MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Mersey' 19th September 2015

Emma Howe-Andrews, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Conditions:     Visibility: Good 6-20km with scattered clouds and sunshine; Sea state: 1-2, no swell; Wind Force: 2 - 4; Wind Direction: SSE-NNW

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin, Delphinus delphis 26
Dolphin sp. 15
Grey Seal, Halichoerus grypus 1
Harbour Porpoise, Phocoena phocoena 5

Seabirds
Manx Shearwater, Puffinus puffinus 11
Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis 2
Gannet, Morus bassanus 45
Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo 7
Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus 4
Herring Gull, Larus argentatus 41
Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus 5
Guillemot, Uria aalge 3
Gull sp. 70
Tern sp. 5
Auk sp. 56

With calm seas and good weather forecast for my journey across the Irish Sea I was excited and keen to arrive at the Birkenhead Stena Line terminal to check in for my survey to Belfast.  As always, the staff were fantastic and after a quick and efficient check in I was transported to the Stena Mersey.

Herring Gull Rob Petley-JonesOnce on board I was greeted by Taylor and Dave on the guest services desk who were both very welcoming and helpful and arranged access to the bridge.  I was very privileged to have Captain Greg personally escort me to the bridge where he introduced me to his crew who all made me feel very welcome and were extremely accommodating.

After settling into my workstation the Stena Mersey departed its berth in sunshine and travelled to the mouth of the Mersey and out towards the Irish Sea.  Despite a small amount of haze the visibility was good at almost 10km and instantly there were a large number of Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull taking the opportunity to feed in the wake of the ship in front of the Stena Mersey.  I even saw a juvenile Herring Gull swoop down by the starboard bow and catch a fish!

Travelling further out into Liverpool Bay in a sea state 2 and NW winds we passed a number of wind farms and I eagerly surveyed the surrounding area for cetaceans.  Despite the good visibility it remained quiet, but I did observe a number of rafting auks, flying Gannet and Manx Shearwater.

By the time we reached the west side of Isle of Man visibility had increased to 20km and with scattered clouds and continuing sunshine.  It was here that I saw a number of Gannet diving, but despite the whale shaped cloud drifting over the hills of the Isle of Man no cetaceans were seen.  I could see quite a few Barrel Jellyfish in the water which I thought was a promising sign as I tend to sight dolphins after they start appearing.  Let's hope so!

Barrel jellyfishThe Isle of Man started to fade into the distance when the first cetacean sighting (of many!) was recorded with six Common Dolphin some 400m ahead of the ship.  They were leaping towards the bow before heading down the port side and into the wake.  Just as they disappeared, an adult and juvenile Harbour Porpoise were spotted surfacing a number of times off the port bow before diving.  Fantastic!

A little while later whilst looking ahead of the ship, I could see a number of splashes and white water and after checking with my binoculars I could see a large group of approximately 15 dolphins. Their behaviour appeared to indicate that they were in pursuit of prey as I saw quite a few of the animals porpoising, but unfortunately due to the distance I was unable to obtain a positive identification.  I speculated that from their behaviour, and robust, dark bodies, they appeared to be Bottlenose Dolphin.

As the good weather conditions continued it wasn't long until I spotted a group of 20 Common Dolphin feeding underneath a number of circling Gannet on the starboard side.  Some of the dolphins were leaping out of the water giving some wonderful views of these beautiful animals.  An amazing sight!

Common Dolphin Adrian Shephard 14The final sightings of the day came as the ship approached Belfast Lough with another pair of Harbour Porpoise observed foraging 150m ahead of the ship, and a single Harbour Porpoise making a brief appearance on the port side.  A logging Grey Seal was also observed and many rafting Guillemot and feeding terns were seen as the shipped reached its berth.  What a day!

During the entire voyage, the crew took immense interest in my work and were very friendly and engaging, which I really appreciated.  Huge thanks go to Captain Greg, his crew and the staff of Stena Mersey who made this a very enjoyable and memorable crossing, and to Stena Line for their continuing support.

Emma Howe-Andrews, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)