MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia & Precision' 22nd - 23rd July 2016

Steve Morgan and Sam Harper-Barber; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Outward - light easterly wind, sea state mainly 2-3, visibility good. Return - light southerly wind, sea state mainly 3, visibility fair to good

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals and notable marine species
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 13
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 4
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 1

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 2487
Atlantic Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 5
Gannet Morus bassanus 395
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 16
Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis 10
Eider Somateria molissima 6
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 28
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 16
Common Gull Larus canus 4
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 160
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 64
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 1
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 30
Guillemot Uria aalge 322
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 26
Razorbill Alca torda 19
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 171
Unidentified tern sp 7
Unidentified auk sp 59
Unidentified Gull sp 3

We left Heysham Harbour in hazy sunshine, the sea barely rippled by a very light wind, and conditions were nearly perfect for finding and observing cetaceans. Indeed, within an hour we had our first Harbour Porpoise, visible even at some considerable distance in the flat sea near the wind farms. It surfaced three or four times before disappearing from view.

Further out at sea we began to encounter good numbers of Manx Shearwater including some very sizeable rafts off the east side of Bahama Bank. With the Isle of Man now in sight we expected more cetaceans to appear, particularly around the Point of Ayre which has been reliable in the past. Though we did find a Grey Seal "bottling" in this area we had to wait a bit longer for the next Harbour Porpoise which finally arrived as we headed out into the Irish Channel off the Mull of Galloway.

Kittiwake Rob-Petley-Jones 02The open sea produced yet more Manx Shearwater as well as plenty of Gannet, Guillemot and a few Razorbill and Kittiwake. We were hoping for the dolphins or even Minke Whale which do sometimes stray into the Channel, but on this occasion our luck was out. In the late afternoon as we headed into Belfast Lough we did at least find some more Harbour Porpoise including a nice group of four animals which surfaced together in an impressive synchronised sequence.

In the Lough itself there were a few Black Guillemot and Shag and, not far from our berth, our last Harbour Porpoise of the day which surfaced only once, arching its back high out of the water before embarking on a prolonged dive.

After an excellent overnight stay at the Jury's Inn Hotel in Belfast we set out the next morning in conditions that once again were very conducive to spotting cetaceans. It was overcast but the wind had dropped to a mere zephyr and Belfast Lough was as flat as a mirror. The usual Black Guillemot, Common Tern and Eider were around, together with a lone Harbour Seal which cruised along a few hundred metres ahead of our bows, apparently acting as pilot.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 15Out in the Channel the wind picked up a little and we had to endure some squally rain. This soon passed and it did not stop us picking out two more Harbour Porpoise at over 1000 metres range. They surfaced briefly, their stubby black triangular dorsal fins contrasting clearly against the grey sea. Then as is usually the case they disappeared. An hour later as we approached the Isle of Man we had two more very brief sightings, albeit at slightly closer range.

Bahama Bank produced similarly huge numbers of Manx Shearwater, Gannet and Guillemot as the numbers recorded on the outward leg. Then, after a lull in activity we once more started encountering large numbers of birds as we approached the wind farms off Morecambe Bay.

This time, however, there was some frenzied feeding activity going on with numbers of Gannet plunging headlong into the water and Manx Shearwater and Kittiwake circling around in excitement.  We expected a cetacean to appear at any moment and, on cue, a single Harbour Porpoise duly obliged. The animal surfaced just once but its identity was clear as it arched its back high and went on a deep dive, obviously intent on plundering the shoal of fish that was present.

In Morecambe Bay things were very quiet indeed with just the odd Guillemot bobbing around on the surface and the occasional Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull circling overhead. Nevertheless it had been a very enjoyable and productive two days and our thanks go once again to the staff and crews at Stena and at Jury's Inn for making our work so pleasurable.

Steve Morgan and Sam Harper-Barber; Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Kittiwake Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Harbour Porpoise Photo: Peter Howlett