MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia and Performer' 18th - 19th October 2018

Rob and Jane Petley-Jones; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Outbound: Sunny with hazy visibility; Sea state 1-0; Wind SW force 1; Homeward: Overcast with occasional rain; Sea State 3-5; Wind SW 2-5

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 30
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 1
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 1
Atlantic Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 6
Harbour Seal Phocoena phocoena 3

Great Northern Diver Gavia immer 1
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1
Eider Somateria mollissima 718
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 2
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 7
Gannet Morus bassanus 588
Cormorant Phalacrocroax carbo 89
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 62
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 221
Common Gull Larus canus 58
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 6
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 201
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 6
Great Black-backed Guill Larus marinus 22
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 768
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 7
Puffin Fratercula arctica 25
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 17
Guillemot Uria aalge 674
Razorbill Alca torda 482
Auk sp. 493
Gull sp. 635

Other Marine wildlife
Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea 1(possible)

Terrestrial Birds
Great White Egret Ardea alba 1
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 1
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 1
Starling Sturnus vulgaris 22
Skylark Alauda arvensis 5

Just as with our survey on this route in July, we had two days of contrasting weather, with glorious sunny mirror-calm seas bouncing with spectacular animals on the way out but wind and occasional rain on the return creating rough seas that hid much of the wildlife. Even so, this was a spectacularly successful trip with some extraordinary sightings.

Leatherback Turtle Poss Rob Petley-Jones 01We had arrived at Heysham in good time to be booked in at the Stena office staff before walking to the Scotia. Following a hearty breakfast, we got to the bridge just as the ship got under way and were ready for recording the busy wildlife that occurs outside Heysham port.

We were following the Seatruck Performance out of the harbour and so were caught up in a flurry of Herring Gull and Black-headed Gull that were following in her wake. The sea conditions were near perfect as we headed out into the Irish Sea, and Jane very soon spotted the first of the many Harbour Porpoise that we were to see during the day. The numerous gulls kept us on our toes, but we were still very surprised to see a Great White Egret fly past the bow as we headed into the Lune Deep. This species is increasingly seen at locations on the Lancashire coast, so perhaps it is a bird we will see more of on surveys in the future?

Leatherback Turtle Poss Rob Petley-Jones 02An even greater surprise was to follow when we passed South Walney after making the turn through the Barrow windfarm. Jane spotted a large black mass about 600 metres off the port side, and many distant photos were taken of what looked very much like a Leatherback Turtle. A possible as opposed to a probable record!

These animals are very occasionally seen in the Irish Sea during the summer months when they follow the swarms of jellyfish that are increasingly abundant here. To see a turtle this late in the season would be worrying as the jellyfish swarms have long since dispersed, and a dead Leatherback was seen off the Cornish coast a week earlier during another MARINElife survey.

We continued to sail though some wonderful mirror-calm seas and Harbour Porpoise kept popping up, in pairs and occasionally in small groups, while we regularly saw Grey Seal bottling in the calm sea. There was much seabird activity with many Gannet, Guillemot and Razorbill to be seen, most of these sitting on the water. There were several instances of large flocks of seabirds feeding on shoals of fish, and we were surprised to see some late Commic Tern mixed in with the Kittiwake and other gulls.

Puffin Peter Howlett 06We were also pleased to see several groups of Puffin diving for fish from the surface, often accompanied by terns and gulls. This species is usually seen only occasionally on the Irish Sea surveys, and then only in ones and twos, so to see groups of 15 or more was somewhat surprising.

Even more surprised than us was the unfortunate juvenile Gannet with an apparent wing injury which, try as it might, could not get out of the way of the Scotia's bow as the ship bore down on it. We did not see any further sign of this unfortunate bird as we looked beyond the ship's stern!

Common Seal Rob Petley-JonesAs we sailed into Belfast Lough we had a final rich period of recording with the many rafts of Eider and numerous gulls there. Several Mediterranean Gull and a few Black Guillemot rounded off the bird recording for the day, while an inquisitive Harbour Seal watched as the Scotia was skilfully docked at its berth.

A very comfortable night at Jury's Inn was followed by their wonderful buffet breakfast, and an amazingly efficient taxi service saw us back at the Stena office in time to board the Hibernia for the return trip.

How different the weather was! Stiff westerly winds maintained a sea state of 4 to 5 throughout the crossing, this having a dramatic impact on wildlife sightings. Even so, Jane was lucky to see a Bottlenose Dolphin leaping out of the water but only one Harbour Porpoise was seen, compared to the 29 of the day before! Several late Manx Shearwater were taking advantage of the wind to make their way south while lots of Kittiwake and a couple of Fulmar were enjoying the more boisterous conditions. A single Great Northern Diver still in summer plumage was good to see.

Kittiwake Rob-Petley-Jones 03As we approached Heysham past the Fylde coast, a single Grey Plover flew in front of the ship, to round off the survey.

We would like to thank both Stena captains and their crews for making us so welcome on board the Scotia and Hibernia, and thanks as well to Jury's Inn for their splendid hospitality.

Rob and Jane Petley-Jones; Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Leatherback Turtle (possible - bottom left quarter) Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Leatherback Turtle (possible) Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
PuffinPhoto: Peter Howlett
Harbour Seal Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Kittiwake Photo: Rob Petley-Jones