Report VI update: 19 Dec 2012
This update really draws a line under the recent large whale activity in West Cork that was enjoyed by so many whale watchers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. The activity which lasted some six weeks, commenced in late October with sightings of fin whales in inshore local waters. In early November the arrival of humpback whales raised the tempo, as this most iconic of the great whales, has a unique capacity to inspire and thrill in equal measure. A huge thanks to everyone who forwarded images to IWDG which confirm that the activity comprised a minimum of 6 humpback whales. They were HBIRL1, 3, 4, 6, 10 and 21, and all of these (bar #21) were known to IWDG as some of them were first catalogued in Irish waters as far back as Sept 1999.
This story was picked up by BBC Winterwatch researchers; no doubt aided by local IWDG member, Simon Duggan, whose wonderful photo of the breaching #HBIRL21- with whale watchers looking in the opposite direction, was seen by a global audience as a result of its "going viral". Alas, by the time the BBC arrived in West Cork, the activity between Baltimore and the Stags had moved on, or should I say moved east. It was clear from the flow of sightings to IWDG that the whales were on the move and heading East towards Cork harbour. But the whales weren't the only issue, as the weather switched from a settled northerly airflow to a nasty southeasterly, which only gave us one filming day on the water searching for humpbacks. Despite land-based sightings from the Old Head on Dec 10th, we failed to connect with the humpbacks. But it's still a great story and IWDG filmed with BBC over two days in West Cork and if we can re-locate the humpbacks again later this winter off Waterford/Wexford area, then they'll certainly consider a return trip to secure the footage. It is hoped that these Irish humpback whales will feature in January 2013 on BBC's Winterwatch programme.
So where are the humpback whales now? Well to be honest we've very little idea, as the poor weather combining with very short days make it difficult to find them, let alone track their movements. But this is where you, the public, come in. There has been only two validated sightings of fin whales (off Toe Hd, West Cork and Bunmahon, Waterford) in the past week, but sighting trends suggest that people should start focusing watch effort along the Waterford/Wexford coast especially during January. This is great timing especially with the IWDG's research vessel the RV Celtic Mist being based in the Southeast over the remaining winter months which will be available to take out IWDG members on one day Photo ID and biopsy research charters. So as always, we'd encourage people interested in becoming involved in our work to sign up and become IWDG members.
We look forward to keeping you updated on the movements of these large whales in the New Year. As always, we can only monitor these animals because of support from a small but dedicated team of land-based observers who volunteer a lot of time in all seasons (high and low) up on the clifftops scanning the horizon. Their sightings are supplemented from "casual observations" reported from members of the public, and both these sources of information combine to continually remind us of the incredible diversity of marine megafauna in Irish waters.
IWDG would like to extend a huge thank you to all of you for supporting the IWDG Cetacean Sighting Scheme in 2012....here's to many more wonderful encounters in 2013.
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator
The IWDG "member's only" research cruise this Wed 5th started off pretty tame but ended in a frenzy of activity, with an unexpected medical emergency in the middle thrown in for good measure. What better way to spend Budget Day 2012, out on water in West Cork looking for giants.
On leaving Reen pier, we headed west towards the hotspot where humpback and fin whales have enthralled hundreds of whale watchers and wildlife enthusuasts alike in recent weeks. It soon became apparent that the whales along with the seabirds and dolphins had left the area. This was corroborated by Jerry Smith of Aquaventures who reported that he was searching a very empty sea, in what only days earlier had been a cauldron of activity. All that was left were a few lagging fin whales, who clearly hadn't heard the call to ship out. The joys of whale research.
There is nothing intrinsically difficult about whale watching when you know where the whales are. But when you don't know where they are and need to start from scratch, it can be akin to searching for that proverbial "needle in a haystack". Our decision to return east in search of whales was made for us, when one of our team took ill and needed to be dropped back to shore for attention. This turn of events proved almost charmic, as not long after dropping our colleague back to Reen pier, we started getting text messages from IWDG observers: Tim Feen and Chris O' Sullivan of both humpback and fin whales well to your east on the Clonakilty Bay side of Galley Head. This was great news, but it was a long way off and the short days in December at these latitudes meant we were always going to be up against failing light, as the sun seems to drop like a stone not long after 3:30 pm in December.
Rounding Galley Head, we started picking up some dolphins, and there was definitely more seabird activity. As we steamed across Clonakilty Bay the 1st distant blows appeared on the horizon. First a few fin whales, and then the low bushy blows of humpbacks. Before long we were close enough to confirm the presence of most of the players that were involved in the recent activity to the west between the Kedge and Stags. Among them were HBIRL1, 4 & 6 and in failing light they were joined by at least two other humpbacks that seemed to be very relaxed around the MV Holly Jo, oblivious to the fact that Conor Ryan was taking biopsy samples with his crossbow.
During this activity we secured biopsy samples from both HBIRL1 & 4, which was a good result, as HBIRL1 is the 1st and therefore the oldest humpback on the Irish catalogue, as it was 1st documented in Sept 1999. As for HBIRL4, well myself and Colin Barnes have both had a suspicion for years now, that this whale with the "all black" tail fluke is female, as we've both seen it with a small animal that we assume was a calf. So the biopsy sample will, among other things, confirm the gender of this individual.
So we ended the day with a tally of at least 5 humpbacks, 7 fin whales and several hundred common dolphins......and as we motored west for home, many hours later than expected in darkness, we were treated to displays of bioluminescence in the ink black waters below us and shooting stars in skies above.....and the budget couldn't have been further from our minds. What a day!
Since then, the weather has been very poor but there are still sufficient reports coming into IWDG to suggest to us that the large whale activity is slowly pushing east. The sightings have been predominantly from Ardfield area, Clonakilty Bay and Courtmacsherry Bay and east of the Old Head of Kinsale, all of which have the capacity to hold humpbacks for a sustained period. There are of course no guarantees that the activity won't switch back west again, but based on previous experience their drive to push east at this time of year is inexorable.
IWDG are collaborating with the BBC's WinterWatch programme next week, which is hoping to follow up on last years AutumnWatch special on fin whales from East Cork/Waterford, by filming humpback whales in West Cork. So we'd really appreciate any assistance from members of the public or whale-watchers over the weekend if you think you've seen large whales in your local patch. Please report any sightings to IWDG by using the "Report a sighting" link on the home page of www.iwdg.ie
This story is a long way from being over, as it is still early in the season!
Report IV update: 03 Dec 2012
They say a picture paints a "thousand words"; and you need look no further than today's newspapers to see this perfectly illustrated. Simon Duggan's wonderful photo (below) of one of the West Cork humpbacks breaching yesterday Dec. 2nd, close to Baltimore harbour captures the magic of a humpback whale "in flight". Simon was one of 12 IWDG members who came on a whale watching trip of a lifetime to Baja, Mexico back in 2006, where among blue, fin and gray whales, we also saw plenty of humpbacks. Alas, he never quite got as good a photo-opportunity in sun-kissed Baja, as he did on this memorable grey, winter's morning off Baltimore. Another reminder that our inshore waters can potentially offer "world-class" whale watching, especially during winter months.
There is as best we can tell no let up in the current large whale activity in this area. In fact, if anything it looks like the whales have moved even closer to shore, which we hope will encourage people to try and view this activity from one of the local land-based sites, such as Baltimore Beacon. And while the acrobatic humpbacks are of course stealing all the attention, don't forget that there are also fin whales currently in the area, and in greater numbers (image below). Another caveat, least we are accused of being too parochial, is that this large whale activity is not limited to West Cork as there are currently fin whales off both the Waterford and West Wexford coastline.
Humpback whales are one of the slower rorqual species, and as such are prone to disturbance from too many boats spending too long, and approaching too close. So IWDG would remind people taking their private boats out to watch these whales, that your actions on the water can potentially impact on the whales and their behaviour. It may even tip the scales from habitat being "favourable" to unfavourable, which could push the whales out of the area, into other areas with less traffic.
The "Guidelines for "Correct Procedures when Encountering Whales and Dolphins in Irish Waters" was given legal status in Marine Notice 15 of 2005 and is enforceable by law, so we'd encourage boat owners to familiarise yourselves with this piece of legislation, which applies to all boat owners (private and licenced). It not only exists for the welfare of the whales, but also to keep people safe from whales that can and do collide with small craft.
IWDG have received a lot of images of both dorsal fins and tail-flukes in the past few weeks, which enable us say with confidence that this recent activity comprises a minimum of 6 humpback whales. They are HBIRL1, 3, 4, 6, 10 & 21. Of these, all have been previously recorded in Irish waters by the IWDG Cetacean Sighting scheme, and two of these (#3 & #10) have been biopsied. We are really happy to see the return of HBIRL1, who is our longest recorded humpback ( image below), having been first filmed back in Sept 1999 by Eoin O' Mahoney off the Kinsale Gas platforms. It is wonderful to know that 13 years on, this individual is alive and well and returning to Ireland's Whale Sanctuary. Also included is #HBIRL3, known to many in West Cork as "Boomerang", a male, who is without question the most frequently recorded humpback whale in Irish waters, if not in any European waters.
So the IWDG's cetacean recording schemes enables us to start building a larger picture and to give these sightings some context. For instance of these 6 humpack whales, 4 of them were all recorded in the same West Cork waters near Galley Head during Dec 2008, and have not been recorded since. Now five years later, they are back together in the same area. This raises important questions as to possible "associations" between these players and whether they are somehow related, or what the level of kinship is between them? All questions for another day, but in the meantime IWDG will keep monitoring this activity and we hope this week to try and secure additional photo ID and biopsy samples from them.
As always, if you'd like to support the IWDG's conservation work, why not consider taking out IWDG membership or purchasing a membership for a family member or loved one for Christmas. IWDG is a registered charity (No. CHY11163)
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator
Report III update: 29th Nov. 2012
Today's sighting reports from the MV Holly Jo suggests no let up in activity in the waters between the Kedge and the Stags in West Cork. IWDG member Pete Wolstenholme reports 5 cetacean species during today's trip out with Colin Barnes, and these sightings were made in quite poor visibility due to rainy conditions. The species list includes harbour porpoises, common dolphins, minke whale, fin whale and of course the stars of the show, the humpbacks.
There have been and likely will be in coming days lots of people with good cameras out on the water taking images of these humpback whales. IWDG would once again appreciate the opportunity to view any useable ID images of either or both ventral tail flukes (under side) or dorsal fins (left and right side), as these images are the best way to establish which animals are present on any given day, and how many there are. The best estimate combined from images taken from the MV Holly Jo and the Cachalot Mor out of Baltimore on 28/11/12 suggest at least 5 humpbacks, but at any given time these could be joined by other individuals on the Irish Humpback Whale Catalogue, or indeed by new animals, so we can't assume that it's the same core group each day.
Weather looks like it is going to break on Sunday (2nd) for at least a few days, which means the proposed second IWDG charter for Sunday is postponed till further notice. The weather may limit whale watching to land-based observations from local elevated sites (see suggestions on earlier report below), which will give the whales a break from whale watchers, researchers and media for a few days. We can but hope that with the amount of sprats/herring in the area, the whales will remain in the area for another week or so, before they follow the herring shoals east along the Waterford coast.
Huge thanks for the continuing sighting reports and images being sent to IWDG
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator
Report II update: 28th Nov. 2012
Remarkable scenes off West Cork today (Wed. 28th Nov), with a minimum of five individual humpback whales "bubble-net" feeding. Even more remarkable is that the IWDG have recorded most of these animals before in Irish waters, with some of them first recorded as far back as 2001. Even more remarkably again, some of these whales recorded today have previously been observed together in West Cork in December 2008!! From today's combined trips we can confirm the following individuals were present: #HBIRL3 (known as "Boomerang"),#4, #6, #10 & #21) and we hope to be able to confirm more when analyse all today's images. It is known from the western Atlantic that Humpback whales form stable social associations with other whales on the feeding grounds, so this is not just a coincidence.
The whale-watching off West Cork at present, while spectacular, is not without precedent, and with the settled weather set to last up to Sunday, the opportunities for people to view not just humpback whales, but also the larger fin whale are fantastic. And don't panic if you can't get out on a boat, this activity is close enough inshore, that with a reasonable pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, you've a good chance of land-based sightings from elevated sights such as Toe Head or Spain Pt. (Near Baltimore), in West Cork.
A whale-watching charter for IWDG members may be organised for Sunday 2nd Dec with Skipper Colin Barnes, if the weather holds out. So watch this space. We will email all members as soon as we can confirm this.
Please report any whale sighting to IWDG on www.iwdg.ie, and we'd love the chance to view any usable images of tail-fluking humpback whales for Photo-ID matching purposes, so we can continue to monitor and track these highly mobile mammals as they pass through Irish waters.
A huge thanks to those members of the public who have taken out IWDG membership in recent days. Your supports is invaluable and helps in the conservation of these magnificent animals.
Report I: 25th Nov. 2012
Several recent articles on www.iwdg.ie have alluded to the fact that there is currently world class Whale- Watching to be enjoyed from several sites along the Irish south coast, from Co. Kerry extending east to Waterford. But the past week has produced a nice run of sightings of an impressive species diversity, that includes all three of the rorqual species (throat pleats) that can be seen in our inshore waters: minke, humpback and fin whale. Not forgetting of course that many of these encounters have large numbers of associated common dolphins.
Living in West Cork, I am of course a little biased, but indulge me a little, as we've just come through a relatively quiet few years on the whale front, where sightings of large whales have neither been as reliable nor frequent as they have been in previous years. No doubt, their absence during this period was due to the life-cycle of their primary prey, namely herring and sprats, that were more abundant east of Cork harbour; and so places like Waterford, extending towards Wexford enjoyed the majority of the sightings. So, it's great to see West Cork back in the frame.
We've taken several trips out with Colin Barnes from Reen Pier in the past week and another from Baltimore this Sat. 24th November and I'm still blown away by the minke and fin whale encounters on these trips in inshore waters. But the highlight was this weekend's run of humpback whale sightings that has centered in the waters between the Stags and Kedge Island in West Cork, near Baltimore.
I joined Richard O' Flynn and IWDG member Youen Jacob for a trip out to see if we could find them and establish the identity of this humpback pair. We left Baltimore at first light, and not long after Youen soon picked up distant blows and we were soon in the company of this pair of adult humpback whales. Over the period we stayed with them we struggled to get images of the all-important tail-fluke, which was partly due to the poor sea conditions and fact that they simply were not lifting their tails. So, we had to make do with dorsal fin images. But after a while, whether we secured these identification images became a little academic to us, as we were treated to a wildlife spectacle worthy of any "National Geographic special" on humpbacks in Alaska, courtesy of a prolonged period of frantic "bubble-net" feeding.
This technique is a humpback speciality, and involves the animal diving deep to the seabed and slowly swimming to the surface in circles, venting bubbles from their paired blow holes (nostrils) as they rise. This behaviour creates a cauldron of bubbles, in effect trapping the small shoaling fish, which make the critical error of swimming to the surface in an effort to escape. Of course once they get to the surface they are trapped and the humpbacks jaws and baleen plates do the rest. I've observed this behaviour a few times before in Kerry and Cork, but this is my first time seeing a pair of humpbacks use this technique co-operatively. A real treat and a reminder that their capacity to enthral is endless.
So who are these humpbacks? Well we could confirm after the trip on Saturday, that one of them with a completely black tail-fluke was #HBIRL4 (image right). This animal was 1st photographed by Colin Barnes off Galley Head in December 2001, 11 years ago. We last recorded it in Dec. 2008. So it's nice to see it return after a 5 year absence. This is incidentally our 1st inter-decade re-sighting, which is noteworthy, as we typically find that humpbacks are recorded over 3-4 years and then we seem to lose them. So the fact that this individual is now returning to the same waters into a 2nd decade is significant and again shows the importance of our inshore waters as prime feeding habitat for these giants.
The identity of the other player in this drama was only confirmed by further images secured on Sunday 25th by Youen and team, and these confirm this to be #HBIRL10, when it was once again accompanying #HBIRL4. We know this individual (#10) very well, as it was biopsied by Simon Berrow off Slea Head, Co. Kerry in Sept 2009 and the results confirm it is a male. He also spent much of this summer off Slea/Clogher Head where Nick Masset regularly photographed him during July.
The fact that HBIRL10 has returned to West Cork provides useful information on their movements and is further evidence of a west-east momement. But here is the real interesting bit..... both these animals were recorded together off Galley Head during an IWDG research cruise on 10th Dec 2008, on a day when we observed a record 6-7 humpbacks. Four years on, they are still together in the waters off West Cork. This is not by chance, and again supports the case that our waters are important for these animals. It is worth reminding readers that what we have today is a very small remnant population that is likely to be at about 10% of the pre-whaling population in the North Atlantic. A fact supported by the very high re-sightings rate, as we still recognise 2 out of every 3 humpbacks we photograph.
We hope the images in this article will inspire any of you with a passion for Irish wildlife and whale and dolphins in particular to support IWDG by taking out membership, or renewing a lapsed membership and becoming actively involved in the conservation and welfare work of our registered charity (No. CHY11163).
Please note this IWDG Charter is now closed for bookings as of 18:00, 26th Nov. But Colin Barnes will be doing a whale watch trip on Thurs. 29th if anyone is interested please contact him directly on 086-3273226.
If you are not a current IWDG member, and would like to join IWDG on any future trips, you can click the membership icon on the homepage of www.iwdg.ie, become a member, and you'll be alerted as and when these opportunities arise.
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator