Sightings Archives: January 2014

MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Mersey' 25th - 26th January 2014

Posted 31 January 2014

Steve Morgan and Elaine Cursons, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Sea state 4-8; Wind NW; Visibility moderate to fair

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals
Harbour Seal  Phoca vitulina 1

Atlantic Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 35
Great Cormorant Phalocrocorax carbo 145
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 16
Common Gull Larus canus 4
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 50
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 8
Kittiwake Rissa trydactyla 21
Guillemot Uria aalge 9
Gull sp    455
Auk sp 19

Other birds
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 68

We boarded the Stena Mersey at 10.00am and were shown up the bridge straight away by the ever helpful crew.  We had hardly set ourselves up on the starboard side of the bridge before we were under way, ahead of schedule, at around 10.15.
Large numbers of distant gulls were resting on the sands at Crosby as we made our way out of the Mersey and the usual numbers of Cormorant were present too, though this time mostly on the west side of the river mouth.  Keeping the famous Gormley statues company were several large groups of Oystercatcher with a few other waders, probably Redshank, with them but too distant to identify with any certainty.

Kittiwake Peter Howlett 01Once clear of the Mersey estuary the wind, which had already been ominously brisk on shore earlier that morning, really started to gather strength.  In no time at all it had stiffened to Force 7 and a heavy swell was also beginning to develop.  The area south and south-east of the Isle of Man has often been quite productive for Harbour Porpoise but conditions now were making the search extremely challenging.  We searched the gullies between the huge breaking waves diligently, ever hopeful of spotting the tell-tale glimpse of stubby black dorsal fin amid the foam, particularly in the "one o'clock" position at three hundred metres where so many porpoises tend first to show themselves.  However, by the time Isle of Man had come into sight we were faced with a sea state 8 and spotting cetaceans was becoming almost impossible.

There were few birds about and the lack of auks and Kittiwake, normally very common on this crossing, was quite startling.  However, it was interesting to observe those few we did see and how well (or how badly!) they coped with the conditions.  The several Fulmar seemed to have no trouble at all, circling effortlessly on their short stiff wings in brazen defiance of the gale.  However, the small number of Kittiwake found themselves thrown headlong in whichever direction the wind took them, like tumbleweed in the desert.   The few Guillemot, at least those few prepared to sit it out on the open sea, simply bobbed up and down, at times almost involuntarily launched into flight as they crested a particularly titanic wave.

And it has to be admitted that the conditions, though not conducive to cetacean spotting, were strangely beautiful in their own way.  There is a fascination in watching an angry sea: the endless rising and falling of great curtains of water, rising up at first three, four or even five metres above the valley floor below before breaking and crashing down in an exultant explosion of foam.  In the soft winter sun the colours were spectacular too: azure, ultramarine and turquoise vying with green, grey and purple as each wave rose and fell.  At midday there was a fantastically bright rainbow, its nearest end lost in the sea only a few hundred metres ahead.

GBB Gull Peter Howlett 03The highlight of the afternoon was a Harbour Seal just south of the Isle of Man.  I was watching a Great Black-backed Gull which was resting on the surface and about to enter the recording "box" when I noticed something very much like a log a few metres to its right.  Initially I assumed it was simply flotsam but something about it didn't look right and as it drew closer I could see that it had a face!  It was just lounging about on its side having a rest - in the middle of a howling gale in the open, windswept sea and obviously not in the least bothered by the conditions!

By around three o'clock we had left Man behind and were coming into the North Channel of the Irish Sea, another good area for cetaceans.  With the Irish land mass now immediately ahead of us and offering some protection from the predominantly north-westerly winds, the sea state began to ease and we enjoyed an hour and a half of much more benign conditions before eventually the light faded.  I was very confident that a dolphin or a porpoise would show itself and kept up a continuous scan on the four to five hundred metre line from dead ahead to "two o'clock".  But it wasn't to be and at just before 17.15 we called proceedings to a halt as the last of the afternoon light disappeared.

Out thanks go once again to the helpful and efficient Stena crew who made even this relatively uneventful crossing such a pleasure and to the generous steward in the cabin who piled us with free coffee as we entered the data into the computer!
Steve Morgan and Elaine Cursons, Research Surveyors for MARINElife