Sightings Archives: May 2019

MARINElife Survey Report: Liverpool-Belfast 'Stena Lagan' 25th May 2019

Posted 01 June 2019

Duncan Fyfe and Emma Howe-Andrews, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Sea State: 1-3; Swell: 0; Wind Force: 2-4; occasional light rain.

Summary of Sightings

Marine Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 22
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina some
Dolphin sp 9
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 1
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 1

Other marine wildlife
Basking Shark Cetorhinus maximus 3

Gannet Morus bassanus 34
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 334
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 3
Shag Phalacrocarax aristotelis 2
Common Gull Larus canus 2
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 3
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 9
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 49
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 26
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 2
'Commic' Tern' Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 4
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 1
Guillemot Uria aalge 86
Razorbill Alca torda 16
Gull sp. 8
Auk sp. 17

Terrestrial birds
Pigeon Columbidae sp. 3

There are only good surveys with MARINElife. Good because even when you do not see a lot you know that as a volunteer researcher you are contributing to some world-class science and conservation. Then when you do see something interesting there are very good trips - this was one of those!

We began the survey at 11.15 shortly after the ship was free of port in the Mersey Estuary. Our first mammals were seen 15 minutes later when we saw some Harbour Seal resting on one of the sand bars in the outer channel, presumably also bemused by the Gormley statues on Crosby beach opposite!

Marcus, one of the bridge crew and a keen wildlife spotter, was happy we had seen them and told us about what he had been seeing lately, making us a little envious. The sea state and weather conditions remained good throughout the trip never getting above a sea state 3, which helped observations. The outer channel was relatively quiet for the usual Cormorant, terns and other seabirds but we soon started picking up Manx Shearwater.

Minke Adrian Shephard 04An hour later we had our first sighting of Harbour Porpoise with a single animal just off to the port side. Twenty minutes later a spy-hopping Grey Seal was spotted, and as we got closer Emma noticed that it was munching on a skate or ray of some sort.

Kittiwake, Razorbill, and Guillemot started to cross the bow about that time; it is always a pleasure to see these charismatic birds.

Harbour Porpoise sightings then came regularly off the Cumbrian coast, most passing us in an apparently leisurely slow swim. Most Harbour Porpoise sightings are like this but every now and again they live up to their name as two of the animals we saw were moving quite quickly, almost porpoising!

The first highlight of the trip for me was just after 13.30 at the start of a relatively exciting 90 minutes recording. I was looking in the right place at the right time and had a magnificent view of a Minke Whale rolling a mere 500 metres off the bow. Sadly, it did not show again, but it was a classic Minke profile and a great sighting; possibly my first for the Irish Sea.

Shortly after this there was a brief glimpse an animal that was much larger than any of the porpoise sighted and with a noticeably wider base to its dorsal; a possible Bottlenose Dolphin. This was approximately somewhere off the outer Solway where they are known to occur and where I used to see them not infrequently when I lived in Cumbria.

There followed a flurry of small cetacean sightings, many of which were Harbour Porpoise, but some which we could not be sure of. There were two or possibly three groups of slightly faster more active cetaceans consisting of approximately nine or more animals. They did not break the surface much, making identification difficult, but they could have been a smaller dolphin species such as Common Dolphin? With no certainty, they were recorded as Dolphin sp.

Basking shark RPJEver since I have been doing surveys across the Irish Sea I have been anticipating the next species we encountered, but I was beginning to wonder if I ever would. The ship took a course around the south and west of the Isle of Man which boded well, and within sight of Chicken Rock I scanned towards the island and did a double take when I spotted a rather large fin in the water. This was followed by a smaller one. Basking Shark at last!

There were two, possibly three, of them. They were circling around, possibly feeding, and we had good views. However, because of the constant movement and the fact you can sometimes see four protrusions from a 'Basker' (tail fin, tall first and small second dorsal and open snout), it was difficult to tell but there could well have been three. Emma and Marcus were really excited. We all were!

Birds and mammal sightings then tailed off until we got closer to Belfast when they picked up again with a couple of further Harbour Porpoise sightings.

I have not mentioned the birds on the trip yet. Whilst there was nothing rare or unusual there were good numbers of auks and some nice rafting flocks of Manx Shearwater to interest us throughout. Final bird sighting of the survey was a Black Guillemot on the outer approached to Belfast.

This was a good trip, with the excitement of being at sea, the anticipation, and then the actual sightings giving us a buzz. I cannot wait to get out again. Our thanks go to the captain and crew of the Stena Lagan who welcomed us on board and helped to make this another enjoyable crossing.

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

Minke Whale Photo: Adrian Shephard
Basking Shark Photo: Rob Petley-Jones