Monthly mammal watch on the Irish Sea

3rd Dec 2002 Story:

Standing aboard the control room of the world's largest car ferry, the Ulysses, gazing out through huge, panoramic windows at the thrashing Irish Sea ahead, it is difficult to imagine what lurks beneath the waves.

Few people ever see the brains of such a ship, with its rows of complicated computers and radar screens that would not look out of place on a spaceship. Sections of the floor are transparent, revealing the flailing ocean 30 metres below and a telescope perches in the centre of the room, to keep a constant eye out for small boats.

But such technology obviously does not faze the captain, who sits just a few feet away from me, sipping coffee. Heading this three and a half hour voyage from Dublin to Holyhead and back again is all in a day's work for him.

And hitching a lift in the control room, or bridge, is par for the course for conservationist Dave Wall too. A director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), Dave embarks upon this crossing once a month in a bid to keep tabs on marine mammals in the Irish Sea.

Armed with binoculars, I join him on this month's spotting trip.

"I record every dolphin, porpoise, bird and even whale I see," he explains. "We need to monitor these species so we can notice changes in the long term. If a species suddenly declines, we're hoping we'll pick up on it."

As the Ulysses glides out of Dublin port, he gives me an idea of what we could spy if we're lucky.

"The Irish Sea is a strange area because its funnel shape means we could see anything. We know there are common dolphins and harbour porpoises, but there have also been sightings of sperm whales, minke whales and a humpback whale.

"If a large mammal gets confused on its path and enters the Irish Sea through the northern entrance, it will generally keep going and pass along the coast. It's like playing the lottery - you're not very likely to see a whale, but it could be you."

With such possibilities, I begin to get excited. After all, it's not every day you see a whale.

Nor, it seems, will it be today. For the first few minutes, I study the grey mass intently, binoculars poised ready to zoom in on the flick of a humpback's tail or funnel of spray from a blowhole.

Minutes turn into hours and other than plenty of seabirds and a block of red seaweed, it seems marine life is playing hard to get.

"When the weather is a bit rough and the waves have white horses like today, it is difficult to spot mammal movement and porpoises get lost in the waves. Although rougher weather sometimes makes dolphins more active," explains Dave, who constantly scans the ocean surface for telltale ripples that may indicate a dolphin or porpoise about to surface for air.

Patience is the key and zoology graduate Dave, who used to embark upon eight-hour monitoring voyages from Dublin to Liverpool, has plenty of that. "There is always something to look at out to sea, although occasionally staring for hours at a time can make you feel like you're losing your marbles.

"We have to remind ourselves we are not on a whale and dolphin watching trip. We are monitoring them and if we don't see any, it's as significant as if we saw lots."

It is a silent pastime and every so often, Dave reaches for his binoculars to double check if the rise of a wave could be something more exciting. Finally, his diligence pays off and he gives a cry of joy as a trio of common dolphins are momentarily spotted.

Even crew members rush to press their noses against the windows for a better look. But as the ferry races onward, the dolphins, which I completely missed, rapidly blur back into the waves and Dave starts scribbling notes.

"I record what species I've seen, but I can't guess if I'm not sure," he says. He also gauges how far away from the ferry the dolphins were seen, using nothing more than a stick with markings. "Distance is difficult to judge at sea, because there are no reference points, so we use a stick and