from one side of the ship. It is always impressive seeing phalaropes at sea, these tiny waders bobbing around on the waves, looking tiny and insignificant; and yet they spend most of their lives in this seemingly inhospitable environment.



While watching these I picked up a flash of white expecting it be another phalarope when it flicked on stiff wings and revealed itself to be a petrel, before flicking back again to show white underparts again: clearly, it had to be a White-faced Storm Petrel, and so my first tick of the trip. In the afternoon, the wind eased, and the sea flattened out completely, but there was nothing to be seen. John did see a Leach’s Petrel, a Chinese (fishing?) vessel passed us steaming north and there was a nice sunset with a haze of Saharan sand.


Chinese vessel


Sahara-enhanced sunset

The afternoon was spent sailing through disputed waters, claimed by Morocco, although nominally part of the ‘ghost-state’ of Western Sahara. In 1975, Spain pulled out of its colony of Spanish Sahara, handing control to a joint administration by Morocco and Mauritania. Almost immediately, a war broke out between the two countries and the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the independent Sahwari Arab Democratic Republic. Moroccan armed forces soon established control over almost the entire territory. Since then, Mauritania has dropped its claim, although a nominal and virtually uninhabitable strip of land in the east had been administered by the Sahwari government in exile, which is based in a refugee camp in Algeria. The rest of the country is administered by Morocco, although no other United Nations member has accepted Moroccan sovereignty.

We saw no birds in the afternoon, or any other living thing other than humans, so I thought I was relieved of the decision of whether to start a Moroccan List or a West Saharan List, but checking GPS co-ordinates later proved that the last Grey Phalarope was in troubled waters.

Monday 14th January was a much more interesting day than I expected as well. As we edged our way into Cabo Verde waters, there were Leach’s Petrels to be seen, and they were seen regularly all day.




Leach’s Petrels

The first of six turtles that I saw during the day went past in the late morning, with others spread through the day until mid-afternoon. They all appeared to be Loggerhead Turtles, with a distinctive reddish-brown carapace. Most were just below the surface, so the photos were a bit distorted, and one was so distorted that even in photos I’m not completely convinced it’s not a piece of submarine rubbish!


Turtle #1


Turtle #2 (definite Loggerhead with carapace ridge at rear)


Turtle #3 (definite Loggerhead with carapace ridge at rear)


Turtle #4


Turtle #5; I wasn’t quick enough for turtle #6

Just afterwards the first of two White-faced Storm Petrels appeared. It was initially called as a flying fish, which may sound ridiculous, but it was bouncing across the waves in a flying fish manner until we realised that even a flying fish couldn’t stay aloft that long. The second, meanwhile, in the afternoon was called as a butterfly at first. The peerless Collins Bird Guide says that confusion with winter-plumaged phalarope is possible but that ‘it would require a lot of imagination’; it is silent on the possibility of confusion with flying fish and butterflies, although this is one the few occasions when I might challenge the author!

At mid-day, a booby appeared at the front of the boat and drifted back and forwards across the bows. It was an immature, but clearly not a Brown Booby, the most likely candidate. It was in fact, a Red-footed Booby, and therefore a very good Western Palearctic record, although it was in international waters as it was just outside the Cabo Verde EEZ.



Immature Red-footed Booby

In late afternoon there was another sudden purple patch of activity. First, there were two all-dark, shearing Bulwer’s Petrels, followed soon afterwards by a Fea’s Petrel, also going west across the bows, and then a Boyd’s Shearwater. With the second White-faced Storm Petrel soon afterwards that was quite a quartet of quality seabirds all within less than an hour. I also saw my first flying fish of the trip, a small group of four of what I termed the ‘silver shoaler’ on last year’s trip.

At five, there was a meeting for the overland trip for Iguassu/Iguacu/Iguazu. We knew nothing about it until John mentioned it, but we thought we had better turn up. It was designated as a cocktail reception, and Margaret noticed that all the ladies were wearing cocktail dresses, although I never noticed until she mentioned it. We were told the itinerary and then the floor was open to questions, many of which were pretty inane, if I’m to be brutally honest.

Then I heard a message over the walky-talky radios. I went out to ask what the message was, to the surprise of one of the staff (“are you leaving, sir?”) and then I popped my head back in the door to announce “whales at three o’clock!”, at which point our party all left! I think we have already been marked down as the black sheep of the trip, the rowdy ones who will go to the back of the bus and throw things around.

In the ruckus, Margaret lost her glasses. She was adamant she had brought them in the bar, but we hunted high and low, and there was no sign of them. We could only hope that they would turn up at reception.

We ended the day with some indeterminate distant whale blows, and a small pod of dolphins at sunset. There was some debate over the identity of the dolphins, before Striped Dolphin was agreed upon after looking at Barry’s photos on the back of his camera. John dug his hand into his pocket to get his glasses for a better look and pulled out … Margaret’s glasses, which he had obviously picked up in the confusion in the bar after I announced that there were whales to be seen.


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