MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia' 3rd November 2017

Jenny Ball and Karen Francis; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Overcast; dry; good visibility - Wind: W/WSW F3-5, backing to SW F3-4 in the afternoon - Sea state: 3-5, reducing to 2 - Swell 0-1

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 11

Gannet Morus bassanus 4
Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus 110
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 1
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 7
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 2
Common Gull Larus canus 5
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 44
Guillemot Uria aalge 53
Razorbill Alca torda 11
Gull sp. 7

Stena HiberniaThis was an outward-only survey that got us up and running in no time, and wound down gently as the day progressed. After checking into the Stena freight office in Heysham on the Friday morning we were efficiently escorted on board the Stena Hibernia, shown to our day cabin and offered breakfast by the cheerful steward, Alexander Wasowicz.

No sooner had we got our survey forms organised on the bridge than we saw a large formation of over a hundred geese flying overhead. Frustratingly, the flock was completely silhouetted against the morning light, and a positive identification was impossible. (Editor comment: it is most likely this was a skein of Pink-footed Geese, which regularly fly south to Lancashire's Fylde coast this time of year).

Pink-footed GeeseSoon after this we spotted our first cetacean of the day, a Harbour Porpoise, and this was to be the first of a cluster of porpoise sightings totalling 10 within a 40-minute period, as we passed through the windfarms off Walney Island. The highlight was a group of three individuals that swam so close to the ship that we clearly saw the dark grey back and dorsal fin, and pale grey foresides, of the largest one, as it swam high in the water below us.

By 13:00 the sky had darkened, and the sea state had risen from 2 to 4, but with no swell. There was a distinct lack of birds except for smatterings of guillemot, kittiwake, and the odd razorbill and gannet. This trend continued throughout the afternoon with the sea state rising to 5 at times, accompanied by brisk WSW winds. The dearth of bird sightings was punctuated by the appearance of a Great Skua off the Mull of Galloway, as it ruthlessly attacked a couple of feeding Kittiwake.

The day ended beautifully on the approach to Belfast Lough, with a final Harbour Porpoise swimming briskly in the fading light.

All in all, this was a wonderful survey, due mainly to the wealth of cetacean activity observed.

We are very grateful to Captain Pavels Lipinieks, Chief Officer Dariusz Boguszewski, and to the Chef, Stanislav Gorski, for their warm welcome and hospitality on board the Stena Hibernia. Thanks also to Jury's Inn for our lovely complimentary room in Belfast, and to Rachel and Lauren in the Belfast Stena freight office for always being so helpful and interested in MARINElife's work.

Jenny Ball and Karen Francis; Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Stena Hibernia Photo: Karen Francis
Pink-footed Goose Photo: Karen Francis