Fin whales still widespread and now back in West Cork22nd Feb 2012 A run of fin whale sightings in recent weeks suggests an unexpected westward movement back along the Co. Cork coast.
The observed trend since Andrew Malcolm & Ann Trimble commenced regular land-based effort watches at Ram Head, Ardmore, Co. Waterford in 2004/5 is now well-documented. The fin whale season tends to conclude inshore in our Southeast waters along the Waterford/Wexford coast. This is supported by Photo ID evidence which shows several records of individuals that were recorded feeding in West Cork in late autumn some months later in Jan/Feb off Dunmore East/Hook Head. It is likely that humpback whales do likewise, as both rorqual species take advantage of the traditional herring spawning season at the mouth of Waterford harbour.
There are always exceptions to any rule, and so you will always have the pioneers that arrive first or those that lag behind, and so we generally expect a few outliers that stand out in any table or map plotted on the Irish Cetacean database on www.iwdg.ie. But in recent weeks the numbers and flow of sightings of fin whales suggests that significant numbers of fin whales are now occurring throughout Co. Cork (and of course West Waterford). This is unusual given how late it is in the season.
Take Sunday last the 19th Feb. It was a lovely day, calm seas and clear skies. Perfect for detecting those distant vapour plumes peppering the horizon. Except if you were scanning offshore at the Old Head of Kinsale you'd probably have seen no whales at all, as one was right in the bay, on occasions within a few hundred metres of the cliffs. We picked it up easily within minutes of leaving the car; big vertical blow, clearly visible dorsal fin positioned two- thirds along a very long back. Clearly a fin whale. The second largest creature on the planet and within a few hundred metres of where our car was parked at the Lusitania memorial. Note, no need to gain access to the Old Head Golf course.
This was no once off, as local resident Sue Patchett, and others, had reported what is likely to be the same whale in the exact same area, known locally as Holeopen Bay East, for almost two weeks. On passing on news of this sighting to Colin Barnes, he told me that he too had just seen a fin whale about 22 miles offshore of Toe Head area during an angling charter, and when I logged onto my computer on returning home that evening, it was clear that fin whales had been showing up at multiple sites between Youghal in East Cork and West Cork.
The collective wisdom is that the end of the herring spawning season heralds the end of the "large whale season"; predators following prey and all that. The herring shoals would break up, heading out to deeper waters and the whales would follow suite; destination unknown, until they return in a short few months; typically late May, early June. However, this year as we head towards the end of the large whale season there are still fantastic opportunities for people with the patience and optics willing to spend some time on a headland to view these giants in Irish inshore waters, without having to spend a penny on a boat (literally and metaphorically).
The next species of megafauna we'd expect to grace our inshore waters will be the basking shark, which is generally detected as early as mid to late March by IWDG land-based observers. Once the longer days and sun's increased intensity kick start the first plankton blooms, they should start appearing along the south and southwest coast. Of course this is assuming that they exhibit the same pattern as previous years.....but as the fin whales have shown, this may be a dangerous assumption!
It will be interesting to see who reports the 1st basking shark and from where in 2012.