Sightings Archives: March 2016

MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Hibernia' 18th - 19th March 2016

Posted 26 March 2016

Carol Farmer-Wright; Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Outward - overcast; moderate/good visibility; sea state 0-4; wind variable. Return - overcast but brightening; visibility good; sea state 2-3

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals and notable marine species
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 1
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 2
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 12
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 3
Seal sp. 3

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 11
Goosander Mergus merganser 1
Atlantic Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 7
Gannet Morus bassanus 156
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 7
Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis 9
Eider Somateria molissima 585
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 3
Common Gull Larus canus 7
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 84
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 3
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 50
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 107
Guillemot Uria aalge 419
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 9
Razorbill Alca torda 98
Unidentified auk sp. 59
Unidentified Gull sp. 109

Terrestrial birds seen on survey
Feral Pigeon 1
Wheatear 1
Warbler sp. 1

I arrived at Heysham an hour and a half before the ship was due to depart, completed the formalities with the Stena Freight team, collected my boarding pass, was taken to the Stena Precision, had breakfast and was invited to the bridge to start the first leg of the survey.

GBB Gull Peter Howlett 01The light winds that were being experienced in the north-west had resulted in calm seas with varying mist and fog patches, and visibility was initially limited but improved as the day progressed. I soon encountered Cormorant, Herring Gull of various ages and Great Black-backed Gull, but within twenty minutes of leaving the harbour the ripples on the water 400 metres ahead alerted me to my first Harbour Porpoise of the day.

Moving further into the Irish Sea the gulls were replaced by Kittiwake, Guillemot and Razorbill. The adult auks had transitioned into their summer plumage and last year's young were discernible by their heads still remaining dark and white.  Approaching the Isle of Man I was aware of two animals interacting together about half a mile from our position.  One animal breached once, and the markings lead me to identify it as a Common Dolphin, and a short time afterward a single Bottlenose Dolphin surfaced once before crossing our path and moving away from the ship.  An hour before ending the survey a large aggregation of Gannet were seen resting on the surface of the sea and two Harbour Porpoise surfaced in front of the group suggesting that feeding had recently occurred in the area.

In Belfast Lough several groups of Eider were rafting and the occasional Red-throated Diver passed by with a few Shag and Cormorant being recorded before the survey finished.  I left the ship having thanked Captain Paciorek Grzegorz, his officers and crew and made my way to Jury's Inn in Belfast to rest up before the return survey the following day.

Having had a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast at Jury's Inn I returned to the port and was kindly transported to the Stena Hibernia for the return survey.  Captain John Fitzgerald invited me to the bridge and we left Belfast and began the eastward transect.

The visibility had improved from the previous day and as we entered Belfast Lough I immediately started to record Black Guillemot, Shag, Cormorant, Eider and Guillemot.  Seals were also evident with three separate sightings in the space of half an hour.  As the ship moved further into the Irish Sea towards the Mull of Galloway I recorded a further three Harbour Porpoise.  Bird sightings were dominated by Guillemot and Razorbill in many small groups resting on the water with an occasional Kittiwake in attendance.

Minke Adrian Shephard 04Half way between the Isle of Man and the Cumbrian coast there was a great deal of activity comprising of more than fifty large gulls circling an area of sea with a few auks resting on the water.  I looked below the wheeling gulls and my patience was rewarded with a sighting of a Minke Whale surfacing and rolling slowly to the north, its dorsal fin showing clearly in the sunlight.  Great Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull became more evident as the ship neared Heysham, and as the sunshine lit up the hills around Morecambe Bay I left the bridge having had a very rewarding survey.

My sincere thanks go to Stena Line staff and crew and also to Jury's Inn Belfast for making this survey both possible and enjoyable.

Carol Farmer-Wright; Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Great Black-backed Gull Photo: Peter Howlett
Minke Whale Photo: Adrian Shephard