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The Intrepid Beauty of Africa and the Indian Ocean: Part One – Safaga to Kochi

Although this Fred Olsen cruise set off from Southampton in November, the first Ocean Wildlife Encounters team joined MS Bolette in Egypt at Safaga. Jeff, Laura, Martin and Paul met up at Manchester Airport on 2nd December and boarded the Easyjet flight to Hurgada, where they would transfer to Safaga ready to board MS Bolette the following day. However, getting out of Hurgada Airport with all our equipment was not that simple; as soon as the first suitcase was x-rayed in customs, airport security started to pay a lot of attention to us and our luggage. We can probably see why ten two-way radios may have piqued their interest.

Subsequently we had all our bags searched and soon the binoculars, telescopes and two-way radios were put to one side. Cameras, long lenses and night-vision optics though were not a cause for concern. We then spent the best part of the next three hours explaining what we did and why we needed the equipment. We provided our contracts with Fred Olsen, Jeff’s Seamans Discharge Passport, everything we could to show that our binoculars and telescopes were the “tools of our trade”. It transpired that we should have had a letter of authority from the Head of Egyptian Security so that we could take our optics into Egypt (even though we were just passing through). Facebook messages managed to put us in contact with the cruise ship, the Entertainment Manager and also the Port Agent. The result was that we could have our equipment back when we left Egypt the next day, but the Port Agent would have to come and collect (and pay an undisclosed “release” fee).

3rd December - Safaga

We eventually reached our hotel at gone 1:30 am, and as tired as we were, an evening meal awaited us. This was soon eaten and eventually, after 2.00 am, we got to bed (five hours after landing in Egypt). As dawn broke, armed only with our cameras, we explored the hotel grounds before breakfast. Cattle Egret, Laughing Dove, House Crow, Hooded Crow, White Wagtails and Chiffchaff were all logged.

Cattle Egret in the hotel grounds in Safaga © Paul Hill - OWE

After breakfast we boarded our minibus and headed to the port to board the MS Bolette, but not before passing through three more security checks, two of them within 50m of each other!

We reacquainted ourselves with the Bolette and spent a pleasant afternoon waiting for our binoculars, telescopes and two-way radios to arrive, which they eventually did, but not until 6.00 pm, so little birding was done, but as the sun set a single dolphin was seen in the port (subsequently assigned, after a thorough review, as Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin). During the course of our cruise we were to see plenty of cranes – however they were only of the mechanical species used for lifting containers on and off the cargo vessels.

Cranes at Sunset in Safaga Port © Paul Hill - OWE

Shortly after sunset, we set off for Jeddah, with a full day at sea on 4 December. Sea days are spent either on Deck 6 looking forward or on Deck 3, where photo-opportunities are better, but forward views restricted. Typically one or two of the team would be on deck from first light until after sunset, although the official watches were from 9 am to 11 am each day. Most sea-days one of the team would be presenting a lecture in the auditorium. After our evening meal we would have a log-call at 9.15pm, and then a walk around the open decks to see whether any insects (or birds) had been attracted to the lights. Moths, dragonflies, antlions and grasshoppers were all seen during our night-time wonderings.

The OWE Team from L to R, Laura, Jeff, Paul and Martin © Jeff Clarke - OWE

4th December – Red Sea to Jeddah

Our first day at sea was fairly uneventful, we cruised down the centre of the Red Sea, in very deep water, before arriving in Jeddah at dawn. We had an almost blank day!!

5th December - Jeddah

We had decided not to go ashore in Jeddah (perhaps just as well, a friend of mine had to post his binoculars and scope back to the UK when he arrived in Jeddah in mid-December!). Time on deck was spent watching Black Kite, Yellow-billed Kite, Caspian, Sooty and White-eyed Gulls. Several gulls from the Lesser Black-backed complex provided some identification challenges; Steppe and Heuglin’s Gulls were confidently identified.

Black Kite, Jeddah © Paul Hill - OWE

Yellow-billed Kite, Jeddah @ Paul Hill - OWE

Immature Caspian Gull, Jeddah © Paul Hill - OWE

Sooty Gull, Jeddah © Paul Hill - OWE

6th to 8th December – Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea to Salalah, Oman

Another three days at sea followed, but due to recent events in Yemen and the activities of Somali pirates, we were advised to minimise time on deck during this section of the trip, but as we entered safer waters we were soon back on deck. Seabirds began to appear as we cruised down the Red Sea and we had views of Persian Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater and brief, distant views of our first Red-billed Tropicbirds. Most surprising though were the large numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes (probably over 300) on the sea, disturbed by the MS Bolette. A single Temminck’s Stint was a surprise sighting amongst one flock as they flew past, no doubt a migrant caught up with a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes.

Red-necked Phalaropes, Gulf of Aden © Martin Kitching - OWE

Persian Shearwater, Arabian Sea © Martin Kitching - OWE

Red-billed Tropicbird, Arabian Sea © Martin Kitching - OWE

Flyingfish began to feature as we entered the Arabian Sea, and these attracted the attention of an adult Masked Booby which flew alongside the ship for some time.

Masked Booby, Arabian Sea © Paul Hill - OWE

Masked Booby, Arabian Sea © Paul Hill - OWE

Masked Booby, with possible Coromandel Flyingfish, Arabian Sea © Martin Kitching - OWE

9th December – Salalah, Oman

The morning of 9 December saw us docking in Salalah on the coast of Oman. Viewing from the ship before breakfast, our ship was surrounded by Red-necked Phalaropes with an estimated 500 in the port, Socotra Cormorant was added to our list, whilst Lesser Crested and Greater Crested Terns fished in the harbour. After breakfast we disembarked, went through immigration and met our guide for the day. We had hired a private guide/driver to take us to some of the birding sites within easy reach of the port. Our first stop was at a local land-fill site. In the UK we would have been scanning through flocks of gulls, but here we were looking at White Stork and Abdim’s Stork.

Prime birding habitat in Salalah © Martin Kitching - OWE

White Stork, Salalah © Paul Hill - OWE

As we returned to the vehicle we saw our first large raptors of the day – Eastern Imperial Eagle and Great Spotted Eagle both soared over the car.

A short drive and we arrived at another less than picturesque site – the water treatment works. Our driver arranged for us to gain entry and we were soon looking at more storks and variety of waders; Common, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and Black-winged Stilts. Two Whiskered Terns hawked for insects over the water and a Citrine Wagtail searched for insects around the settling beds.

Abdim’s Stork, Salalah © Paul Hill - OWE

Black-winged Stilt, Salalah Water Treatment Works © Paul Hill - OWE

Glossy Ibis, Salalah Water Treatment Works © Paul Hill - OWE

Namaqua Dove, Salalah Water Treatment Works © Paul Hill - OWE

Wood Sandpiper, Salalah Water Treatment Works © Paul Hill - OWE

Our next stop was about an hour’s drive away, a short stop on the way produced Booted Eagle, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and Fan-tailed Raven.

Arid desert landscape in the mountains above Salalah © Martin Kitching - OWE

Our next stop was at another land-fill site, but instead of Storks, we were surrounded by large eagles – Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial and Steppe Eagle – with a single sweep of the binoculars we could easily see a hundred eagles, mostly Steppe, and birds were kettling directly overhead.

Great-spotted Eagle, Salalah @ Paul Hill - OWE

Imperial Eagle, Salalah @ Paul Hill - OWE

Steppe Eagle, Salalah © Paul Hill - OWE

Steppe Eagle, Salalah © Paul Hill - OWE

As we started to return towards Salalah, the occasional Desert Wheatear and Desert Lark were seen beside the road. Our next stop was lower down in the desert at the Frankincense Tree National Park. Here we saw our first Tristram’s Grackles and Blackstarts of the trip - the latter like a pale Black Redstart but with a black tail.

Blackstart, Salalah © Paul Hill - OWE

Adult and immature Tristram’s Grackle, Salalah © Martin Kitching - OWE

Continuing to lose altitude we came to a wadi which had a freshwater spring. This was the only natural water for quite some distance and was attracting lots of passerines to drink and bathe. Tristram’s Grackle dominated, but White-spectacled Bulbuls were also putting in regular appearances with Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and African Silverbills joining the party.

Citrine Wagtail, Salalah © Martin Kitching - OWE

White-spectacled Bulbul, Salalah © Paul Hill - OWE

Before we returned to the MS Bolette, we stopped briefly to look at part of the Salalah wetlands. Waders and egrets were feeding around the islands and a single Slender-billed Gull loafed on the water.

10th and 11th December – Arabian Sea to Mumbai

Two sea-days followed our stop at Salalah, the first of which was our most productive for cetaceans, with six species identified. In the morning a pod of around fifteen Common Dolphins (of the tropical subspecies) briefly played in the wake, 20 Gray’s Spinner Dolphin were seen during the day and a similar number of Striped Dolphins were also seen, Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins were represented by three individuals. Other species seen included at least ten loosely grouped False Killer Whales which surfaced to both port and starboard, and a pod of five Short-finned Pilot Whales. An unidentified baleen whale was seen, and some dolphins also evaded identification due to brief or distant views. Seabirds also featured with several Masked Booby, a Red-billed Tropicbird and an unidentified all-dark petrel.

Short-finned Pilot Whales, Arabian Sea © Martin Kitching - OWE

Striped Dolphin, Arabian Sea © Jeff Clarke - OWE

One of the Masked Boobys had it’s beak wrapped up with nylon or plastic; a sad indication of how man treats the oceans, the future for this particular Masked Booby was uncertain as it would have difficulty feeding.

Masked Booby with refuse tangled around its bill, Arabian Sea © Paul Hill - OWE

Immature Masked Booby, Arabian Sea © Paul Hill - OWE

Flyingfish, Arabian Sea © Martin Kitching - OWE

Our second sea day as we headed for Mumbai was quieter for cetaceans with 10 Gray’s Spinner Dolphin and a similar number of unidentified dolphins seen. Seabirds featured again with approximately 50 Jouanin’s Petrel seen and a single Wedge-tailed Shearwater. Three Red-billed Tropicbirds were seen and a feeding party of over 30 Bridled Tern were noted.

12th December - Mumbai

We docked in Mumbai and waited for clearance to go ashore. Martin was feeling a little under the weather, so decided to stay on the ship – he may have made the best decision. The Bolette docked at what appeared to be the edge of a building site, with a new cruise terminal under construction. Jeff, Laura and Paul ventured ashore and endured the sights and smells of the busy Mumbai streets as they headed for an ATM and eventually a ferry across the estuary. The ferry terminal was eventually located and we joined the crowded ferry for the hour crossing, during which we witnessed two loads of rubbish-filled plastic bags simply emptied in into the river. A thoroughly depressing experience!

Lesser Crested, Greater Crested and Gull-billed terns fished beside the ferry with Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls for company. On reaching the opposite shore (almost two hours after we’d disembarked), Western Reef Egrets were present along the pier. We walked through the streets towards an area of the estuary and scrub – or that was the plan, until meeting another passenger from the Bolette, it transpired that due to low tides we needed to get the 1.00pm return ferry if we were to make it back to the Bolette in time for the final boarding! As we walked along the streets a White-throated Kingfisher sat on overhead wires, a couple of Alexandrine Parakeets flew overhead calling noisily and an Indian Pond Heron was present in the mangroves. We arrived back at the Bolette in time for some birding from the ship and to catch up with Martin. A single Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin had been seen from the Bolette along with most of the terns and gulls we had seen from the shore trip. In fact, the species list from the ship competed with what had been seen on the shore! Great, Intermediate and Little Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Grey Heron and a flamingo species were all seen from the ship. Black and Brahminy Kites flew overhead and around the Bolette, one of the latter had a duck in its talons.

The New Cruise Terminal at Mumbai © Martin Kitching - OWE

Black Kite, Mumbai © Paul Hill - OWE

Black Kite at Sunset as we waited to depart Mumbai © Paul Hill - OWE

13th December – Mormugao

An overnight sailing found us approaching Mormugao in Goa at dawn on 13 December. We were greeted by a White-bellied Sea-eagle as it flew over the rear of Deck 8 as we approached the port, and a small group of Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphins were visible for a protracted period of time. Brahminy and Black Kite also joined us.

White-bellied Sea-eagle, Mormugao © Paul Hill - OWE

Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin, Mormugao © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We had arranged for a Goan birdwatching guide to take us out for the day. Goa is a very popular birdwatching destination (Paul had visited four times previously) and it promised to be a good day. We were met as arranged by Savio from Avocet and Peregrine. Our first destination was to the banks of the Zuari River, where we boarded a small boat for a trip into the mangrove with egrets and herons galore waiting to feed amongst the fishing nets as the tide dropped!!

Zuari River, Goa © Paul Hill - OWE

Little Egret, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Great Egret, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Indian Pond Heron, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Purple Heron, Zuari River © Martin Kitching - OWE

Striated Heron, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Western Reef Egret, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Little Cormorant, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Our main target for the trip along the Mangroves was the Collared Kingfisher. The sub-species found in Goa could soon be elevated to a full species, but it has a very restricted range in India, with less than 40 pairs in Goa. Slowly drifting through the mangroves, with Mugger (Marsh Crocodiles) watching from the muddy edges, we eventually sighted our target. There then followed much manoeuvring of the boat and changing seats so that we could all get a view (and photographs) of this rare kingfisher.

Mugger (Marsh Crocodile), Zuari River © Martin Kitching - OWE

Collared Kingfisher, Zuari River © Martin Kitching - OWE

After a thirst-quenching beer (Kingfisher no less) we then headed to an area of mudflats. Amongst the lines of rubbish washed up the beach we soon found a mixed flock of plovers – Kentish, Greater Sand and Tibetan (formerly Lesser Sand) Plover.

Greater Sandplover (left) and Kentish Plover, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Tibetan Plover, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

The beach also held Dunlin, Terek Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Greenshank and Curlew, plus roosting Brown-headed Gulls, Slender-billed Gull, Lesser and Greater Crested Terns and a single Caspian Tern.

Walking to and from the beach to the car we also saw White-breasted Waterhen, Red-wattled Lapwing and Green Bee-eater.

Green Bee-eater, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

Red-wattled Lapwing, Zuari River © Paul Hill - OWE

We departed from Mormugao as the sun was setting behind Brahminy and Black Kites, whilst Barn Swallows hawked for insects around the ship and a party of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters flew over. More Arctic Skuas were seen, again harrying the terns.

14th December – Mangalore

We sailed over-night to arrive at Mangalore in Karnakata at dawn. As we approached the port, Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin greeted the ship, Brahminy Kites looked out for scraps from fishing vessels, occasionally joined by Black Kites and a single Arctic Skua was harrying the various tern species. We had been unable to secure a guide for our day ashore, so decided to try our luck with the local taxis to take us to a nearby site that featured on eBird. Bartering is a way of the world in India, however we were initially unable to get the price for a taxi down to what we were prepared (and able) to pay. The first drivers wanted 2000 RP (about £20) each for a 15-minute drive and 2hr wait. We tried to negotiate down to 2000 RP for the four of us, failed, so set off to walk the area around the port. After about ten minutes, we were approached by one of the drivers who offered to take us to where we wanted to go for a total of 1,500 RP, which we accepted.

After refuelling (with the engine left running!) we headed towards some arable fields near Jokatte, arranging to be collected at 12.30 before the heat got too much and the light too harsh for photography. No sooner had we stepped out of the car than we were soon watching Scaly-breasted Munia, White-rumped Munia, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Green Bee-eaters, Black and Ashy Drongos and Indian Rollers. Overhead, Asian Palm Swift, Little Swifts, Red-rumped, Barn and Streak-throated Swallows hawked for insects. In the fields, Lesser Adjutant and Woolly-necked Storks fed before slowly gaining height where they were occasionally joined by Brahminy Kites and the occasional Booted Eagle.

Arable fields and palms at Jokatte © Paul Hill - OWE

Lesser Adjutant, Jokatte © Paul Hill - OWE

Woolly-necked Stork, Jokatte © Martin Kitching - OWE

Scaly-breasted Munia, Jokatte © Paul Hill - OWE

White-rumped Munia, Jokatte © Paul Hill - OWE

Pied Bushchat, Jokatte © Paul Hill - OWE

Cattle Egret – doing what Cattle Egrets do, Jokatte © Paul Hill - OWE

15th December - Kochi

The final destination for Martin and Paul was Kochi in Kerala. With limited time, they stayed on board birdwatching the area around the port from the ship. Jeff and Laura set off to explore the areas around the port. The deck watching proved quite productive, even before we docked. As we entered the port Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphins came up to the bow of the Bolette, and the ever-present Brahminy Kites soared overhead. Entering the harbour itself, we passed several islands of mangroves, each full of egrets, cormorants and both Glossy and Black-headed Ibis. Watching the egrets and ibis fly to and from along with final views of Brahminy Kites and Black Kites will be a lasting memory.

Mangrove Islands at Kochi © Paul Hill - OWE

Black Kite, Kochi © Paul Hill - OWE

Brahminy Kite, Kochi © Paul Hill - OWE

Martin and Paul left Kochi at lunchtime, travelling to the airport for their flight home, with both due rejoin the Bolette in Port Louis, Mauritius for another leg of the journey – we just can’t keep away from the oceans!

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