MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Mersey' 4th March 2017

Emma Howe-Andrews, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Visibility: Good - Excellent; Dry-Light Rain, Scattered Clouds & Sunshine; Sea State:2-4; Swell: 0-1; Wind Force: 2-6 ENE-SSE

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 1
Gannet Morus bassanus 10
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 1
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 36
Eider Somateria mollissima 4
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 16
Common Gull Larus canus 7
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 6
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 4
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 26
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 13
Gull sp. 47
Guillemot Uria aalge 11
Razorbill Alca torda 6

It felt like Spring was in the air when I arrived at the Birkenhead Stena Line terminal and I was feeling hopeful about what I might see on my survey across the Irish Sea to Belfast. The weather forecast was good and the sun was shining, so I kept everything crossed!

After a speedy check-in by the friendly and helpful staff, I was on my way to the MV Stena Mersey and on board with the other passengers within minutes. I was greeted by Taylor and Dave, who in my opinion are an asset to Stena Line with their friendly and helpful manner, and they allocated me a cabin and organised for access to the bridge. Chris, the second officer, kindly escorted me to the bridge, cheerfully chatting as we went and once on the bridge showed me to my workstation.

Captain Neil would be taking the Stena Mersey across the Irish Sea today and having met him a few times before he again made me feel very welcome and took much interest in my work. I couldn't have been made to feel more welcome by the bridge crew.

LBB Gull Peter Howlett 05With a prompt departure, the ship left her berth and headed out into Liverpool Bay in a sea state 2, SSW wind, scattered cloud and sunshine. We passed several wind farms and I eagerly surveyed the surrounding area for cetaceans, but despite the excellent visibility it remained quiet. I was joined by different bird species, Herring Gull, Common Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, rafting Cormorant and three Oystercatcher flying across the bow.

While in Liverpool Bay, Captain Neil asked his crew whether to take the North or South route past the Isle of Man and the decision was to go North taking the vessel towards the Mull of Galloway headland, Scotland's most southern point.

Manx Shearwater Peter Howlett 02As we travelled further into the Irish Sea, the wind brought an increase in sea state from 2 to 4, a 1-2 metre swell and a steady stream of Guillemot, Kittiwake, and Razorbill. With the Isle of Man on the port side, a Grey Seal was seen milling on the surface with a large group of rafting gulls nearby and a few Gannet circling above. A solitary Manx Shearwater was also seen sweeping across the waves.

Ahead it looked like the ship would be entering a band of rain as the visibility of the horizon had reduced and with this the sea state dropped from 4 to 2. After a few intermittent light rain showers, I could see the Mull of Galloway headland on the starboard side and the white tower of the lighthouse built by Robert Stevenson in 1830 clearly visible.

The Mull is now a nature reserve which supports a wide variety of plant and animal species, so I eagerly scanned the sea around the headland for any signs of cetaceans, but unfortunately on this occasion no animals were seen.

As the Stena Mersey approached Belfast, the crew and I discussed the beautiful afternoon light that had now established itself over the hills, sending rays over the surface of the sea and highlighting distant ships. It was a remarkable sight.

As the end of the transect approached, a few rafting Eider (one of my favourite birds) and a solitary Fulmar were recorded in Belfast Lough, and despite no cetaceans being seen it was a great survey with lots of birds and excellent company of the crew.

Huge thanks go to Captain Neil, his crew and the staff of Stena Mersey who made this a very enjoyable and memorable crossing with their kind hospitality, and to Stena Line for their continuing support.

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

Lesser Black-backed Gull Photo: Peter Howlett
Manx Shearwater Photo: Peter Howlett