Sightings Archives: December 2015

MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Hibernia' 11th - 12th December 2015

Posted 23 December 2015

Steve Morgan; Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Outward - Winds 7-8 NE; Sea State 6-8; Visibility poor
Return - Winds 5-7 SE; Sea State 4-6; Visibility poor

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals and notable marine species
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 5
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 3
Seal sp. 1

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 3
Atlantic Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 14
Gannet Morus bassanus 1
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 4
Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis 7
Eider Somateria molissima 27
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 6
Common Gull Larus canus 6
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 24
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 7
Little Gull Sterna albifrons 24
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyl 73
Guillemot Uria aalge 78
Razorbill Alca torda 15
Auk sp 93
Diver sp. 3

Following severe gales earlier in the week the outbound sailing was to be slightly delayed but the Stena Hibernia, a relatively new vessel on this route, got under way a bit ahead of its revised schedule.   The forecast was for improving weather, especially on the return leg the following day.

Little Gull Peter Howlett 09We left Heysham in light rain and with a squally wind driving ominous white-capped waves into the harbour.  However, there were a few birds around in Morecambe Bay including several Little Gull and two Common Scoter.  A Seal also briefly presented itself though it dived before I could confirm it as the Common Seal it almost certainly was.

Beyond the Bay the sea became really rough with a two metre swell adding to the difficulties of spotting wildlife.  More Little Gull hurried past but birds were generally scarce with occasional Kittiwake and Fulmar being the main fare.  I hoped that the waters to the east and north of the Isle of Man might be a little quieter as they usually are when the wind is in the south-west.  My hopes were partially realised as the sea state moderated from 8 to 6!  This was enough to give me the opportunity to glimpse a Harbour Porpoise surfing a big wave just off our bows.  It surfaced twice in quick succession right on the crest of a wave before disappearing to port.

The light then faded quite quickly and by a quarter past four it was too gloomy to continue the survey, so I retreated to the dining room where the very obliging steward rustled up some delicious pan-fried trout for tea.

After a very pleasant night at the Jury's Inn in Belfast I reported back to Stena at the Victoria Docks the next morning.  The Stena Precision, our vessel for the return leg, departed promptly and made its way out into Belfast Lough where conditions were clearly vastly better than the previous day. Three Common Seal were lounging about in the Lough and several Red-throated Diver were in evidence too.  The usual Eider were around, albeit in small numbers, and there were various Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull as well as Shag.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 15Out in the North Irish Channel where there is slightly deeper water, I scanned hard for cetaceans. The eastern shelf of this channel is quite a good spot though on this occasion I couldn't find anything.  Nevertheless, we soon reached another hotspot, the eastern side of Man, where porpoises are usually present.  Sure enough, just after we'd rounded the Point of Ayre, two Harbour Porpoise surfaced right ahead of us at barely 80 metres.  I glimpsed an initial splash before getting a spectacular second surface as the swell rose up to its maximum height.

By mid-afternoon we'd left Man behind and had reached the "fans", where cetacean activity is usually scarce.  However, to my surprise another pair of Harbour Porpoise surfaced in front of us. Obviously they are not completely deterred by operational wind farms.  Shortly after I caught the briefest glimpse of a small black object though whether it was a seal or a porpoise I couldn't tell.

The rain which had dogged us all day began to turn into a downpour and the skies darkened.  By a quarter to four it was too dark to see or identify anything so it was time to bring the survey to its conclusion.

My thanks go once again to the captains and crews of both the Hibernia and the Precision for their warm welcomes and unstinting help and support. I am also grateful to Jury's Inn for providing extremely comfortable accommodation in Belfast - most appreciated at the end of a long day!

Steve Morgan; Research Surveyor for MARINElife