MARINElife blog: Seatruck ‘Clipper Panorama’ Heysham-Dublin 10 September 2019

Alison McAleer and Rob Petley-Jones, Research Surveyors for MARINElife

Outward conditions: Sunny and clear visibility; sea-state 3-4, wind force 3-4 NW, visibility poor.
Return conditions: Initially sunny but increasing heavy cloud from west; sea state 1 rising to 5; wind force 1 rising to 6 SW; visibility good decreasing poor.

Summary of Sightings

Cetaceans and mammals:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 3
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 15
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2
Dolphin sp. 2

Seabirds:
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer 2
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 71
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 122
Gannet Morus bassanus 119
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 136
Shag Phalacrocorax aritotelis 13
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 375
Common Gull Larus canus 122
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 11
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 1
Great Black-Backed Gull Larus marinus 1
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 328
'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 20
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 582
Razorbill Alca torda 10
Mixed gull spp. 350
Larus sp. 30
Auk sp. 161

After boarding the Clipper Panorama at 23.30, we were shown to our cabins for a few hours of sleep before starting our survey just after sunrise the following morning. Our thoughts often returned to the young rabbit we had seen while waiting for our lift at the Seatruck offices, running the gauntlet of numerous vehicles thundering past on a busy night at the port - all without the protection of a tiny rabbit-sized high-vis jacket!

We were on the bridge and ready for a day's recording by 07.00. Conditions were very good with improving light and great visibility and thankfully no sign of the high winds forecast for early the following day, the last remnants of Hurricane Dorian!

After a relatively quiet start, bird sightings began to pick up with small groups and 'parent-jumpling' pairs of Guillemot resting on the water. We were pleased to see the first Manx Shearwater of the survey gliding effortlessly across the waves, but overall numbers of this species were very significantly and worryingly lower than we were expecting, based on previous experience at this time of year.

Rob soon spotted the first of the day's cetaceans, a Harbour Porpoise, uncharacteristically splashing high out of the water as it swam away from the bow of the ship, followed a short time afterwards by another individual. After a period of steady recording, the view ahead was suddenly filled with the dramatic sight of large numbers of diving Gannet, together with large flocks of Kittiwake and some Manx Shearwater, all actively feeding. Amongst all this activity two Great Skua were chasing the feeding birds. Such rich moments are always a highlight of these surveys and remind us of the seabird dramas that play out in the Irish sea and which are always such a privilege to experience.

The excitement continued with the approach of a pod of eight Common Dolphin, wildly splashing in a now much calmer sea. An added bonus was the beautiful view we had of them swimming below the surface, their colouration and patterns enhanced in the sunlight. Stunning!

The approach into Dublin brought a very large gathering of Common Gull, a group of 'Commic' Tern resting around the bottom of a large buoy, a lone Black Guillemot, a species that is always a treat to see, and a Grey Seal watching curiously as the ship was expertly manoeuvred into its berth.

Herring Gull Rob Petley Jones 09
The three hours in port gave us the opportunity for a very welcome lunch and a stroll in the sunshine on deck to practice our identification skills on the gatherings of gulls as well as the several juveniles flying around the ship.

Fulmar Rob Petley-Jones 04Our departure at 13.30 was in calm seas and bright sunshine. Again, there were large numbers of gulls gathered by the power station outfall and on the sandflats to the south, and row upon row of Cormorant perched on every available railing and wall. The first treat of the afternoon was the sight of a Great Northern Diver flying directly across our path following shortly afterwards by another, this time on the water just ahead.

As cloud increased and sea state becoming choppier and with light levels dropping, bird activity was significantly down compared to the morning run, but a large number of Fulmar was notable. Whilst always a pleasure to see this magnificent seabird, neither of us had seen so many in such a short space of time on the Irish Sea before.

After an hour or two of only occasional bird recordings, the distant sight of large splashes drew our attention. As the ship approached closer, we were delighted to watch a couple of dolphins leaping and splashing very actively, although sadly due to distance it was not possible to identify the species with any certainty. Much easier was the next group of at least eight Common Dolphin which put on a magnificent acrobatic display of active feeding and hunting not far from the ship, a sight which never fails to cause "surveyors' joy" for some time afterwards!

Safety RabbitThe final couple of hours of survey were very quiet with one highlight of a Grey Seal 'spy-hopping' ahead of the ship, chomping on a flatfish meal while being ambushed from overhead by a very determined Fulmar!

As the wind increased and the heavy overcast conditions caused light levels to fall, we concluded the survey and returned to the passenger lounge to tally the numbers and reflect on what had been another successful and enjoyable day.

Our sincere thanks to Seatruck, and to Captain Victors Suharevs and the crew of the Panorama for all their help, kind hospitality and valuable ongoing support for MARINElife and our surveys. As we were driven from the ship to the Seatruck Office, we kept a look-out for our rabbit, hopefully now with his hi-vis on!

Alison McAleer and Rob Petley-Jones, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

Herring Gull Juvenile Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Herring Gull 3rd Winter Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Fulmar Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Safety Rabbit! Photo: Alison McAleer