MARINElife blog: Seatruck Ferries ‘Clipper Pennant’ & ‘Clipper Panorama’ Heysham-Warrenpoint 7-8 July 2016

Steve Morgan, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

Westbound: wind light south-westerly, sea state mainly 2-3, visibility good
Eastbound: wind light to moderate south-westerly, sea state mainly 3-4, visibility fair

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 4
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 1
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 2
Risso's Dolphin Grampus griseus 3
Unidentified Dolphin  1
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 1
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 40

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 1
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 5
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 1148
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus 98
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 54
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 1
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 7
Common Gull Larus canus 7
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 8
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 10
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 37
Puffin Fratercula arctica 3
Common Guillemot Uria aalge 252
Razorbill Alca torda 14
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 3
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 5
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 1
Auk sp.  19
Diver sp.  6
Tern sp.  3
Gull sp.  152

The portents looked good as we left Heysham and set out into Morecambe Bay. There was hazy sunshine and a very light south-westerly breeze, and the sea was carrying just a slight ripple. Conditions for cetacean-watching were very good and I was confident I would find them, probably along the south coast of Isle of Man or out in the main Irish Channel.

In fact, we had barely left the Bay before the action began. I was scanning along the edge of one of the wind farms when I noticed a splash. It was a long way distant but distinct. Then again, and I briefly made out a dark shape of a dolphin breaching. This continued for several minutes but at over two kilometres range it was impossible to confirm the identity of the exact species. Very frustrating! A Grey Seal popped its head up shortly afterwards though that was poor consolation.

Then followed a lull for several hours when there were a few Guillemot, Gannet and Manx Shearwater about but things were generally quiet.  In the distance I could see the Isle of Man coming into view and I hoped that the cetaceous waters to the south and south-east of the island would deliver as they had so often in the past.

I was not to be disappointed. Suddenly there were birds everywhere, with small groups of Guillemot and Razorbill bobbing about on the surface and big rafts of up to a hundred or more Manx Shearwater.  This surely had to indicate the presence of fish and therefore the high likelihood of cetaceans. Then I spotted a splash directly off our bows at about three hundred and fifty metres, and a very tall and falcate dorsal fin was slowly cleaving the water, looking a bit like the conning tower of a submerged submarine.  It paused, dipped down, did a one hundred and eighty degree turn and raised its tail fluke vertically in the air before slipping away, and I recognised straight away that it was a Risso's Dolphin!

common dolphin Peter Howlett 17
Common Dolphin (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)

Minutes later as I scanned the water, I found a pair of Harbour Porpoise moving away to starboard at fairly long range.  I scarcely had time to record them before another splash a couple of hundred metres off our bows caught my attention, where two Common Dolphin had appeared from nowhere and surfaced several times before disappearing.  Their "hourglass" flank pattern was clear at such close range.

It was all action now, and there were Manx Shearwater, Guillemot, Puffin and Kittiwake all around and I could hardly keep up with them.  Then, right in front of the ship at barely two hundred metres there was a sudden disturbance on the surface of the water.  Two more dolphins had appeared, rolling, splashing, tail-slapping and generally larking about.  Both were pale grey and heavily scratch-marked, and both had the characteristically tall dorsal fins of yet more Risso's Dolphin.  It was one of those rare situations where identification is easy, where the animals just rolled about on the surface to show me what they were and then just as quickly as they had appeared they were off.

Rissos Dolphin Adrian Shephard 08
Risso's Dolphin (Archive photo: Adrian Shephard)

Things then settled down a bit, but an hour later as we were sailing away from Isle of Man into the Irish Channel I was treated to the final cetacean action of the day.  Out of the blue a bulky grey dolphin suddenly materialised directly ahead of us and hardly two hundred metres away.  It surfaced just once, a slow and majestic porpoise-like roll but I could see quite clearly that it was a Bottlenose Dolphin.  In vain I scanned desperately to get another look, tracking its likely underwater course and hoping it would surface again, but that was my cetacean ration for the day.

The rest of the crossing was uneventful.  It was high tide in Carlingford Lough as we pulled into Warrenpoint and the Grey Seal population were not hauled out.  I found a single Harbour Seal right at the western end of the lough and also a lone Black Guillemot.  It had been a remarkable crossing and I wasn't complaining!

Common Seal Adrian Shephard 03a
Harbour Seal (Archive photo: Adrian Shephard)

After a pleasant overnight stay at the Lough and Quay guest house in Warrenpoint I was hoping for an encore on the return trip the following morning.  However, the weather was turning and a rather stiff south-westerly breeze was roughing up the water.  Conditions were still fair but nothing like as good as the previous day.

There were some thirty-five Grey Seal hauled out on various rocks and sandbanks as we cleared the mouth of Carlingford Lough and a single Red-throated Diver bobbing about on the surface of the water.  Further out at sea I found more Guillemot and Manx Shearwater, the latter sometimes in quite large rafts of thirty or more at a time.

But I had to wait until our passage along the southern end of Man before finding the first cetacean of the day, with a single Harbour Porpoise which surfaced three times and passed close by our starboard side.  A second Harbour Porpoise followed fifteen minutes later, showing very briefly a few hundred metres dead ahead of us, but there was no sign of dolphins at all.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 15b
Harbour Porpoise (Archive photo: Peter Howlett)

Things remained quiet for the remainder of the crossing. Several Grey Seal appeared as we drew closer to Morecambe Bay but conditions were growing steadily less favourable with a slight swell developing.  The previous day I had spotted surface activity with ease but now I was having to be very carefully scanning between rolling waves and doubtless there were one or two cetaceans I missed.

Morecambe Bay was very quiet with just a few Lesser Black-backed Gull wheeling about overhead and so, with our arrival into Heysham imminent I called the survey to a halt.

My thanks go once again to the captains and crews of both the Clipper Pennant and the Panorama for their warm welcomes and unstinting help and support.