Fin whales spread out along South coast

14th Nov 2012

Those of you who keep an eye on the daily sightings updates on www.iwdg.ie, can’t have missed that the 2012/13 “Large Whale season” is gathering momentum.

For some of course, the large whale season began along time ago as Kerry observers have enjoyed an unprecedented four-month run of humpback whale activity courtesy of a group of  3-4 animals deciding to “do a Fungie” on it, taking up temporary residence between Slea Head and the Blaskets.   The result is that 35 of the 57 humpback sightings (61%) in 2012 have come from this one Kerry peninsula. We're not envious!

#HBIRL21, Ireland's newest humpback, Seven Heads, Cork 08/11/12 © Lt. Rónán Mc Laughlin, Irish Naval Service, L.É. CiaraBut no sooner than Nick Massett’s group of humpbacks started thinning out to a solitary animal, than we started picking up between 1-3 humpbacks off West Cork, and these have remained in a 20 mile area between Toe Head and Seven Heads in the past two weeks. There is a reasonable chance that they are the same Kerry humpbacks having moved east.  On 8th November Lt. Rónán Mc Laughlin, of the Naval Service vessel L.É. Ciara, secured strong fluke and dorsal fin images of one of these off Seven Heads, and we can confirm that this is a new humpback whale for Ireland, bringing the Irish humpback catalogue to 21 (image above). So we are delighted to introduce you to #HBIRL21. We have sent fluke image (below) of this latest addition to Allied Whale, curators of the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue in Bar Harbour, Maine, for matching with their extensive database of 7,000+ North Atlantic individuals. We note however that none of the 20 Irish humpbacks have been matched, and so they are allocated a new reference, which in effect increases the North Atlantic humpback whale population by another one.

We’re taking a bit of a gamble here, as we thought it only right to offer our naval colleagues first refusal on naming this newest addition, and the obvious choice given the platform it was photographed from, was “Ciara”. All well and good we hear you say, but what if Ciara turns out to be a boy?  Remember, the majority of humpbacks biopsied to date in Irish waters have shown a significant male bias.  I guess we’ll just have to say it was a typo, and add the letter “N” at the end; changing Ciara to Ciaran. 

HBIRL21, tail-fluking 08/11/12, Seven Heads, Cork.  © Lt. Rónán Mc Laughlin, Naval Service, L.É. Ciara,Anyway, irrespective as to its gender and name, we’re delighted that 2012 has been such a strong year for humpback whale sightings in Irish waters. In fact even with plenty of 2012 left for further sightings, IWDG has recorded almost twice as many humpback sightings to date than in any previous year. This is a great conservation story.

The flip side of the large whale story, are the larger, but less gregarious fin whales. Unlike their smaller relative, they seem not to realise that suitable marine habitats may exist beyond the Irish South coast.  At least with humpbacks, there is an air of unpredictability about them, with infrequent but welcome sightings for instance in the Irish Sea; whereas if you split the country geographically in two, all inshore fin whale sightings occur in the southern half, and almost all of which are along the south coast.

Cork is fighting back strong, after a run of lean years, and so far this season the Rebel county can claim the majority of sightings of the planet’s second largest whale with 24 sightings, Waterford (11) and Kerry (4).  But at this time of year, the trend should see a steady movement east towards Dunmore East/Hook Head area which is the traditional herring spawning ground, and so it is only a matter of time before Co. Wexford starts to figure on the scoreboard. Fin whales off freighter's stern, from Sherkin Isl., 11/11/12 © Robbie Murphy

Sunday 11th November was a pretty remarkable day for a number of reasons. Firstly, the whale watching conditions were perfect with calm seas and clear skies, but more importantly over the course of the day, IWDG received and validated fin whale sightings records from no less than 7 inshore sites. Starting in West Cork, they were: Sherkin Island, Clonakilty Bay, Old Head of Kinsale, 10 miles off Cork Harbour and the following 3 Waterford sites, Ram Head, Dungarvan and Dunbrattin Head (map below). These inshore sightings comprise 21 animals and may represent just the tip of the iceberg.  It puts the relative abundance of fin whales compared to humpbacks into sharp focus, as the number of individal fin whales in one day's tally equals the cumulative total of humpback whales photo-identified in Ireland after a decade of effort.

Distribution of fin whale sighting records, Sunday 11th Nov 2012  © IWDGOh, in case you think that it’s only large whale species that people are recording at the moment; many of these records also include impressive numbers of common dolphins and indeed minke whales, both of which are drawn to the same herring & sprat shoals. We’ve had some nice encounters in recent weeks of medium sized group of 30-50 common dolphins herding surface bait balls in the same areas where fin whales are operating.  So watch the weather closely, and head down to a local headland for an hour or two and let us know how you get on. As always we'd really appreciate receiving your online sightings reports. Please don't assume that somebody else will report them. It is far better that we receive duplicates, than miss out on important local sightings.  You might also consider a boat trip with one of the local whale watch operators in your area.

Finally, this week’s rumours of Fungie’s death are greatly exaggerated. It seems you’re nobody these days unless some social networking site hasn’t concocted your untimely passing!  We’d advise media if they want accurate information on whales and dolphins in Irish waters, that they'll find www.iwdg.ie a substantially more reliable source of information than Twitter.

Pádraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator