Blowholes, bubble nets and Ireland's whales and dolphins
ANOTHER LIFE:OLD SEA BONES, like pitted stone sculptures, stand around in the sodden November tangle of my garden. Vertebrae from a sperm whale that came ashore on the strand some 70 years ago were buried and cleansed by the sand, then disgorged after decades by winter storms.
They wear their mosses like green ermine and will crumble slowly into anonymity. The skull of a beaked whale, retrieved from a pebble spit on Hook Head, in Co Clare, lifts a fluted, lichened spire from its blind cavities.
Beachcombers are drawn on in unquenchable hope of surprise. In successive winters in the 1980s, I came upon the eighth and ninth washed-up specimens ever found in the world of True’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon mirus, rarest of the smaller whales that dive for squid in the deep Atlantic. This bumper demonstration of chance was made all the more bizarre by the identification hingeing on the exact shape (oval) of the animals’ only pair of teeth.
That, of course, needed the help of science – a visit by Prof James Fairley, then of NUI Galway, who chopped off the significant tip of the jaw with his little red hatchet, and later by Terry Bruton, now curator of mammals at the Ulster Museum. He bravely excavated a whole corpse in blubbery chunks, for later assembly of its skeleton, watched by my farming neighbours standing well upwind.
Such mortuary detail helps to make the point that, until a mere couple of decades ago, virtually all we knew of the variety and distribution of the whales and dolphins around Ireland was judged from the catches of a short-lived Norwegian whaling station in north Co Mayo in the early 20th century and years of random recording, at the back of the Irish Naturalists’ Journal,of cetacea stranded, mostly dead, along our shores.
There were hints, from time to time, of the exciting live sightings waiting at sea. Dr Peter Evans of Oxford University, encountering his first whale – a fin – off the Old Head of Kinsale, went home to found a cetacean group, in 1973, within the UK Mammal Society.
In Ireland, things took a bit longer. But, 21 years ago, a group of about 30 people met at the newly opened office of Enfo, in Dublin. They were brought together by Brendan Price, now best known for his dedicated work on saving seals, who was proposing that Irish waters be declared an international whale sanctuary. This was ultimately acted on by Charles Haughey, but the meeting also created the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. At its 21st anniversary banquet, at the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Co Dublin, next Saturday night, it can celebrate magnificent achievements, both in turning so many Irish eyes seaward and in launching a new chapter in the island’s natural history.
Recording stranded whales and dolphins is still its core activity, and the number reported (duly photographed and measured) to its website (iwdg.ie) has steadily increased to about 120-140 a year. Harbour porpoises lead in number, followed by common dolphin and then striped, bottlenose or white-sided dolphin, or minke whale. But the living whales and dolphins of Ireland, leaping out of the ocean with what can pass so persuasively for joy, are now part of the nation’s popular culture, shared from whalewatching boats or clifftops, or on television. The seasonal parade of feeding fin whales and humpbacks along the south coast, discovered in marathon telescope watches by the IWDG’s Pádraig Whooley, is new knowledge of international interest, adding to spectacular sightings of sperm and even blue whales – the world’s biggest animal – out near the edge of the continental shelf.
A humpback whale was once considered a great rarity off Ireland’s coasts, yet observing them is now a regular pleasure. After almost 15 weeks of sightings since July, Nick Hassett was still watching a pair off the Dingle Peninsula late in October, conjuring bubble nets from their blowholes to trap shoals of herring.
With humpbacks now individually identified from the patterning of their tail flukes (those off Kerry were HB IRL 10 and 15), new knowledge about migration and breeding is added every year. The recent gift of Haughey’s yacht, Celtic Mist, equips the IWDG for even more systematic observation. But, as Dr Simon Berrow, founder member and co-ordinator of the group, has asked, are cetaceans and their habitats any better protected now than before the group was formed? As a scientist, he can’t answer: that needs evidence. Were the whales and dolphins always there offshore, just waiting to be watched by people?
It seems incredible that, with a trawler fleet so busy off the south and west coasts, the regular migrations should not have been remarked on – yet equally improbable that the animals have warmed, as it were, to Ireland’s benign intentions.
At least, thanks to the IWDG, they are now part of what we know and love about the natural world.
Eye on nature
On October 25th I watched from my home five or six whales cruising past Beginish Island towards Doulus Head and across Dingle Bay. What joy to see them blowing spurts of spray from their backs.
Tony O’Sullivan, Cahirciveen, Co Kerry
The fish in my garden pond get eaten by herons, mink and the occasional kingfisher. This summer I put in a dozen small goldfish and saw one being killed by the larva of a dragonfly that had attached itself to its gills.
Rudolf Heltzel, Kilkenny
Cover the pond with a net raised somewhat to allow for the length of the heron’s beak.
The exotic visitor in the photograph I’m sending you was spotted in a polytunnel in south Wexford. It was identified as a yellow-billed cuckoo.
Joseph Kelly, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
It is a very rare autumn vagrant from North America.
A fungus like a green seaweed has infested the gravel around my house. It is resistant to the weedkiller and fungicides I have tried.
Kieran Thompson, Newport House, Co Mayo
It is the blue-green alga nostoc, which grows in places with poor drainage. Apply a chlorothalonil- or mancozeb-based fungicide to the infested area once every seven to 14 days until the nostoc is dead.