Whale of a time

Sea kayaking is a sport that pays back quickly

Sea kayaking is a sport that pays back quickly. With only a little experience you can find yourself in open water and among terrific wildlife, writes GARY QUINN

WHEN I SAW the footage of the humpback whale breaching off Hook Head last month my imagination went into overdrive. All I could think about was getting into my kayak and heading off in search of it. But that whale knows its waters well and is pretty safe from me in this particular stretch of the Irish coastline. I’ve propelled myself over a lot of water since I took to the sea, but I’m not quite ready for the twists and turns that Hook Head can offer. I am, though, a much smarter, fitter and more skilled kayaker – and have earned these traits stroke by stroke along our magnificent coast.

Training with Shearwater Sea Kayaking in Howth, in north Dublin, I have gone from being a complete novice to being able to tackle a huge range of sea conditions and have been given an incredible insight into the water that surrounds us. On guided expeditions I have kayaked with dolphins in Kerry, been amazed by the rainbow of colours that illuminate the islands and inlets that shape Connemara, and battled huge Atlantic swells beneath soaring cliffs in Donegal, as well as taking countless trips around the islands and harbours of Co Dublin. I’ve been out in thick fog and blazing sunshine, hail, rain and snow. And every trip was better for it because our coastline is so alive. I’m shocked at what I didn’t know I was missing: the seal pups and sunfish, the basking sharks and puffins, the dolphins and coral, the whales and gannets. Species after species living wild and adventurous lives just beyond our reach.

Sea kayaking is a sport that pays back quickly. With only a little experience you can find yourself in open water and among terrific wildlife. It’s almost unheard of to go around our islands and not see seals, but nothing beats how playful these animals are. There’s a great thrill in having one swim along with you, sometimes for long stretches at a time, catching your eye as if they’re thinking what you are: what a great day for a paddle.

Most kayakers try to stick to the simple mantra of leave no trace, and the boat they travel in is perfectly suited to it, creating no pollution or noise. Sea kayaks can cruise in and out of caves and coves silently and calmly, taking as much experience as the paddler can manage but leaving little to indicate they were there. They can land on islands and outcrops that have defied sailors for generations, and they can battle through weather that would leave many other craft marooned.

This also means they can get close to and among sea life very easily. Often they come straight to the kayaker. Last summer, returning from a foggy day at sea off the Kerry coast, we had a remarkable encounter: a pod of six bottlenose dolphins swam into the bay we were entering, leaping from the water, circling our boats, shooting beneath us and flashing their white bellies as the force of their dive gently rocked our boats. For close to 40 minutes we sat in awe as they chased each other and put on a display that seemed to be just for us.

We were close to a pier, and passers-by stopped to watch, some with binoculars, others with cameras, zooming in to capture a taste of what we were enjoying. Sitting in our kayaks with our ringside seats – close enough to touch – was an experience everyone should plan for.

There are many training providers around the country (see panel). Most people start with a beginner’s course, which is usually structured around two days: the first to introduce safety issues, basic boat handling and rescue drills; the second day to go out to the islands or more open sea to practise what you have learned. After that it’s a matter of keeping the momentum going, building experience, trying out more challenging water and increasing your training. At this point you can choose to follow the certification route offered by the Irish Canoe Union or to build your skills on group trips and expeditions.

During the summer, when the days are longer, most trainers provide half-day and evening courses. Some, such as Atlantic Sea Kayaking in Cork, offer moonlight paddles for groups. Sally McKenna (of Bridgestone Guides) is one of its instructors; she recommends its new Cork city paddle, a gentle introduction for beginners and improvers, on a guided tour below the bridges along the River Lee. To get close to whales you could take one of its assisted whale trips, she suggests; they load the kayaks on to a larger boat and head far out to sea, then launch the kayaks when they are close to a group.

But, she says, there is nothing to beat heading out from the coast with Jim Kennedy, who runs the company, and letting him lead you towards whales literally by the nose. Whales give off a strong smell, she explains, so finding them can often be a case of following the scent until they emerge. Really, you can’t beat an experienced guide.

'We were paddling along when we heard a cry - basking shark'

I’ve been kayaking for a few years and have seen a lot of great wildlife. Last April we were doing a trip around Árainn Mhór island, in Donegal. The weather was beautiful, so we took the chance to get around it. We were paddling along the coast of the island when we heard a big shout – basking shark. It was huge, with two fins coming up out of the water and its massive mouth wide open, taking up everything in front of it. It cruised around us for about three or four minutes, and we were able to paddle towards it for a closer look.

Even though I knew it wouldn’t harm us it was scary enough to see, given that we were in a small kayak and it was as big as it was. We were able to see right into its mouth, which was white inside. I’ve seen them breach the water in the past down in Cork, but this one wasn’t interested in us at all. It just carried on as if we weren’t there.

You don’t always get the weather in Donegal, but when you do it’s fantastic. I’ve been kayaking in Greece on two different holidays, and the caves, cliffs and sea life in Donegal would rival anything I saw there. One trip I’d like to do soon would be to Roaringwater Bay, in Baltimore, in Cork, to see if I could catch up with some of the whales and dolphins there. And you can find loads of life in Dublin, too. We see porpoises playing off Howth Head and get up close to baby seals in late summer on Ireland’s Eye. You really do need to be in a kayak for that kind of thing. It’s all there for anyone who is interested.

'I've seen 600 dolphins feeding off Cape Clear, all at once'

I’ve seen whales all over Ireland. The first place I came across them was in Cape Clear, in Co Cork. It’s a great spot, because it’s on the migration route past the country. Whales and dolphins work the continental shelf quite a bit, so they tend not to come terribly far inshore unless there is good tidal flow.

I’ve been right up beside them, watching them pass underneath the seat of the boat. Getting up close like that is incredibly impressive, no matter what kind of whale, but you do get something special when you see orcas, the so-called killer whales. When you see their fin coming towards you through the water you get a real sense of foreboding and that just about anything could happen. It’s a privilege, really, but it has always been safe.

I’ve seen orcas at the Blaskets and in Cork harbour. Sightings of other whales have also gone up, particularly in the Irish Sea. The Blasket sound can be really good for the smaller minke whales in late summer. You can get a good concentration of mackerel, and that brings in the dolphins. It can be a challenging enough place for kayaks. It’s hard to launch if the weather is up. But there are lots of easier places to get to. There’s a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins in the Shannon estuary. Kayaks are a great way to see them, too. You’re very close to nature. There’s no sense of intrusion with boats.

The whole west coast is open to all types of encounters with wildlife, right up from south Cork to Donegal. I’ve seen 600-700 dolphins feeding off Cape Clear, all at the one time. At other times along the west you’ll get leatherback turtles. Their head is as large as a big football. Sunfish are a fairly regular visitor. They can be as big as a car door or more. They’re very curious fish. If you come in slowly in the kayak you can really observe them. They don’t seem to feel any threat.

We organise our west-coast expeditions to match with migration patterns or feeding routes for all sorts of wildlife. You need to have a certain amount of experience to join a group like that, but that can be built up very easily, and it’s well worth the effort. The bird life alone can be fascinating. The whole coast of Ireland is so rich for kayaking.

You can see Seán Pierce, a Shearwater instructor, kayaking with dolphins on YouTube. Search for kayak, dolphins, Kerry

Go Contact

CorkAtlantic Sea Kayaking (028-21058, atlanticseakayaking.com).

DublinDeep Blue Sea (01-2760263, deepblueseakayaking.com). Shearwater

Sea Kayaking (086-8368736, shearwaterseakayaking.ie).

MayoSaoirse Na Mara Sea Kayaking (086-1733610, irelandwestseakayaking. com).

GalwayKayakmór (093-36097, kayakmor.com).

DonegalJustkayak.ie (074-9385903).

Gartan Outdoor Education Centre (074-9137032, gartan.com).

Northern IrelandCanoeni.com.

WaterfordSeapaddling.com (051-393314).