MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Lagan' 25th March 2017

Emma Howe-Andrews and Abigail Bruce, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Visibility: Good - Excellent; Scattered Clouds & Sunshine; Sea State:0-3; Swell: 0; Wind Force: 0-3 N-NNW

Summary of sightings:

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 2
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 6
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 25

Seabirds
Diver sp. 1
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 1
Gannet Morus bassanus 65
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 1
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 57
Eider Somateria mollissima 4
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Common Gull Larus canus 8
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 2
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 15
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 70
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 12
Gull sp. 56
Guillemot Uria aalge 61
Razorbill Alca torda 6
Auk sp. 16

What a beautiful day to be surveying! We arrived at the Birkenhead Stena Line terminal on a dry sunny Saturday and the forecast for travelling across the Irish Sea was excellent, with little wind and calm seas all the way.  We didn't know at this point that we had a very special sea day ahead of us.

Gannet Karen Dick 01The Stena Line staff are always so helpful and pleasant, and after a speedy and efficient check-in we were on our way to the MV Stena Lagan and on board with the other passengers within minutes.  We were greeted by Tony and Crystal on the guest services desk, who made us feel very welcome and in their helpful and friendly manner allocated us our cabins and organised access for the bridge.

We arrived on the bridge with plenty of time to spare and chatted to the crew as they made their preparations for departure.  We were made to feel so welcome by Captain Krystophfer and his crew, and it is always a pleasure to see them at work.  As the ship left her berth and as we prepared to start our survey we both said to each other just how privileged we are to see this.

Heading out into Liverpool Bay in a sea state 2 with scattered cloud, sunshine and NNW winds, we observed Common Gull, Herring Gull, Kittiwake and Cormorant rafting on nearby buoys.  The sea was so calm that we were hopeful of cetacean sightings and even though it was a little while before this happened, we did see a Grey Seal milling at the surface surrounded by a mixed group of gulls.

The first cetacean sighting was of a Harbour Porpoise, some 350 metres ahead of the ship beneath a large group of circling Gannet.  We could clearly see the animal feeding and chasing its prey whilst creating a 'rooster tail' of white water - excellent!  The second sighting was two Common Dolphin, some 700 metres off the starboard side, again with a number of Gannet circling above them.  The third sighting was of a solitary Harbour Porpoise in the same vicinity as the dolphins.

Barrel jellyfishAs we travelled further into the Irish Sea the sea state had increased from 2 to 3 and this brought two further sightings of Harbour Porpoise, one group of three and another solitary animal.  After pausing to reflect on what we had seen so far, we were then treated to fantastic views of Barrel Jellyfish, bottling Grey Seal, a solitary Manx Shearwater, rafting Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar and Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The good weather continued as we passed the legendary Chicken Rock which is still an active 19th century lighthouse located on an isolated island on the southern end of the Isle of Man.  The MV Stena Mersey, the sister ship to the Lagan passed us on our portside.

On our approach to Belfast the sea state dropped to zero and this brought further sightings of Harbour Porpoise including a group of three adults and a tiny calf.  With the sea so calm we could see the animals sub-surface and follow the direction of their travel from the ripples they were creating.  After observing them for a few minutes, they surfaced and then disappeared beneath the waves, but what a remarkable sight!

Harbour Porpoise Graham Ekins 01The last sighting of the day was exceptional and it involved a group of fifteen Harbour Porpoise swimming tightly together in Belfast Lough in mirror calm seas and beautiful light from the setting sun.  It was one of those moments when you realise just how special it is to see something as unusual as this, and as they broke the surface we could clearly see their markings and triangular dorsal fins.  We were even joined by one of the bridge officers who commented on the sighting, and together we watched these magnificent little animals roll over the waves for several minutes before disappearing out of sight.

What a phenomenal survey. Wonderful weather, fantastic cetacean sightings, large bird numbers and a diverse range of other wildlife whilst in the excellent company of the bridge crew. It doesn't get much better than that!

Huge thanks go to Captain Krystophfer, his crew and the staff of Stena Lagan who made this a very enjoyable and memorable crossing with their kind hospitality and for their interest in our work, and to Stena Line for their continuing support.

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

Gannet Photo: Karen Dick
Barrel Jellyfish Photo: Rob Petley-Jones
Harbour Porpoise Photo: Graham Ekins