MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Mersey' 15th October 2016

Emma Howe-Andrews, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Visibility good; Wind force 2-4 SE-WSW; Sea state 2-5; Swell 0-2

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 30
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 1

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 11
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 2
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 62
Diver (Loon) sp. 2
Eider Somateria mollissima 8
Gannet Morus bassanus 17
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 23
Guillemot Uria aalge 55
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 8
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 33
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3
Razorbill Alca torda 9

Upon arrival at the Birkenhead Stena Line terminal the weather forecast was not looking too favourable and after a speedy check-in by the friendly and helpful staff, I went through to the departure lounge to wait for my transfer to the MV Stena Mersey. As I waited watching the rain splash against the window I kept everything crossed in the hope that it was just a passing shower and conditions would improve for my survey across the Irish Sea.

BH Gull Rob Petley-Jones 03Once on board I was greeted by Vikki and Dave at guest services. In my opinion, they are an asset to the Stena Line team as they are always so welcoming and helpful, and cannot do enough to ensure MARINElife surveys run smoothly. It is always a pleasure to see them. They quickly organised access to the bridge where I was warmly welcomed by Captain Giovanni Maresca and his crew and I started my survey as the ship left her berth.

We headed out into Liverpool Bay in a sea state 3, SSW wind and heavy cloud and I was greeted by large numbers of birds including Black-headed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and groups of Cormorant resting on nearby buoys. Passing a number of wind farms, I eagerly surveyed the surrounding area for cetaceans, but despite good visibility, it remained quiet.

As we travelled further out into the Irish Sea I was told we would be taking the South route, which increased my hopes of spotting cetaceans as we would be sailing pass Chicken Rock which is always a bit of a hot spot.

A little while into the survey, I spotted a group of Gannet circling and diving ahead of the ship, and I thought this was my big moment and frantically searched the waves for breaking fins. After observing the area for a few minutes I thought I saw what looked like the dark grey cape and the yellow flank of a Common Dolphin break the surface. It was not seen again and I could not be certain, so it will remain a mystery as to whether it would have been a sighting! Oh well.

With no sightings recorded around the Isle of Man and leaving Chicken Rock in the distance, the wind speed increased and the sea state deteriorated from 4 to 5. With hardly any birds being recorded, things become a little quiet although it had turned out to be a beautiful afternoon with scattered clouds and some blue sky ahead, which that kept my spirits high.

Common Dolphin Peter Howlett 12Whilst enjoying the sunshine, out of nowhere came my first official sighting! A group of approximately thirty Common Dolphin came charging towards the ship, 15 degrees on the starboard bow! The animals came in sections, some heading straight in for a bow ride whilst others travelled across the bow and down the port side. What a breath-taking sight! By now, even the bridge crew had stopped to enjoy the magnificent view with one of them saying to me that 'this is just for you, because you are here this has happened, what a special day'. WOW!

After recovering from such a special encounter the second and final sighting of the day was a solitary Harbour Porpoise off the port bow rolling in the waves, its blow highlighted by the setting sun in Belfast Lough. In the last few minutes of the survey on the final approach to the berth, I observed rafts of Guillemot, Razorbill, Eider, Manx Shearwater and two divers flying in the distance. What a wonderful way to finish a great survey!

Huge thanks go to Captain Giovanni Maresca and his crew, to Vikki and Dave and the staff of Stena Mersey who made this a very enjoyable and memorable crossing, and to Stena Line for their continuing support.

(Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

Black-headed Gull Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Common Dolphin Photo: Peter Howlett