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Wildlife & Culture of the Scenic Scottish Isles - 7th-14th May 2024, MS Borealis

Day 1. 07/05/24 – Southampton.

After early afternoon embarkation on MS Borealis, the OWE Team (Martin Kitching, Sarah Barratt, David McGrath and Ian Hadwin) wandered around the Promenade Deck starting a list of birds seen, ready to add to the sightings log.  Raven, Peregrine, Northern Wheatear and Dark-bellied Brent Goose were the highlights, and one of the cruise guests had seen an Osprey!

With David and Ian donning purple OWE tabards, and Martin & Sarah in standard hi-vis (after the Royal Mail lost their OWE ones!) we were on Deck 6 for the sailaway and looking forward to a week that had some very promising weather forecasts.

Photographs of the Sun as it dipped towards the horizon showed AR3664, a huge cluster of sunspots (the faint dark oval just below the dark band of cloud across the centre of the Sun).  More about that later in the blog…

The OWE Team on S2409 (L-R: David, Martin, Sarah, Ian), MS Borealis ©OWE
Approaching sunset in the English Channel 07/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE

Day 2. 08/05/24 – English Channel, SW Approaches, Celtic Sea

06:00 saw a beautiful calm sea and sunlight spilling across the promenade deck as viewed from Martin and Sarah’s cabin window. 06:10 was the same when we set off for the Deck 6 Forward observation location…and at 06:15, we opened the door to discover thick fog!  Along with one very resilient cruise guest, the team stayed outside and were rewarded with three Common Dolphins breaching right under the bow of the ship.  A couple of hitchhikers had joined the ship at some point during the night, a Collared Dove optimistically singing on the forecastle, and a Chiffchaff that must have visited the balconies of at least 20 cabins and flew across the observation deck before foraging for insects on the forecastle.  Gannets. Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters proved to be regular throughout the day, with the first big raft of shearwaters, accompanied by a Basking Shark, as the fog began to lift, seen from The View on Deck 8 during breakfast.  The day total of Manxies was in excess of 1500, with one raft of around 500 birds as we rounded Lizard Point and headed into the Celtic Sea.  With the sea state never exceeding 1 it was an excellent day for observation, delivering an impressive marine mammal list: Common Dolphin x38, Minke Whale x12, Grey Seal x4, Harbour Porpoise x3, Bottlenose Dolphin x3, Risso’s Dolphin x2.  12 of the Common Dolphins were quietly feeding as we passed them during our 09:00-11:00 deck watch.  Martin’s talk, ‘Introduction to OWE, and observing marine wildlife’ had emphasised the importance of carefully scanning anywhere that groups of Gannets are either circling or sitting on the sea together, and that paid off for so many guests who saw Minke Whales by doing just that.

Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis, English Channel 08/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata English Channel 08/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus English Channel 08/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto, MS Borealis 08/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, MS Borealis 08/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE


Day 3. 09/05/24 – Belfast, North Channel

The first of our three consecutive port days started with early arrival in Belfast.  Ian was meeting up with friends from Ballycastle, David headed to RSPB Belfast Window on Wildlife, and Martin & Sarah went for a walk around the city.  Lots of waders and wildfowl for David included Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper and Whimbrel and there was a Mediterranean Gull to provide a highlight of the day.  The city centre had a healthy population of Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Black Guillemots displaying on the River Lagan beneath bridges thronged with pedestrians.

Our late afternoon sailaway was in a stiff breeze, making observation challenging until we were heading up the North Channel and, eventually, glassy calm seas as dusk approached and we found groups of Black-legged Kittiwake, Razorbill, Guillemot and Fulmar.

The day’s mammal list was Common Seal x7, Grey Seal x1, unidentified dolphin x2, Harbour Porpoise x1.

Razorbill Alca torda & Common Guillemot Uria aalge, North Channel 09/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE


Day 4. 10/05/24 – Stornoway, Cape Wrath, Pentland Firth

Before arriving in Stornoway a total of 45 Common Dolphins were seen and two guests reported four White-beaked Dolphins.   As we approached the new Port of Stornoway cruise terminal, Black-throated, Red-throated and Great Northern Divers were all seen, and the team took the shuttle bus into the town.  Lots of birds that we all commonly see at home were around, but bird of the day went to guests on one of the ship excursions who found a Golden Eagle.

The evening sailing towards Cape Wrath and then along the north coast of the Scottish mainland, started in a stiff breeze that whipped across the observation deck and irretrievably separated Martin and his Tilley Hat, before continuing in sublime light as we neared Cape Wrath and a Whimbrel, heading north west, as was a flock of Sanderling that passed us, and Arctic Skua were the highlights of the evening.

Heading north in The Little Minch, 10/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Sailaway from Stornoway, 10/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE 
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus, The Minch 10/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE 
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus, The Minch 10/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
North West Highlands, 10/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Cape Wrath, 10/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE

Returning to the sunspot cluster photographed on our first evening…there had been several coronal mass ejections directed earthwards and it was looking like five of them had merged so were likely to generate an impressive display of the Aurora Borealis.  The team spent the late evening in the Observatory Bar on Deck 9, enjoying Howard’s tribute to Freddie Mercury and occasionally heading outside to check how dark the sky was.  As the first stars began to appear we were discussing astronomy and stargazing with guests who were still out on deck, then when we looked out again just before midnight the aurora was visible to the naked eye, directly over the ship!  After a mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, and too many other idioms to list, experience we eventually headed to our cabins in the early hours of Saturday morning as it began to fade.

Aurora Borealis, from Deck 10 of MS Borealis, Pentland Firth 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Aurora Borealis, from Deck 10 of MS Borealis, Pentland Firth 11/05/24 ©Ian Hadwin – OWE


Day 5. 11/05/24 – Lerwick

The approach to Lerwick produced a Minke Whale, Great Skua, bow-riding Fulmars, and two Razorbills who had a unique take on the ‘bird on a stick’ photographic cliché.  After taking a tender to shore, the team walked to Clickimin Loch, a lovely birding spot with housing estates on two sides, a sports centre on a third, and a Tesco supermarket to the other.  Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler were singing from the trees around the loch, Starlings were incredibly confiding and stunningly iridescent in the sunshine, Common and Arctic Terns were bathing, and a Hen Harrier was drifting along the ridge above the loch.  Guests on the ship excursion to Sumburgh Head added five Risso’s Dolphins to our sightings log for the day, but they’d moved on by the time we sailed past late evening before heading towards the Scottish mainland with two sea days ahead of us.

Razorbill Alca torda, Lerwick 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris, Broch of Clickimin 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea, Clickimin Loch 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Clickimin Loch 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Lerwick 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
¾ of the OWE Team exploring Lerwick 11/05/24 ©Ian Hadwin – OWE 
Lerwick 11/05/24 ©Ian Hadwin – OWE
Sumburgh Head, 11/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE

Day 6. 12/05/24 – North Sea

The first of two consecutive sea days was a busy one for the team.  Martin delivered the commentary during the scenic cruise past Troup Head, with its thousands of Gannets entertaining the guests, the whole team hosted a lunch in the Arctic Room, and then Martin gave his ‘Seabird Cities’ talk in the Neptune Lounge.  In between times we were out on a deck and, after leaving Troup Head and sailing towards the North Sea a loud shout of “dolphins!”, when we were north of Fraserburgh, alerted guests, and one of the team, at the rear of Deck 3, to the presence of a small group of Killer Whales; then a few tail slaps later they vanished into the mist.  A couple of the guests managed to get reasonable photos and we were incredibly grateful that they shared them with us to use in the blog. The rest of the day was breezy with a choppy sea, but hundreds of Guillemots and Black-legged Kittiwakes kept our attention focused on the sea as a Woodpigeon and a Swallow came along for the ride.

Killer Whale Orcinus orca, N of Fraserburgh 12/05/24 ©Norman - OWE
Killer Whale Orcinus orca, N of Fraserburgh 12/05/24 ©Nigel - OWE
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus, North Sea 12/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, North Sea 12/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Aurora Borealis, from North Sea, ~100nm E of Cresswell, Northumberland 12/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE


Day 7. 13/05/24 – North Sea, Straits of Dover, English Channel

Our final sea day started well to the east of Spurn Head and, unsurprisingly, Gannets and Kittiwakes were the majority of the birds seen in the first few hours.  In the warm hazy sunshine, following David’s well-attended ‘Introduction to the Identification of North Atlantic Gulls’ talk, there was a different wildlife focus on Deck 3 with moths and hoverflies being very obliging.  We expected the Strait of Dover to be productive and that proved to be the case, with six Harbour Porpoises, and flocks of Kittiwake and Guillemot accompanied by Gannets, before our final evening sightings log call in the Earth Room and the opportunity for guests to let us know what their highlights of the week had been.

Northern Gannet Morus bassanus, North Sea 13/05/24 ©Ian Hadwin – OWE
Angle Shades Phlogophora meticulosa, southern North Sea 13/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Silver Y Autographa gamma, southern North Sea 13/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Marmalade Hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus, southern North Sea 13/05/24 ©Martin Kitching – OWE
Drone Fly Eristalis tenax, southern North Sea 13/05/24 ©Martin Kitching - OWE


Day 8. 14/05/24 – Southampton

With an early morning arrival, we just had time for breakfast then disembarked into a busy cruise terminal and the long drive back to the North-West (David and Ian) and North-East (Martin and Sarah).

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, the crew of MS Borealis, and Peel Talent for enabling Ocean Wildlife Encounters to support this cruise, and of course, to all of the cruise guests who spent time on deck with us and delivered an endless stream of questions and entertaining banter.

309 views2 comments


G Elliott
G Elliott
May 31

A lovely bonus having your team on board


Thank you guys and Sarah! you all made this such a wonderful trip - Nigel (AKA Martin2).

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