MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Mersey' 19th March 2016

Emma Howe-Andrews and Vicky Dewar-Fowler - Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Visibility good, cloudy; sea state 2-3; wind force 3-5 N

Summary of Species Recorded

Cetaceans and mammals:
Dolphin sp. 1
Grey Seal, Halichoerus grypus 5
Harbour Porpoise, Phocoena phocoena 3

Seabirds:
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 4
Gannet Morus bassanus 14
Cormorant Phalacorcorax carbo 27
Eider Somateria mollissima 11
Common Gull Larus Canus 16
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 39
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 3
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 7
Guillemot Uria aalge 6
Razorbill Alca torda 19

With the first day of Spring just around the corner, we arrived at the Birkenhead Stena Line terminal feeling hopeful about what we might see on our survey across the Irish Sea to Belfast.  The weather was forecast to be excellent, so we were hoping for good things!

After a speedy check in by the very friendly and helpful staff, we were on our way to the MV Stena Mersey and on board with the other passengers within minutes.  We were greeted at guest services by Sinead and Neal who allocated us our cabins and organised for access to the bridge - they really looked after us and were fantastic.  We were escorted to the bridge by Neal and he chatted and asked us about our work and what we might see, which was great.  Once on the bridge we were introduced to the crew and our Masters for today's crossing, Captain Neil and Captain Kasprzak. We could not have been made to feel more welcome and each took an interest which was really appreciated.

Herring Gull Rob Petley-Jones 01With an early departure, the MV Stena Mersey left her berth and headed out into Liverpool Bay in a sea state 2, ENE wind and heavy cloud.  We passed a number of wind farms and eagerly surveyed the surrounding area for cetaceans, but despite the good visibility it remained quiet. We were kept company by the odd Cormorant and Herring Gull flying across the bow.

It remained a little quiet, and when Captain Neil asked whether we would like to take the North or South route past the Isle of Man, we eagerly exclaimed "South!" (a recent report had stated a large group of dolphin had been in the area!)  "The south route it is!" Captain Neil replied!  He also kindly lent us a chart so we could track our journey, which was really appreciated as it was Vicky's first time on this route.

Further into our journey, we sighted a number of Grey Seal bottling at the surface, one in particular being harassed by a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst a rafting group of Gannet and Common Gull. A number of Kittiwake were also observed nearby.

Approaching the Isle of Man the first cetacean sighting was made, a single adult Harbour Porpoise 1km on the starboard side, which rolled a few times before disappearing beneath the surface.  The second sighting started with a few splashes in the distance just off the headland near Chicken Rock lighthouse, but as we drew closer it was a dolphin with a very large grey dorsal fin and a dark robust body travelling east. Possibly a Risso's Dolphin?  After a minute or two the dolphin disappeared and remained unidentified, which was disappointing.

Rissos Dolphin Peter Howlett 04Leaving the Isle of Man behind, the clouds cleared to create a beautiful afternoon with blue skies, sunshine and calm seas, just fantastic surveying conditions.  At this point, a solitary Fulmar was observed sweeping across the waves but unfortunately no further cetaceans at this time. We remained hopeful though!

After taking a data reading, Captain Kasprzak very kindly shared some footage he had taken on his phone of a group of 20-25 Common Dolphin bow riding the ship as it approached Belfast Lough in October 2015.  It was spectacular and he mentioned that it was the first time he had seen dolphins in this particular area, so we kept our fingers crossed that we might be treated to it as well.

Unfortunately we didn't see any dolphins, but the final sighting of the day was two adult Harbour Porpoise, one resting at the surface and the other fast swimming nearby some 400m of the port bow in Belfast Lough. A perfect way to finish a great survey!

Huge thanks go to Captain Neil and Captain Kasprzak, their 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 and Vicky Dewar-Fowler - Research Surveyors for MARINElife
(Registered Charity No. 1110884)




Herring Gull Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Risso's Dolphin Photo: Peter Howlett