June 2012 Cetacean Sighting Summary

12th Jul 2012

IWDG received, validated and processed 143 sightings in June 2012, comprising 10 species (including basking shark). Of these 88% were confirmed to species level, while the remainder (12%) were allocated to a generic category. It is important that this process occurs in order to “protect” the data that we can stand over. But it’s rewarding that for the vast majority of sightings we can either concur with recorders on the thorny issue of species ID, or in some cases we can upgrade to species level, where the recorder may not have known what it was they observed.

In order of ranking, the bottlenose dolphin (above & below) once again took 1st place as the most frequently reported species with 54 sightings (37.7%), followed by harbour porpoise 23 (16%). We actually came close to the minke whale taking 2nd place, as our smallest rorqual was recorded on 21 occasions (14.6%). I never thought we’d see a month where we had almost as many sightings of a whale species than the wee porpoise..what’s going on? Fourth place went to the common dolphin with 11 sightings (7.6%), followed by basking shark in 5th (3.5%). 6th place was shared by humpback whale, killer whale, & Risso’s dolphin each with 3 sightings (2%). At the end of the league table were two fin whale records and a single offshore pilot whale record.

It’s tempting to over interpret sightings from a single month’s snapshot. But we are confident that these 143 sightings reflect cetacean activity in Irish inshore waters during the month of June and thus represent a reasonable sample size. The fact that the highest number of sightings ever validated in June was a massive 315 records in 2009, illustrates how big an influence the weather is on our ability to detect cetaceans.

One other casualty of the worst June recorded by the met service was basking shark records. Of course we can’t assume that an absence of sightings equates to an absence of animals, but there is strong evidence that the 2012 shark season is as good as over. The season commenced in February with a single sighting, increasing to 20 in March, peaking at 49 in April, reducing to 12 in May and just a residual trickle of 5 sightings in June. It's noteworthy how early they peaked this year. We’d typically expect a May/June peak, and have never before recorded one in April, which is likely to have been as a result of the unusual heat wave conditions in March. Once again a high proportion of these late season shark sightings are from the East coast area, suggesting a clockwise movement in Irish waters.

As always there were plenty of highlights during the month. But among them were a nice flurry of minke and humpback whale sightings off South Dublin and the Kish Bank (above) between June 10-18th. Conor Ryan started land-based effort watches off Ailladee area of Fanore, Co. Clare and enjoyed a run of minke activity on 17th & 19th June. These records are interesting as previous watches during the 1990’s from this site did not record this species. So whether this site has benefited from a fresh pair of eyes with improved optics, or there is an actual shift in minke distribution remains unclear. But what is clear is that if you plot all minke whale sightings for the month on www.iwdg.ie, it’s hard to avoid the fact that 18 of the 21 records (86%) are south of a line between Galway Bay and Dublin. Clearly if you want to see minke whales in Ireland then the South and SW coasts are your best bet.

The highest whale diversity without doubt goes to Slea Head/Dingle Bay area of Co. Kerry where Nick Massett recorded a min. of 3-4 whale species, comprising: killer, minke, humpback and large whale sp., that were likely to be fin whales. Of course it’s hardly a surprise that this activity would be limited to large whales and the month’s largest dolphin aggregation of c400 common dolphins was also recorded in this area off Clogher Head on 10th June. But vying hard for the biggest “blubber biomass” has got to be Andrew Malcolm’s sighting of upwards of 16 fin whales off Ram Hd, Ardmore, Co. Waterford on 13th June. This sighting and another on 9th June of 6 fin whales marks their arrival in inshore South coast waters, heralding the beginning of the 2012/13 large whale season…only a few short months after the end of the 2011/12 season.

You can see the trend here in these reports…..if you want to witness some of the best whale watching there is to be enjoyed, (anywhere) you have to put in the cliff-time. It's not by chance or good luck that these sighting reports consistently refer to the local watch effort at Slea or Ram head. But these recorders are simply benefiting from putting in a lot of time and watching systematically during weather windows from their local sites, and the results speak for themselves. Anybody with an interest in biological recording who may have some time on their hands, own transport, access to a local headland, good optics and a sense of humour, can take part in the IWDG’s Constant Effort Sighting Scheme. Just drop us a line and we’ll forward you tips and suggestions.

On the dolphin front, the Clew Bay area of South Mayo stands out as several reports from Francis Maye and others show high levels of bottlenose dolphin activity with unusually large group sizes of 65+ animals on 11th & 18th June. The largest member of the dolphin family, the killer whale also made an appearance on June 6th off Fanad Hd, Co. Donegal.(Image above). This group comprised the entire Scottish West Coast Community Group of 9 animals, with all the usual suspects in that group (John Coe, Floppy fin, Aquarious, Nicola, et al) being present. Floppy fin and 3 others showed up again seven days later off Slea Head on June 13th; a distance of 300+ miles in a week. See separate report on this article on www.iwdg.ie.

The Southeast had a flurry of Risso’s dolphin activity on 4th & 10th June (image below), showing again how reliable Wexford waters, between Carnsore Point and the Saltees are for this poorly understood dolphin.

It may be a good time now to raise a few issues that arose during the month regarding recording of cetaceans. Firstly, IWDG has never recorded sightings (or strandings) outside of our EEZ (Economic Exclusion Zone), which extends out 200nm. So if you are fortunate enough to enjoy mid-Atlantic sightings they will not be processed by IWDG. Of course, where such sightings are clearly within another state’s territory, we will try to forward them to an appropriate conservation or research NGO from said country, as your observation may be of value to them. But this is simply a matter of resources…we can’t record everything from anywhere and our brief clearly doesn’t extend beyond Irish waters.

The 2nd issue is the matter of recording of “resident or solitary” bottlenose dolphins. This is a tricky one, as it is hard to define exactly what either of these terms mean, but suffice it to say that we do not record sightings of Fungi in Dingle or the resident Shannon Estuary population. I think you will appreciate the fact that Fungi has for instance been in Dingle harbour pretty much every day for the past 28 years (10,000+ days) and so we know he’s there. As for the Shannon Estuary bottlenose, they have been resident since before St. Senan went to seminarian college a few thousand years back. So it’s not so much that there is no great value in IWDG recording them, but the fact that there is a group (the Shannon Dolphin Wildlife Foundation) set up 20 years ago with a specific research focus on these animals, and IWDG is delighted to let them get on with this important monitoring. As for any other solitary individuals or groups such as Dusty (Clare), Sandy (Aran Islands), Dougie (Tory Isl.) or the North Wicklow/South Dublin trio, please do continue to report any observations you make of these.

So July sightings are already landing now, and who knows what stories we’ll be able to bring you at the end of this month. As always, a huge thanks to those of you who regularly report to IWDG and a special welcome to our new members who may be new to cetacean recording. Our recording schemes not only exist, but thrive, with your support.

There are still about 4 places left on this months Cape Clear course on 20-22nd July. These are a great way to learn more about whale watching in Ireland, and how to contribute to our understanding of cetaceans in Irish waters by supporting our recording schemes. As always the mix of indoor lectures, cliff top and boat based watches will be determined by the weather. Further details at email padraig.whooley@iwdg.ie Might see you there!

By Padraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator

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