By Andrew Easton

August 21st 1999 and the long awaited day was upon us, our second pelagic out of Lowestoft, the first had been a year before on August 23rd 1998 on a chartered fishing boat, but this had not been particularly successful as we didn't go very far out as the forecast for later in the day was a bit rough. In 1998 we had travelled south down the coast to Minsmere and then back towards Lowestoft; we as expected had close views of Gannets (Morus bassanus) fishing and Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) , six Common Scoters (Melanitta nigra), one Guillemot (Uria aalge) and a handful of Arctic Skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus) . The highlight was two rather distant Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) , but these were not seen by everyone, including me as as I was struggling to hold up the lid of the bucket masquerading as a W.C. whilst answering a call of nature. They were right about the weather worsening as well and the trip was rather shorter than expected. Given that Lowestoft is the most easterly point in the British Isles the lack of seabird records is surprising and we were sure that many more must pass here well out to sea beyond the offshore sandbanks, so not deterred by this lacklustre result we decided we would try again the following year, but we would definitely aim to go much farther out to sea.
In 1999 rather than use a fishing boat again we had chartered the Excelsior a restored fishing smack built here in Lowestoft in 1921, a sail powered vessel but with an engine as well now, so we expected to be able to travel much farther out, only a due easterly wind would hold us back. Luckily the weather was with us.
We set of at about 6 am from Lowestoft harbour, I felt a bit under the weather before I boarded possibly because I had been volunteered to ladle out the chum. I missed one of our informal meetings at The George Borrow pub and found myself well and truly press ganged. Though I must say John Grant looked even greener round the gills than me.

Fulmar following our boat.

It was very overcast and there was quite a heavy swell at first as we headed straight out into the North Sea, bird wise it was a bit quiet at first, just the odd Fulmar and Gannet passing by. Most of the group decided to sit on the bench at the stern, especially John who was hanging over the side looking most unwell. I and a couple of others decided to stand nearer the bow as we neared the point where the land disappeared below the horizon behind us, and were rewarded by a few Fulmars getting up from off the sea. I then noticed a very small dark bird get up off the water ahead of us, and shouted small bird and pointed, then put my binoculars on it and was stunned to see a European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) fluttering off over the swell. I then shouted Petrel, Storm Petrel, this put some life into those at the stern who rushed forward, but the bird had already been lost in the swell. The other observers at the bow thought I had said four birds, rather than small bird and managed to locate a distant flock of four Teal (Anas crecca).
Breakfast was served shortly after, beans on toast served in the galley below, big mistake on my part, they say when your are feeling seasick never take your eyes off the horizon. I managed to finish my meal and get back up on deck without being sick, and soon felt much better, commenting so to Robert Wincup, again big mistake as I almost immediately rushed to the side of the boat and attempted to throw up, nothing happened on the first attempt , but the second and third were much more successful, much to some peoples amusement. Whether it was  a coincidence or not someone had just thrown some chum over board at the same time and Fulmars and Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) were on the scene in seconds scavenging the beans on toast. After this I felt fine and lunch went down a treat later in the day, unfortunately the same could not be said for poor old John Grant.
I then took over the chumming with occasional help from Gary Lowe, we were rewarded with excellent views of Fulmars as they passed almost within touching distance of the stern. Gannets were watched fishing at close range and a few Arctic Skuas came to inspect the large gathering of gulls and terns around us, and two Great Skuas (Catharacta skua) passed close by. We passed  a couple of Guillemots settled on the water one of which was calling, not something we had heard away from a colony before. The cloud had now cleared and it was now a glorious sunny day.
The highlight of the day came when a Sooty Shearwater was spotted heading south behind us, we quickly threw out more chum, it worked better than we had hoped for,  the shearwater turned and headed towards us and kept getting closer, until it joined the Fulmars and gulls feeding close behind us. None of us had ever seen a Sooty Shearwater so well or so close, and certainly had never seen one feeding. It literally flew into the water, flying straight into the waves and disappearing below the water to retrieve the sinking offal. It would soon resurface and fight even with the larger gulls for ownership of the scraps. It fed like this repeatedly and appeared to he leaving at one stage before it circled back round the boat to feed again, but eventually it headed off south again on its long journey back to some desolate island somewhere in the South Atlantic to breed. We were all elated, and I had managed to snap a few photos of it, the best one is shown here.

Sooty Shearwater at sea off Lowestoft
Sooty Shearwater alighting behind the Excelsior, with two Fulmars in the foreground.

We had ended up to the north east off Hopton, and then headed back towards Lowestoft pausing near the sewage outfall to check out the gulls, one first summer Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus) was located here. The only additional species seen after this was Common Eider (Somateria mollisima) a group of four were seen inside the harbour itself.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable day proving beyond doubt that there are Storm Petrels and Shearwaters out there; and the crew couldn't have been more helpful, we also helped raise and lower the sails, very heavy work. An engine is much easier.

Excelsior is an historic sail training ship that has been working in the
North Sea since 1921, available for booking on:
Tel: 01502 585302
Email: excelsior@excelsiortrust.freeserve.co.uk
Webpage : http://marina.fortunecity.com/reach/318/