MARINElife blog: Seatruck Ferries ‘Clipper Panorama’ & ‘Clipper Pennant’ Heysham-Warrenpoint 5-6 May 2016

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

Westbound - S 1-3; visibility good; sea state 0-2; swell 0-1
Eastbound - E 3-4; visibility moderate; sea state 0-2; swell 0-1

Summary of sightings

Cetaceans and Seals:
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 2
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 9
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 18
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 1

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 5
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer 23
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 10
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 56
Gannet Morus bassanus 73
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 79
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 18
Brent Goose Branta bernicla hrota 1
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 200
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 6
Common Gull Larus canus 10
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 150
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 99
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 38
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 84
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 90
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 101
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 45
Guillemot Uria aalge 112
Razorbill Alca torda 4
Unidentified auk sp.  13
Unidentified tern sp.  45
Unidentified large gull sp.  310
Unidentified Phalacrocorax 320

Terrestrial birds:
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 1
Redshank Tringa totanus 1
Turnstone Arenaria interpres 71
Unidentified wader sp.  180
Rook Corvus frugilegus 3
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix 1
Swallow Hirundo rustica 8
Sand Martin Riparia riparia 1
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba 1

Our arrival at Heysham port was swift and efficient and we were soon climbing the heights of inner stairwell of the Panorama to our cabins and passenger lounge. The ever friendly steward warmly welcomed us and provided a hearty breakfast. Once our hunger was sated we were taken up to the bridge and a warm welcome by the Master Steven Olbison who is an old friend of MARINElife teams. We eagerly set ourselves up on our corner of the bridge and awaited departure, eyes already scanning the horizon for marine life.

As we left the harbour entrance, the old wooden piers were strewn with Cormorant 'drying their wings' and basking in the sun, while the lower beams were fully occupied by large numbers of Turnstone resting out the high tide. Visibility was pretty good and seas were reasonably calm as we headed towards the Isle of Man.

The first Harbour Porpoise was spotted swimming close to the surface, turning on its side to evade the ship, and we had a superb view of it swimming away under the water. Soon after a Grey Seal was seen head-up in the water, casually chewing on a flat fish, followed by another which was keeping a wary eye on us as we approached.

Gannet Rob Petley-Jones 07
Gannet (Rob Petley-Jones)

After the initial flurry of gull activity near the coast, bird activity quietened down significantly but we were blessed to have several sightings of Fulmar, Guillemot, Razorbill, Gannet and Manx Shearwater further out to sea.

As the Isle of Man slipped by, shrouded in mist, I was able to have a few more 'first' wildlife encounters and I saw my first Common Dolphin - very exciting! Two made their speedy way towards the front of the ship, and we concluded that they were going to bow ride. Other 'firsts' for me were the many Common Tern and Sandwich Tern that came close to the ship as we approached Carlingford Lough.

Because of tides the ship was on a later timetable, and we had a welcome dinner well before Carlingford Lough lighthouse came into view, and were well set for the last leg of the survey. As we neared the lighthouse we encountered the first of many Black Guillemot - another 'first' for me - and also numbers of Great Northern Diver, looking resplendent in their summer plumage.  We also saw a lone Brent Goose and several Red-throated Diver.  Several Grey Seal were hauled out on the gravel banks near the Lough entrance, and we were delighted with the Harbour Porpoise that surfaced close to the ship well into the Lough - Rob said this was quite unusual.

Sandwich Tern Rob Petley-Jones 02
Sandwich Terns Carlingford Loch (Rob Petley-Jones)

We docked safe and sound and made our way to our new and most welcoming B&B lodging at the Lough and Quay, which was only a short refreshing walk into town from the port. Tired but satisfied with a productive day, we totted up the figures over a relaxing drink in the friendly bar, and then to our rooms where baths and super-king sized beds waited.

The following morning after a refreshing night and a very tasty breakfast we were chauffeured onto the Pennant by our Seatruck hosts, thankfully by-passing half of the steep flights of stairs, and saving both legs and breath! We were soon shown to the bridge where the Master Paul Matthews, another old friend of MARINElife, warmly welcomed us and made us feel at home, and we were soon on our way.

Good numbers of Sandwich Tern and Common Tern accompanied the ship as we passed along the Lough, with more Black Guillemot, a couple of Great Crested Grebe and a Red-throated Diver also seen. It was good to see numbers of Great Northern Diver as we headed out to sea past the lighthouse.

GN Diver Rob Petley-Jones 01a
Great Northern Diver (Archive photo: Rob Petley-Jones)

Calm seas and good visibility blessed us once more for the duration of the survey, but wildlife encounters were very thin on the ground for much of the passage. Our approach to Heysham was at low tide exposing the very wide sandbanks along the way of Blackpool and Fleetwood. These were great feeding grounds for numerous waders and several large flocks of Common Scoter flew past as we headed up the Lune Deep. The waters were ideal for spotting cetaceans as we approached - calm and flat - and we managed to spot three more Harbour Porpoise making a hasty getaway from the bows of the ship, and the Master Paul was able to catch a quick glimpse of these as they sped away. Cormorant and Herring Gull greeted us as we entered the harbour where Paul very skilfully guided and turned the ship around in a space where you could barely swing a cat!

Another amazing trip! Special thanks to both the Masters and to both the Passenger Stewards who made us so comfortable, and thanks to all at Seatruck and the Lough and Quay for being so welcoming and for giving us the opportunity to further our understanding of the abundance of marine life in the Irish Sea!