MARINElife blog: Seatruck Ferries ‘Seatruck Precision’ and 'Clipper Performance' Heysham-Warrenpoint 7-8 November 2019

Carol Farmer-Wright, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Outbound: Cloudy with persistent rain; Visibility moderate; Sea State 3-7; Wind ENE-NE force 5 to 7; Inbound: Sunny; Visibility good; Sea state 3-4; Wind NE-N force 5 to 3

Summary of sightings:

Cetaceans and Seals:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 4
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 6

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 2
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 4
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 6
European Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 1
Gannet Morus bassanus 8
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 115
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 5
Common Gull Larus canus 2
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 288
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 39
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 2
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 5
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 767
Guillemot Uria aalge 514
Razorbill Alca torda 29
Diver sp. 2
Larus sp. 645
Auk sp. 131

Terrestrial Birds:
Dark-bellied Brent Goose Branta bernicla bernicla 20
Buzzard Buteo buteo 1
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 17
Starling Sturnus vulgaris 2
Goose sp. 10

The Performance from the PrecisionDay 1 - Many shades of Grey

I woke up to a cool, breezy, rainy November day and made my way down to Heysham port for the morning sailing to Warrenpoint. The shore team quickly issued me with my boarding pass and drove me onto the Seatruck Precision, where I was given a tasty cooked breakfast before ascending to the bridge to begin the outbound survey.

Within 10 minutes of surveying I recorded my first marine mammal, a Grey Seal that was observing us leaving the harbour. A while later a Great Black-backed Gull alerted me to a second seal that was eating a fish, the gull was trying to steal part of the seal's meal! Only a few birds had been seen by this time, predominately Herring Gull, Common Gull, European Shag with a couple of Red-throated Diver and Common Scoter recorded.

European Storm Petrel Rick Morris 01As we moved away from the shore numbers of Guillemot began to appear, with Kittiwake and an occasional Little Gull also seen, while there was also a special sighting of a European Storm Petrel dancing across the water. However. grey skies and rain together with the grey-green sea made some sightings difficult.

The final Grey Seal sighting of the day was a brief glimpse of an animal directly ahead of the ship, its snout briefly appearing above the waves before rapidly dropping below the sea to avoid us.

The light began to fail as the ship approached Carlingford Lough and I stopped the survey to prepare to disembark at Warrenpoint.

Day 2 - Here comes the sun

What a difference a day makes! I awoke to brilliant sunshine and made my way to Warrenpoint port to join the Seatruck Performance. The sun was shining directly down the length of Carlingford Lough which made identification of birds initially difficult, but sightings included Herring Gull, Black-headed Gull, European Shag and terrestrial birds such as Carrion Crow, Dark-bellied Brent Goose and a solitary Buzzard. A couple of Grey Seal were hauled out on a beach on the northern shore and a further one was observed bottling as we travelled towards the Irish Sea.

The Precision from the PerformanceA lighthouse is situated at the mouth of the lough to mark the skerries. These rocks are used by seals to haul out on at low tide, but this morning's high tide meant that the seals were absent, and only European Shag and Great Black-backed Gull were evident.

The sea-state started to increase as we left the lough to a level that could make marine mammal sightings difficult. So, when I saw two splashes close to the ship that were inconsistent with the waves I kept watching and observed two animals moving away from the ship sub-surface. Their behaviour suggested Harbour Porpoise and I followed their path seeing splashes four times before I lost them. I was expecting that to be the best sighting owing to the sea conditions, but I was soon proved wrong as a female Harbour Porpoise accompanying a juvenile appeared ten minutes later, the dorsal fins and roll of both animals seen clearly.

More birds were evident than the previous day, and as we neared the Isle of Man we encountered the first of 5 aggregations of feeding birds. These feeding groups were comprised of auk species, predominantly Guillemot, together with Kittiwake, Herring Gull and the occasional Great Black-backed Gull. Despite looking closely, I was unable to see any cetaceans amongst them.

As we near Heysham the ship passes between a gas field and a large wind farm. Here, many auks and Kittiwake were recorded resting and prospecting for food to the south of the wind farm suggesting that there was a food source present.

The light started to fail as we approach Heysham and I closed the survey to enjoy a good scampi and chip meal before leaving the ship and making my way home.

I'd like to thank Seatruck Ferries for enabling us to survey on their ships. My thanks also go to both Captain Tuuling and Captain Broughton and their respective officers and crew for making me feel so welcome aboard their vessels and to both the shore teams for their help in boarding.

Carol Farmer-Wright, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

The Performance from the Precision Photo: Carol Farmer-Wright
European Storm Petrel Photo: Rick Morris
The Precision from the Performance Photo: Carol Farmer-Wright