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Heysham-Dublin survey report 12 July 'Seatruck Pace'

Weather: sea state 2-4, swell 0, wind force 3-5, overcast.

Summary of Sightings: Marine Mammals Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2 Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 1 Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 4

Seabirds Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 6 Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 324 Gannet Morus bassanus 126 Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 26 Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 14 Herring Gull Larus argentatus 8 Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5 Great Black Backed Gull Larus marinus 6 Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 325 Common Tern Sterna hirundo 8 Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 1 ‘Commic’ Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 14 Puffin Fratercula arctica 1 Guillemot Uria aalge 215 Razorbill Alca torda 39 Auk sp. 64

Terrestrial birds Swift Apus apus 1

I was really excited when route co-ordinator Rob offered me this survey as, with many of us over the last 2 years, there has not been the opportunity to carry out marine survey due the restrictions of the COVID pandemic. Therefore, it is fantastic that Seatruck have got behind MARINElife and are supporting us on this and other Irish Sea survey routes. A big thank you to them.

Alongside that initial excitement the nervousness started to sink in. It has been nearly three years since my last survey - can I remember how to age Gannets and gulls? - will I remember which form to write on at the right time? - do my sea legs still work and have my eyes got worse thanks to 2 years of Zoom/Teams etc…?

I was due to be surveying with Maggie Gamble, who I have yet to meet, but very sadly she developed a sore throat and COVID symptoms a few days before and wisely decided to stay at home. I wish her well.

I headed over on the Monday night with a lovely drive across the A65 through the Yorkshire Dales, spotting Little Owls en-route. Once I parked up in Heysham the team at Seatruck made me welcome from the word go, helped me on board the Seatruck Pace and settled me in. I had a very comfortable 4 hours sleep before waking up at sunrise in the Irish Sea.

Survey began around 5am with a couple of Gannet being the first birds I encountered – how I have missed watching these magnificent seabirds! However, that elation was not to last long, as the distant ‘murk’ on the horizon became a thick fog that soon obscured the 300-metre recording box area. As a result, barely an hour from the start, the conditions forced me to stop for an hour until the fog cleared. However, the slow start was an ideal way to reacquaint myself with the forms and the screens on the ship, although I think this actually only took a few seconds – I should have more confidence in myself after 20 years of MARINElife surveys! The fog also meant it was a good opportunity to investigate the canteen!

At around 7am I was back on the bridge of the Seatruck Pace with a clear view ahead and survey resumed. That was just as well because I was in time to record a male Grey Seal ‘spy-hopping’ and doing his best to imitate a fishing buoy. Most of the key bird species I had hoped or expected to see were encountered within the next two hours and several Gannet were quickly followed by singles or pairs of Manx Shearwater, Guillemot and Fulmar. The sea conditions were reasonable, never getting much above a sea state 4, although the true wind speed suggested it should have been a little higher.

As Ireland’s shores drew closer and clearer another Grey Seal was encountered ‘spy hopping’, and not long after that I left the bridge to allow the crew space to navigate the approach channels and called a halt to the outward leg of the journey.

Mediterranean Gull (Library photo: Rob Petley-Jones)

Allowing the bridge officers and crew space at this time is courteous and far more important than the 15 minutes of survey that otherwise would have been possible. As I packed up my equipment and stood to the side, I still got great views of good numbers of Black Guillemot and several Mediterranean Gull in the outer and inner harbour. There were lots of terns too, both Common Tern and Arctic Tern, but I decided to give my eyes a rest for a few hours before the return rather than read any ‘commics’! (Editor’s note: Groan!)

The return survey began at 13.20 with an increased sense of anticipation for the slightly deeper water outside the harbour, and the sea state and weather conditions remained good throughout the return trip never getting above a sea state 3-4 which helped. The outer channel was busy was Cormorant and Shag, as well as many terns and gulls.

Within forty minutes I had a great view of a spy hopping Harbour Seal within 100 metres to starboard. Fifteen minutes later there was a real flurry of activity with at least 250 Kittiwake sitting at on the water or fluttering about and getting quite excited about something, and they were soon joined by several auks and a circling Gannet. However, there was no sign of any accompanying cetaceans – at least not whilst I was looking.

Kittiwake (Library photo: Rob Petley-Jones)

After that minor adrenaline rush, fuelled also in part by another fine coffee courtesy of the crew, there were steady number of birds.

Then, the highlight of the trip at 17.34 hours with a distant but very definite large splash! There were two Gannet sitting on the water and one diving nearby so the comparison between the splash and the dive was stark. I paid very close attention to the area concerned but the animals stayed hidden for some time until suddenly at least four Common Dolphin appeared within 100 metres off the starboard bow! They kept a low profile, but it was as certain an identification as you can make of dorsal fins without them leaping clear of the water in slow motion. To top it off, there was the now clear backdrop of Snowdonia far to starboard and the Isle of Man in the distance to port.

Common Dolphin (Library photo: Rick Morris)

Kittiwake, Razorbill and Guillemot continued to cross the bow and one or two very small Guillemot could be seen accompanying their parent. A Common Swift also flew in front of the bridge heading south and I wished it well on its journey, reminding myself to sort out installing a swift box on the house to help halt the UK decline of this amazing bird.

I wish I had that bird’s stamina because it was with a mixture of sadness and relief that I halted the survey in failing light an hour before arrival in Heysham, with Kittiwake, Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull some of the last birds to be recorded.

My thanks go to captain Jaak and crew of the Seatruck Pace for making me so welcome, supplying me with coffee, and enabling MARINElife to carry out its important ocean health checks of the Irish Sea. I cannot wait to get back out on another survey!

Duncan Fyfe, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

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