Whale watching in Ireland: ‘The first humpback was a giant’
Abundant marine wildlife, from whales to storm petrels, is just an hour from the Wild Atlantic Way
Whales are highly sensitive to sound, and every time a boat puts out to sea noise levels affect their communications, and perhaps ultimately their well-being and survival. Photograph: Mark Carmody, via Getty Images
Maybe I’m perversely pessimistic, but when we set out from a pier near Union Hall in west Cork to go whale-watching, one afternoon late last month, the chances of disappointment seemed high.
For several weeks, local sightings of dolphins and whales had been truly exceptional, both in species and in abundance. And when the Holly Jo disembarked its morning shift of very happy passengers, the story was the same, only better.
We heard excited stories of hundreds of dolphins, of many minke whales, and of half a dozen humpbacks, a whale sometimes described as the “giant panda of the sea” because of its charismatic appearance. Surely this run of luck couldn’t last?
“We’ve got some travelling to do,” our captain, Colin Barnes, told us as we came aboard. He didn’t expect us to see whales until we were about 12 miles out from the coast. Still, it was a gloriously sunny day; inshore, the glittering sea was scattered with resting gannets and guillemots.
Barnes slowed down to take us close to the vertiginous rocks of the Stags where, among many other wrecks over the centuries, the Kowloon Bridge broke up and leaked oil, with ecologically disastrous consequences, more than 30 years ago.
Herring spawning has still to recover fully in the area. But many species are thriving here again. Seals watched us curiously from coves resplendent in seaweed and lichened rock faces; a variety of nesting seabirds surveyed us from above.
And then very shortly afterwards, one lucky passenger saw our first whale. It must have been a spectacular sight, for he said it was breaching – leaping right out of the water. But then the ocean seemed to empty abruptly of all obvious life. We hardly saw another gannet for the next hour.
The dearth of feeding birds was a bad sign for finding whales and dolphins. Perhaps they had had had enough to eat that morning, when a big shoal of anchovies had moved through, and we were scanning the vast stretches of sea in vain.
After well over an hour in this mode, several common dolphins suddenly broke the surface, rushing towards the boat as though to greet an old friend. They dived briefly, and then reappeared right under the noses of the passengers gathered on the bow.
From that moment onwards, until we finally turned back for land, we were never more than a few moments without the company of several dolphins ‘bow-riding’ – apparently racing the boat and leaping repeatedly only inches from our rapidly advancing prow. At first, it was quite unnerving, as painful collisions seemed imminent.
But their judgment and timing was perfectly synchronised. Soon, it was hard not feel that we were right at the centre of some primal and exuberant celebration of life and motion, caught in a rhythm quite unlike that of our daily lives.
Other pods of dolphins began to pop up around us, near and far, at times moving in to take the place of the bow-riders as if they were changing shifts in a relay race, or taking their turn at the centre of a liquid dance-floor.
Whatever was really happening, it was unlike any other wildlife experience I have ever had, with the possible exception of witnessing large numbers of migrating cranes up close and personal. And it’s rather easier to imagine expressions on a dolphin’s face than on a crane’s.
It wasn’t long before the dolphins had other company. Next up were quite numerous minke whales. Their heads break the surface so briefly that you mostly see only their tall dorsal fin and some of their back before they slide back into the water for quite long dives. It’s sometimes hard to grasp you are looking at a beast more than three times the size of a dolphin.
There was no doubt, however, that the first humpback whale we saw was a giant. They can reach 16m long and weigh up to 36,000kg. The ones we saw – probably six all told – were generous in displaying themselves. Their vast black and knobbly masses roiled along the surface close by the boat, showing white on their throats, bellies and flippers, and then “fluking”, flourishing their tail high above the surface as they dive.
For more than an hour we were able to observe these three large marine mammals almost at will, not to mention the birds that had now materialised in large numbers. Flotillas of ocean-dwelling shearwaters rested on the waves, while tiny storm petrels picked small fish and plankton from the crests. Meanwhile, gannets plunged like brilliant white javelins among the fishing dolphins. You don’t have to go to the Serengeti to stand in the midst of abundant wildlife.
Why, though, many of us wondered, did so many dolphins spend so much time and energy bow-riding? Barnes is convinced that this behaviour is “pure play”. “They are such sophisticated and effective hunters that they have lots of time to spend their energy any way they like.”
Barnes has plenty of experience on which to base this view. He is unusual in being a long-term commercial fisherman who has switched to leading dedicated whale-watching trips. He is deeply versed in marine ecology, contributing to scientific articles.
It should be said, though, that others have expressed concerns that bow-riding may exhaust dolphins, especially if several boats are operating in the same area. Pádraig Whooley, sightings officer of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDC), however, points out that all ecotourism activities have a cost in impact on the species and habitats they focus on.
He acknowledges that whales are highly sound sensitive, and that every time a boat puts out to sea noise levels affect their communications, and perhaps ultimately their well-being and survival.
But he believes that whale-watching can be sustainable when operated by ecologically informed skippers such as Barnes, with whom the group works closely, and that the public awareness the activity creates provides a net benefit for conservation.
He adds that if you want to avoid making any impact on whale habitat you can still watch them very well with telescopes from many of our headlands. A good time to start would be on August 25th, when the IWDG organises an all-Ireland whale watching day – see iwdg.ie/events for updates.
Colin Barnes’s website is corkwhalewatch.com/
Saving our whales: can we make the Irish sanctuary a reality?
The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) made some very big strides towards raising the profile of these marine mammals very shortly after it was formed in 1990. Within months, it had persuaded then taoiseach Charles Haughey to declare all Irish territorial waters to be a whale and dolphin sanctuary.
Since then, the popularity of whale-watching has increased exponentially, partly thanks to the media appeal of these charismatic animals. Many of us, however probably remain unaware of the remarkable wildlife riches just off our own shorelines.
And even the IWDG still has very large knowledge gaps about how our whale, dolphin and porpoise populations may be changing, and why. Much more research need to be done, and that needs more funding.
IWDG officer Pádraig Whooley, however, reckons they have identified two key problems that we need to address at once.
One is the overfishing of sprat, a prime food source for the entire marine food chain. The other is the killing and injuring of dolphins as by-catch by our trawlers, generally denied by the fishing industry but frequently verified by anecdotal observation and urgently in need of regulation.
Without action in these areas, the notion that Irish waters are really a sanctuary for whales and dolphins is likely to remain, to our shame, more aspirational than real.