MARINElife survey report: Liverpool-Dublin March 2015

Steve Morgan - Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Conditions westbound: Wind NW; visibility good; sea state mostly 5-6
Conditions eastbound: Wind SW light, sea state mostly 2, visibility very good

Sightings

Cetaceans and Seals:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 7
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 8
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 1
Unidentified Seal Species 2

Seabirds:
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 3
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 19
Manx Shearwater  Puffinus puffinus 6
Gannet Morus bassanus 17
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 187
Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis 1
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 2
Common Gull Larus canus 12
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 85
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 78
Guillemot Uria aalge 147
Razorbill Alca torda 23
Unidentified Gull sp 54
Unidentified Auk sp 145
Unidentified Diver Sp 3

Terrestrial Birds:
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 6
Unidentified Passerines (at sea) 7

Arriving at the Brocklebank Dock in Liverpool in good time I was very quickly checked in by Seatruck's efficient staff and escorted onto the "Seatruck Power", my ship for the outbound passage to Dublin. The forecast was not encouraging for the day ahead but conditions were expected to improve over the coming 24 hours. Sure enough, a blustery wind was rippling the water even in the sheltered confines of the dock.

As we worked our way out to sea through the Mersey estuary, the usual large numbers of Cormorant were standing on the sands at Crosby and Herring Gull and Common Gull were wheeling about in the brisk breeze.  A kilometre and a half to port, on an exposed sand bank, two big grey objects were visible.  They looked like rocks but on closer inspection they turned out to be Grey Seal, one having the indignity of a Cormorant perching on its back!  The seal waved its flippers up and down in annoyance but the unwelcome guest sat tight.

Manx Shearwater Peter Howlett 05The further into the Irish Sea we went the rougher it got, and before long an unpleasant swell developed making spotting cetaceans even more challenging.  A few Gannet were around and later some Manx Shearwater appeared.  These were seen gliding and banking from side to side in their characteristic fashion, their wing tips almost "shearing" the water surface.  A diver hurtled past, probably Red-throated Diver, but its exact identity was hard to tell.

Two more Grey Seal materialised in the afternoon, both lounging about on the surface and both completely unfazed by the angry sea.  Unsurprisingly, I could find no Cetaceans and by the time we made our way into Dublin I had recorded relatively little on what was normally quite a bird-rich and cetaceous route.

As I had hoped from the previous day's forecast, conditions the next morning were transformed and the sea now bore scarcely a ripple.  A Red-throated Diver was in the harbour as we left, along with various gulls, a lone Shag and a few Guillemot.

With a more or less flat sea ahead and the sun behind us I was confident that I would soon start finding cetaceans. On cue, a stubby black dorsal lazily broke the surface ahead and the first Harbour Porpoise of the day presented itself.  It surfaced five times before finally arching its back and disappearing for a longer dive off our port bows.  An hour later, two more Harbour Porpoise appeared, surfacing a number of times in unison, their backs momentarily gleaming in the sunlight.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 01Throughout the day odd numbers of passerines passed by, all heading for Wales. Wayward European migrants perhaps or were they more exotic American vagrants driven eastwards by the impending gale that, according to the coastguard on the ship's radio, was five or six hours behind us sweeping in from the Atlantic?

Later in the afternoon I began to find quite large numbers of Guillemot and Razorbill, mostly resting in rafts on the flat calm sea. This area around the North Wales coast must have been rich in fish life and after a quiet spell I began to find marine mammals once more.  Several Grey Seal drifted past and, as I paused to make myself a cup of tea, a big disturbance on the surface 500 metres ahead revealed a mother and calf Harbour Porpoise surfacing together, the youngster keeping extremely close to its mother's flanks.

Shortly afterwards, two small black dorsal fins very briefly broke the surface 300 metres off our port side before disappearing, almost certainly more Harbour Porpoise. However, this time they did not re-surface to permit a conclusive identification. Several more seals appeared as we drew closer to Liverpool, at least one of them one a Harbour Seal.  The action had been fast and furious at times on the return leg, demonstrating just how much easier it is to spot small marine mammals in quiet seas.

By five o'clock we were back in the Mersey and it remained only to negotiate the famous Sea Lock before docking in our berth at Brocklebank.  It had been a most enjoyable survey made all the more pleasant by the extremely helpful staff and crew at Seatruck.  From the check-in and security staff at each end who got me checked-in and parked up in double-quick time to the bridge crew who provided comfortable chairs and tea and biscuits, everyone was a model of efficiency and helpfulness. I look forward to returning to this interesting route soon!


Steve Morgan - Research Surveyor for MARINElife
(Registered Charity No. 1110884)

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

For a full summary of the species seen during this survey please visit our sightings page.