It wasn’t really clear what time it was when we woke up on Wednesday 22nd June. But it was early. At one stage my phone was giving two times, with ‘local’ being one hour behind ‘home’. It did seem as though ship’s time had gone from BST to GMT overnight, but maybe we just got up very early.
It was flat calm and sunny in the morning. We were roughly level with the Humber estuary when I got up and, by the end of the moning, we were between the Tees and the Tyne. We were a long way offshore, 100 km or Moreton, as we took a direct route from Norfolk to Aberdeenshire. The calm conditions meant cetaceans were relatively easy to pick and during the morning I saw eight Minke Whales, two White-beaked Dolphins and a Harbour Porpoise. The commonest bird by far was Kittiwake, with occasional feeding aggregations of up a couple of hundred. Gannets and Guillemots were also reasonably common, with a few Fulmars, two definite Razorbills, a single Great Black-backed Gull and a small flock of seven Common Scoters early on, while were still off the Humber. Unfortunately, even here, we passed the occasional dead or dying Gannet. Not dozens of them, but enough when you scale up what we saw to the entire North Sea and beyond.
The afternoon was quite and the wind picked up enough to roughen the sea surface and make cetacean watching far less viable. The most interesting sighting involved an insect, about 120 km east of the English-Scottish border. My photos are awful but proce it was the hoverfly Eristalis tenax, believed to be one of the most migratory members of the genus.
At sunrise on Thursday 23rd June we began our passage through the Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland. It was flat calm and sunny when we began our passage but overcast with a rolling swell by the time we completed it. Spray hanging in the air around some of the headlands made some atmospheric views. A few birds were new for the triplist: Herring Gull, Great and Arctic Skuas and Starling.
About eight o’clock we passed Sule Skerry but it was a hazy line on the horizon surmounted by a lighthouse with the weather at the time and our distance. Puffin and Shag were new for the triplist soon afterwards. We passed over the edge of the Continental shelf just before mid-day, but saw nothing of note. By now it was grey and breezy, with mist or rain on and off, so conditions were not ideal.
In mid-afternoon, around three o’clock, we left British waters for the first time on the trip, as we entered Faroese waters. Co-incidentally, the most interesting sightings of the day were at about the wsame time. While still in British waters, a spouting whale was spotted. Although all we saw was the blow one person got a photo that confirmed it was a Fin Whale. Very soon afterwards, a Swallow appeared behind the ship. It was sheltering on deck as we crossed into the Faroe EEZ. A little later, a small group of Pilot Whales – I saw two, but there at least four – loomed out of the mist and disappeared into our foggy wake. Other than Swallow though, there was little for the Faroese bird list other than Fulmars, Gannets and a single Kittiwake.
The sun reappeared at about ten, however, and the sea flattened out, so I ventured on deck again. Sunset was sometime after 11, but we are heading west and ship’s time is still BST. Three Manx Shearwaters and a few Guillemots were my reward. By the end of the day I was, at last, further north than I had ever been before, as we passed the latitude of Out Stack, north of Unst, previously the most northerly place I had been.
We began Friday 24th June edging into Icelandic waters. Early on, in a cool stiff NE breeze, there was little to see, other than Gannets and Fulmars, but a Northern Bottlenose Whale was seen briefly twice trying to get out of the way of the ship. The stowaway Swallow was still aboard, although it looked less than happy.
The forecast low had tracked further south so we ended up with a fairly pleasant day with calm seas at times. Birds increased in numbers as we came inshore, not unexpectedly. A couple of Manx Shearwaters appeared among the Fulmars at about mid-day, and there were some Arctic Skuas a little later, followed by the first Kittiwakes of the day. As we got closer to land they became the commonest species at times. Birding highlight of the day was a first-summer Pomarine Skua that flew right past the boat just after lunch.
By mid-afternoon, Iceland appeared on the horizon, living up to its name. The ice cap which covers the mountains of south-eastern Iceland was the most obvious evidence of the approaching land. In the evening, we sailed south of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) including Surtsey.
There were some calm seas as we passed, which meant we saw some cetaceans, although the Pilot Whales were only seen without bins from the dining room, and I only saw the Minke Whale surface once. Birds inshore included Great Skua, Puffin, Guillemot and Great Blacked Gull. We did go through a fairly impressive blizzard of Fulmars just south of Surtsey.
I was delighted to see Surtsey, an island that is slightly younger than I am, emerging from the sea in 1963. It stopped erupting in 1967, and erosion has since halved its size, although it is the still the second largest of the Vestmannaeyjar and it is still the southernmost point of Iceland.
Sunset tonight is not until tomorrow, an anomaly partly caused by the fact that ship’s time is still on BST and we only change over to Icelandic time overnight. It does highlight the Arctic dilemma: when do we sleep?