Sightings Archives: May 2014

MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Performer' 9 - 10 May 2014

Posted 18 May 2014

Steve Morgan and Colin Gill, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Outward: sea state mostly 5-6, wind westerly, visibility moderate to good
Return: sea state mostly 3-5, wind south westerly, intermittent rain

Summary of Sightings

Cetaceans and Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 5
Atlantic Grey Seal  Halichoerus grypus 2
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 2

Red-throated Diver  Gavia stellate 3
Great Northern Diver  Gavia immer 1
Fulmar  Fulmarus glacialis 7
Manx Shearwater  Puffinus puffinus 109
European Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 2
Gannet Morus bassanus 66
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 20
Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis 7
Tufted Duck  Aythya fuligula 8
Eider Duck Somateria mollissima 20
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 7
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 1
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 10
Little Gull Hydrocoleus minutus 1
Common Gull Larus canus 11
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 20
Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 11
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 62
Sandwich Tern  Sterna sandvicensis 1
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 12
Puffin Fratercula arctica 2
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 7
Guillemot Uria aalge 153
Razorbill Alca torda 51
Unidentified Auk sp 70
Unidentified Tern sp 27

Terrestrial Birds
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 2
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 8

We boarded the Stena Precision in time for a splendid breakfast including delicious Polish sausage before being invited up to the bridge just before our departure at 09.00.  We departed Heysham in hazy sunshine but with a very brisk westerly wind which had us wondering what sort of conditions lay in wait for us out at sea.

Pomarine Skua Graham Ekins 01aHowever, despite the somewhat rough sea state and the slight swell, we immediately encountered cetaceans.  We recorded three single Harbour Porpoise in quick succession, each of them at surprisingly close range.  One was barely fifty metres ahead of our bows before making a belated exit to starboard.  Thereafter, conditions eased a little and by mid-afternoon we had bright sunshine and even a little glare to contend with.

We came across Gannet, Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake and good numbers of Guillemot and Razorbill.  However the avian stars of the day were a Pomarine Skua identifiable by its distinctive tail shape, two Storm Petrel and a Little Gull.  The skua was associated with a small flock of gulls, an alliance which had us eagerly scanning the waves for signs of cetaceans nearby.  However, our three early porpoises were the only cetaceans we could find on the outward leg and even in Belfast Harbour where seals are normally visible, things were quiet.

Our overnight stay at the comfortable Jury's Inn in Belfast was given a little extra spice by the staging of the Giro d'Italia cycle race immediately outside the hotel entrance.  We stood on the hotel steps with a grandstand view of some of the world's leading professional cyclists hurtling towards the finishing line a few hundred metres further down the road.

For the return leg conditions had improved still further and now a sea state of two greeted our departure from Belfast Harbour.  Black Guillemot were in evidence as we set off and it wasn't long before we had a Harbour Seal in view.  An hour out to sea we found our first Harbour Porpoise of the day, an obliging animal that appeared at only 150 metres and made at least five leisurely surfaces before disappearing behind the ship on our starboard side.  We expected more sightings to follow, especially as we cruised along the north side of Man, often a very cetaceous area.  We did find two Grey Seal, though the hoped-for dolphins didn't materialise on this occasion.

Harbour Porpoise Graham Ekins 01As on the outward leg, we found Gannet, Kittiwake, Manx Shearwater and the usual Guillemot and Razorbill.  These were supplemented by several Barn Swallow on migration and by small numbers of Common Tern.

Activity declined as we passed east of Man into an area of sea which often seems quite lifeless - there must be a reason why this zone is so consistently quiet?  But then, as we re-entered the wind farm area offshore from Heysham things picked up again and a Harbour Porpoise surfaced abruptly in front of us.  It was a spectacular single surface, the animal arching its back high out of the water to reveal not only its blunt triangular dorsal fin and black back but also its greyish flank, a feature seldom seen on this usually shy species.  It was presumably preparing for a deeper dive because that was the last we saw of it.

As we approached Heysham the usual Common Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Cormorant appeared and to put the "seal" on a good trip a Harbour Seal popped its head up to watch us pass by.

As ever we extend our thanks to the crew and staff at Stena who make this route such a pleasure to survey and to the people at Jury's Inn who so generously provide us accommodation in Belfast.

Steve Morgan and Colin Gill, Research Surveyor for MARINElife