Saturday, 20 December 2008

Watching the Waves

From where I am sitting, I have a lovely sea view. It is fairly calm, the dark water is lightly ruffled and the sky is mostly overcast; the occasional patch of blue showing through the fluffy swollen clouds. And it is warm, about 22 degrees Celcius maybe more. Which tells you I’m not in Scotland. Another thing that detracts from the overall pleasure of the scene is the noise: hisses, bangs, throbs and crumps are all around, causing the cupboard doors to oscillate, my legs to vibrate and the metallic box in which I am currently sitting to occasionally shudder. Yes, the joys of being on board a deep water oil rig.

As those of you who were kind enough to read my earlier blog “Air” will already know, I am a seismic engineer. When performing a survey, the equipment I use puts an awful lot of energy into the environment. Nowadays that means looking out for marine mammals, prior to using the equipment. Which is fair enough; with power comes responsibility.

Usually when on the look-out for marine mammals, I don’t see anything that would interfere with the job. Occasionally up in the Moray Firth, I have spotted the distant breaches of bottle-nosed dolphin or harbour porpoise. From a lifting chopper I even once caught a glimpse of an Atlantic white-sided dolphin. The only time I have even had to postpone a job (so far) was off Mauritania, when on the point of deployment about 400 common dolphin decided to pass the rig. That was some sight; it took about twenty minutes for the last of the animals to move out of range. But even then they didn’t come too close. The previous week a calf had got trapped in the moon-pool (in this case, the hollow centre of the ship through which the drilling apparatus passes through) and had subsequently died. So who can blame them for staying away? But that has been the exception: most days marine mammals are noted for their absence.

That is not to say however that one doesn’t see anything. In the North Sea one often views a wide variety of birds. Gulls of course, varying in size through greater black-backed (wing span a little under two metres), through less black-backed, herring and down to common and black-headed gulls and kittiwakes. Off the Shetland Isles, one has an excellent chance of seeing Arctic skua, the heavy brown pirate gulls of the north. Gannets, fulmars and auks are common sightings. Perhaps more unexpected are the migrant species that occur. Often one sees something small and brown flitting in the shadows without being able to get a positive identification of it, but on other occasions they are in clear view: starling, robin, blackbird, flycatcher have all shown up. On a rig in the southern North Sea I once saw a large owl on the helideck, and on another occasion even a heron! A couple of eagles decided to make the drill ship there temporary home ninety miles off Mauritania (and for those of you who like their omens, yes, a lot of oil was found on that well) but for me, the most memorable occasion was when the rig played host to a flock of brambling. They are a small, colourful bird: think of a fancy sparrow and you get the idea. Anyway, the weather was freezing and these poor things must have been hungry. The birds were approaching the crew, sitting on their shoulders even, just begging for food. And we fed them: bread, porridge oats, fruit and water. It is amazing to approach a flock of wide birds, not have them fly away and come to the hand for food. The brambling started to recover after about three days of this treatment; at least they certainly had enough energy to fly away at our approach. I have no idea if they made it to land. The odds were against them but one never knows.

So, what did I see today? In the Mediterranean sea birds do not seem to be so common. In fact I haven’t seen any today. What is on show are medium sized tuna. Last night there were hundreds of them around the rig, attracted by the bright lights. I’m not certain what species they are: maybe yellow tailed? They are not small: averaging a couple of feet long. While waiting for some crane lifts today I decided to take a walk around the rig. Sure enough, the tuna were still there, either being dark narrow silhouettes, with electric-blue pectoral fins or rolling on their side, displaying their deep, shimmering, silver flanks. About forty metres off the starboard aft of the rig there was a sudden formation of splashes, as if a volley of mortar shots had hit the water. Away about fifty meters aft, six or so of the tuna launched themselves into the air. Something was hunting them. A big crescent splash then a brief view of a large dark back. Porpoise? A terrified yellow-tail hurled itself skywards followed in a split second by a massive dark fish: and fish it was. About six feet in length, the blue fin tuna cleared the water completely, turned in mid-air and splashed back into the sea.

I uttered a soft, Californian-style “Wooooow!”

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