Sightings Archives: April 2019

MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Mersey' 13th - 14th April 2019

Posted 20 April 2019

Emma Howe-Andrews and Karen Francis, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Visibility: Excellent 16-20km; Dry; Scattered Clouds; Sunshine. Sea State: 3-7; Swell: 0-2; Wind Force: 4-7; Wind Direction: ESE-SE-SSE

Summary of Sightings

Marine Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 1
Seal sp. 3

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 17
Gannet Morus bassanus 45
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 21
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 3
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 13
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 32
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 2
Guillemot Uria aalge 31
Razorbill Alca torda 17
Diver sp. 1
Gull sp. 29
Auk sp. 6

Terrestrial birds
Pigeon Columbidae 1
Terrestrial Bird sp. 1

We arrived in high spirits at a very busy Stena Line Birkenhead passenger terminal in plenty of time for our survey across the Irish Sea on a dry and sunny Saturday morning. The forecast for our crossing was expected to be good, but a little 'lumpy' due to the weather front that was lingering off the northwest coast of Ireland and was moving slowly across. This did not faze us as we could not wait to get out to sea to carry out our research and hopefully see some wonderful things.

With a quick and efficient check-in, we were on our way to the MV Stena Mersey and on-board within minutes. The ship was very busy with students and families making the most of half term and travelling to the beautiful Emerald Isle to begin their holidays. Debbie greeted us on guest services and in a helpful and friendly manner organised our cabin for the crossing and radioed for a colleague to escort us to the bridge. Lewis was very friendly, chatting to us as he took us to meet the bridge crew.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 20We were warmly greeted by the Captain and made to feel very welcome as we settled into our workstation on the starboard side. The bridge crew are always so friendly and accommodating and it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to spend time with them and observe their work. The MV Stena Mersey slowed manoeuvred away from her berth and out into the middle of the Mersey to turn and head towards the mouth of Liverpool Bay.

As we made our way up the river we passed a cruise ship called 'Black Watch' that was moored in front of the Liver Building and the Mersey ferry 'Snowdrop' that looked like a piece of abstract art with its technicolour paintwork.

As we entered Liverpool Bay, the conditions were favourable as it was sunny with scattered clouds, a sea state 3 with no swell and there was excellent visibility to the horizon. The south-easterly wind was blowing at 15 knots and with the Liverpool city skyline fading into the distance, it felt good to be at sea. On the port side, there were partially exposed sandbanks which were supporting Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and Cormorant. We also spotted a seal casually swimming through the surf that took a quick look at the ship before diving beneath the waves.

Approaching the wind farms, we eagerly searched the surrounding area for cetaceans and as we did this, we noticed what looked like a piece of driftwood ahead of the ship on the starboard side. As we watched the object, it glistened and moved slightly and on closer inspection we discovered it was a Harbour Porpoise logging at the surface! It was not phased by the ship at all and we could clearly see the outline of its body and triangular dorsal before the animal dived and disappeared.

Manx Shearwater Karen Francis 01We travelled further into the Irish Sea and the sea state gradually increased from 3 to 7. With this brought a 2-3 metre swell, and winds that were blowing at nearly 33 knots creating lots of white caps, sea spray and scattered foam. At times, the sea looked like it was boiling as the waves heaped up and dissipated across the surface whilst Gannet, Kittiwake, and Fulmar soared amongst the swell. We occasional observed rafting Guillemot, Manx Shearwater and Razorbill too.

The conditions remained challenging and with the Isle of Man clearly visible, the sea state made searching for cetaceans tricky and no sightings were recorded despite recent reports of activity. Sadly, this remained the case for the rest of the survey, but as the MV Stena Mersey sailed into Belfast Lough and approached her berth on the River Lagan we recorded Black Guillemot, a species of Diver and a few more seals.

It was an amazing day, and even though the sea conditions were challenging we still really enjoyed our trip. Regardless of the weather, seeing the sleepy Harbour Porpoise, the stunning seabirds and fabulous seals are some of the many joys of travelling across the rich and diverse Irish Sea.

Huge thanks go to Captain Giovanni Maresca, his crew and the staff of Stena Mersey for their kind hospitality, and to Stena Line for their continuing support.

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

Harbour Porpoise Photo: Peter Howlett
Manx Shearwater Photo: Karen Francis