Throughout the summer months, a regular fixture on the horizon of Bangor Bay is a bright blue, picture-perfect fishing boat, bobbing in the wake of the cross-channel catamarans and deftly dodging container vessels as they ride and glide in and out of Belfast Lough.
Named Aquarius, it’s skippered by the popular local character Brian Meharg, MBE.
Come rain or shine, hell or high water, there he is twice a day scooting in and out of the marina, with his cargo of holiday-makers of various ages and nationalities, followed closely by an entourage of gulls and terns who squeal and squawk until a bucket full of mackerel trimmings and fish guts are tossed in their direction.
For me, a trip on board the good ship Aquarius is as much a part of our annual summer ritual as stopping at Maud’s for a Pooh Bear poke or paddling in the sea the first moment the sun shines. But the trip we took this week was without a doubt one of the highlights of the school holidays so far, even though I’d had initial misgivings about even going when I’d seen the weather forecast.
It had started out as a cloudy overcast Monday morning; one of those days that country folk might describe as “soft” when what they really mean is drizzly, damp and dull.
So instead of dressing to catch a few rays as the sparkling gleam reflected off an azure sea, I dug out my winter clothes and pulled on an inch-deep layer of woollies and waterproofs to protect me from the bombarding elements.
Finn (my 14-year-old son) was just as unenthusiastic upon seeing the miserable conditions but as soon as the little boat appeared at the jetty and Brian cheerfully helped us on board with our 10 new temporary ship mates, the mood instantly picked up.
“Now isn’t that a lovely soft day? Perfect, for where we’re heading!” he shouted out over the chugging of the engine, as he manoeuvred his vessel carefully out of the marina past a million pounds worth of private yachts.
“So, where actually are we heading?” Finn asked as he selected a rod from the multicoloured array, lined-up and prepared for another morning’s action on the open seas.
I shrugged, but Brian was already clearly on course, having spotted through his telescope a frenetic feeding frenzy of assorted seabirds about a mile out to sea near the shore of Carrickfergus. As we got closer and closer it was obvious something was attracting them.
Right enough, no sooner had the skipper switched off the engine and we had cast our lines, than Finn was reeling in his first catch of the day — four adult mackerel, shimmering iridescent turquoise and silver.
“Quick, mum! Help! Grab them!” he yelped excitedly, leaving me with the dirty work of disengaging the hooks and bait from his disorientated prey. But before I’d even finished and thrown them into our bucket, my rod was bending and the reel was giving way to the force of another trio of struggling fish. For 15 minutes this went on, all 12 of us on board tugging and reeling bounteous frantic fish up from their murky depths. But then, just as we were starting to get nonchalant about our amazing haul, something funny happened.
“Seals ahoy!” Brian shouted as he spotted four pairs of glossy flippers in the water moving sleekly in our direction “Watch out, they’ve come to rob us!”
Brian knew exactly what was about to happen.
A family of grey seals had followed the boat out from the harbour, knowing instinctively that we would guide them to where the fish were, providing some very easy and very rich pickings. Like highwaymen of the high sea, every time we got a bite, the seals swooped into action, often taking each hook, line and sinker with them in the process.
It was hilarious to watch, and so entertaining that you couldn’t feel anything but admiration and awe for the way in which these amazing creatures went about their covert mission, cheekily swiping our fish one after another.
In between each onslaught they came up to the surface of the water, literally smiling and yelping with glee. Although we went home with no less than 25 mackerel — all caught before the ambush — it was those sneaky surreptitious seals who stole the show.
Brian Meharg, his trusty boat Aquarius and the pesky seal family set sail from Bangor’s Eisenhower Pier at 9.15am and 7pm every day until the Autumn.