By Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer Above: A dolphin pod recently spotted near Baltimore
It’s that time of the year when the rich and diverse inshore waters of West Cork can come alive with marine wildlife and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) gears up for a busy season of monitoring cetaceans (whales, dolphins and harbour porpoises) and basking sharks along our coastline. The period of April to May is generally considered to be the tail-end of what we’d refer to as ‘low season’, as the sightings trend over the past decade show that most species have still not moved inshore in significant numbers. This May has however been exceptional, with daily sightings of Ireland’s smallest baleen whale, the minke whale and our most frequently observed dolphin the common dolphin. Of course the high volume of reports also reflect the fine settled weather, which draws more people to the coast and make it easier to spot animals, as seas are generally calmer during fine weather.
To give this activity some perspective, IWDG have documented over twice as many minke whale sightings during this period in 2014, than in any other year in the past decade. We have to go back to 2004, to find more minke whale sightings for the same period in West Cork. Sightings rates of common dolphins are also significantly higher for this time of year. All this is great news for whale enthusiasts, whale watch operators and is good news for local West Cork tourism, which is already attracting whale watch visitors from overseas.
The likely explanation for this early season bonanza are the series of extreme weather events that lashed the Southwest back in January and February, which resulted in larger than normal volumes of mud, sewage and slurry running off the land and being mixed with benthic sediment during the violent storms. This provided the perfect conditions for a phytoplankton bloom later in spring, which then kick started the local marine food chain. At the top of this food chain are the whales and dolphins, who move in to take advantage of a local abundance of forage species such as sand eels now, and the all-important sprat and juvenile herring later in the year.
IWDG have also documented the first humpback whale sighting of 2014, which was made by Dr Simon Berrow on the RV Celtic Voyager on May 17 just four miles southeast of Galley Head. This is an important record, as it confirms that the local feeding conditions have now drawn the attention of the large baleen whales. Interestingly, within 48 hours of this first humpback record, colleagues off the Blasket Islands, Co. Kerry observed their first humpback whale of the season. So our West Cork animal was unlikely to be a coincidence.
So all this means that the 2014 whale watch season has been kick-started earlier than normal, and while it’s fantastic to see video clips of large groups of hundreds of common dolphins off places like Baltimore and Ardfield, such sightings while unusual are not without precedent in West Cork.
For visitors who’d like to take advantage and try some whale watching, there are lots of land and boat based opportunities in West Cork, with established commercial whale watch operations at Reen Pier near Union Hall, Baltimore and Sherkin Island. Alternatively, and my personal favourite is to get out to one of West Cork’s classic headland vantage points with a good pair of binoculars and spotting scope on a calm, dry day; some notable sites would include: Old Head of Kinsale, Seven Heads, Galley Head, Toe Head, Baltimore Beacon, Cape Clear, Mizen Head, Sheep’s Head or Dursey Island (this list is not exhaustive). Remember, land-based whale watching is free, and is the only way to watch cetaceans without disturbing them and is also the only way you can guarantee you won’t get seasick!
For people who’d like to learn more about the cetaceans of Co. Cork and beyond, their ecology, conservation, current research and how to observe and identify the different species that occur locally, IWDG are running two residential weekend whale-watching courses on Cape Clear Island on July 11 to 13 and September 12 to 14. Bookings or enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 086-3850568.
We’d ask people who are fortunate enough to see whales or dolphins to report their observation to IWDG directly via the reporting section on www.iwdg.ie. Dead or live stranded cetaceans can also be reported to IWDG. Your sightings are important and are a key monitoring tool that helps us track the movements of these magnificent mobile marine mammals as they pass along the West Cork coast.
Happy whale watching in the summer ahead.