Porpoise aplenty, Gannets galore AND HELP NEEDED.

18th Feb 2006 Today saw the 3rd of these survey events and the best to date. The weather forecast suggested good conditions and for once it was accurate.

Setting sail from Larne at 10.30, P & O's European Highlander had David Williams and Ian Enlander of IWDG on the bridge ready for anything the day might throw at them. Light conditions were great with a largely clear sky, waves were small and as was the swell. All we needed to make the day was some beasts.

Birds were the most obvious creatures initially with the usual gathering of Black Guillemot resplendent in their summer plumage, Herring, Common, Black-headed and Great Black-backed Gulls having their fill at the sewage outfall near Larne harbour and parties of Eider bobbing along presumably digesting their last meal of mussels.

Well out towards Scotland, the seas looked quite empty with only a few Fulmar and Kittiwake to attract the attention. Then we had our first sighting of Harbour Porpoise – a quick glimpse of 2 adults surfacing before we overtook them. A nearby fishing boat was obviously cleaning fish or discarding by-catch as it was accompanied by hundreds of gulls and Fulmar. Sea conditions continued to be good all the way through to Loch Ryan – so good that we were sure we could pick out anything within 10 miles of the boat if only it would show itself.

Just before we entered the Loch we had our second sighting, again of Harbour Porpoise and just a solitary adult this time. But Gannets were back in force – flapping and gliding everywhere. We were of course relatively close Ailsa Craig which supports an enormous Gannet colony – indeed the guano white cliffs on the island were gleaming in the sunshine.

Loch Ryan held its usual diversity of seabirds including lots of Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Shag, Red-throated Diver, Black Guillemot, Cormorant and gulls, gulls, gulls. A surprising find was two Velvet Scoter seen flying across the Loch.

A quick turnaround – Cairnryan does not have much to entice the visitor so we stayed on board – and we were heading back out by 13.30. Once clear of the Loch and with conditions still holding we were seeing many more Gannet effortlessly skimming over the sea while a few Guillemot and Razorbill showed that there were fish to eat locally. Our next Porpoise really took a chance with the boat, cutting across our bow, diving almost directly in front of us and then surfacing within 100m on our port side.

We had two more sightings of Harbour Porpoise during the remaining 70 minutes of the crossing with a group of three as we approached the Maidens – a group of islands north-east of Larne - and a further four just north of the Isle of Muck, off Islandmagee. It was good to get these latter groups from the boat as this area is a regular spot for porpoise as seen from land-based watches. This confirmed that the observers were still awake and that ferry based surveys can pick up most of what could be expected to be seen from land in addition to the open sea sightings which would of course otherwise go unrecorded.

15.30 saw us back in Larne with the sun still shining – the bridge got so hot on the return leg that it was T-shirt time – ending an excellent day. Ok, just the one species seen – and that our commonest cetacean – but it is early days for surveys on this route. Of course if we only ever get Harbour Porpoise then that is important information but the descriptions from one of the crew of large whales seen over past years – visible blows and tail flukes in the air – indicates that there is much more to see.

IWDG do need additional observers for this route. If you are interested in helping out please contact Louise McAlavey (louise.mcalavey@doeni.gov.uk) or Ian Enlander (ian.enlander@doeni.gov.uk) for further information.

Our thanks as ever to P&O for giving us free access to their boat and to the various Captains for tolerating us on the Bridge.

Ian Enlander

18th February 2006