Remembering the best introduction to the wild west
ANOTHER LIFE:Six new marine sanctuaries have been announced, and one is close to my heart, and my home
One crisp winter’s morning in the late 1970s, with the mountains from Achill to Renvyle in a gleaming rim of snow around the bay, I was walking the strand at Carrowniskey in excited exploration of our – territory, domain, terrain . . . what word was big enough for somewhere so magically new?
The strand had a bright hem of foam and long lines of slow breakers, almost the size that draw today’s Carrowniskey surfers. And then suddenly, beyond the curling crests, there were half a dozen bottlenose dolphins, not just surfing but leaping clear vertically, and scattering spray in the sun.
For 10 whole minutes they played, just for me, and then melted away in the waves. As a welcome to life in the west, it took some beating.
It was also my first close encounter with such animals, and so crude, then, was my knowledge that I wrote about them as “porpoises” – a word I seem to have borrowed from Melville’s Moby-Dick, whose riotous “huzza” porpoises must have seemed to fit the mood. But it’s as proper bottlenoses that our friendly neighbourhood dolphins have now earned official sanctuary.
In the list of six new marine Special Areas of Protection (SACs), announced last month by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, harbour porpoises get a new SAC across Dublin Bay, from Rockabill to Dalkey Island, while our dolphins inherit, more grandly, the “West Connacht Coast”.
Just where this starts and ends is by no means clear, but it certainly includes the waters around the islands and reefs of Slyne Head, at the wildest, craggiest end of Connemara. Here, a solar-powered lighthouse blinks its warning for 20 nautical miles, sometimes lighting a cloud on our own horizon.
This awesome archipelago has already been acknowledged as a marine SAC, notably for its value to some 300 grey seals, which breed and rest there, and the rich marine life of its reefs.
Repeated surveys over the past decade by a team from University College Cork have found schools of bottlenose dolphins spending time close to the coast from Killary Harbour, round the corner of Slyne Head, to Mannin in Galway Bay. Almost 90 of the dolphins have been photo-identified (including three with congenital twists in their backs), and they seem to form a highly mobile community, perhaps of some 170 animals, that use these waters in the summer months. This is many more than all previous estimates of those using the Shannon Estuary and already protected with an SAC.
This led the survey team to recommend an SAC consisting of a coastal strip of water less than 5 km wide between Slyne Head and Roonagh, on the Mayo coast north of Thallabawn (almost exactly where my initiation took place in 1978). This protects the dolphins on at least part of their journeying up and down the west coast, and gives them Killary Harbour, Cleggan Bay and Ballynakill Bay to hang around in.
There had, however, been pressure from the European Commission in 2009 to protect a more representative share of certain marine habitats – sandbanks and deep rocky reefs, for example, both of which are often hot-spots of marine life. The deadline for proposing them was the end of 2012, which explains the rush to announce Ireland’s six choices before Christmas.