26.03.2019 – Ambassador
Apart from witnessing a dispersed group of curious Short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), our guests aboard this mornings Stenella trip also witnessed a sadly sobering reality of our time. A Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) was drifting at the ocean surface, its large white physique and elegant yellow-tinted neck unmistakably recognizable against the dark blue background of the Atlantic. These magnificent birds pass by Madeira in the winter and in spring to rest during their migrations to wintering areas further south and are usually difficult to capture on camera due to their swift flight and rather evasive behaviour towards boats. This individual, however, didn’t abruptly take off as we approached which, at first, absolutely delighted us since it enabled us to appreciate the animal up close. We soon, however, realised why this was even possible.
As the bird attempted to take off we noticed it was entangled in a fishing net, a sight that has become frightingly common nowadays. Like most marine birds, Northern gannets feed on surface fish and perform spectacular plunge dives at incredible speeds of up to 65km/h to catch their prey. While gannets are incredible hunters, the overexploitation of our oceans often forces the animals to resort to snatching fish from fishing vessels, which often results in severe injuries or the death of the animal. Like other marine birds, Gannets are also attracted to the bait attached to longlines which causes the animal to get caught on the line and drown. Floating debris, particularly colorful plastic, also attracts all hungry marine birds causing them to get entangled in and ingest all sorts of waste.
Plastic is a guaranteed sighting during our trips in contrast to all the more beautiful and sought after encounters with the natural wonders of our oceans and evidently its devastating effect on marine bird populations has sadly made them ambassador species in creating awareness around the subject. Approximately 1 million sea birds die from plastic each year and it seems this poor Gannet will become yet another statistic. Sadly, our efforts to find the bird to release it from the net were in vain because it was nowhere to be found. Perhaps next time we can react faster and will be lucky enough to save the animal.
Apart from the Gannet we were able to spot other classic plastic victims including Cory’s shearwaters (Calonectris borealis), Manx shearwaters (Puffinus p. puffinus) and a Great skua (Catharacta skua).
By Paula Thake
Sightings of the day
10:00 Short-beaked common dolphins