Leg 3: Killybegs to Rathlin Island on Celtic Mist

28th May 2016

Part One:

Leg three of the Celtic Mist Sanctuary Cruise began on Monday the 23rd in Killybegs. Shortly after breakfast the ship was visited by some thirty pupils from the nearby national school. Due to the size of the group, they were split into two sections and the marine biology crew on board gave presentations on different topics. While one displayed and described the various bones and baleen left on board for interpretation purposes, the other gave a tour of Celtic Mist’s interior.

Photo Credit to Andy Carden

The students were interested to hear about the species present off the Irish coast and some had even seen the occasional dolphin.  Indeed one probable Minke sighting was recalled from a fishing boat but a large number of the students recalled sighting basking sharks. Among the questions asked was how many tonnes of fish would a whale have to eat a day, no doubt it’d be interesting from residents of KiIlybegs! The IWDG marine megafauna identification sheets and cruise posters created by our core sponsors Inis were distributed as they headed away from the floating classroom to their landlocked one!

Photo credit to John Mark Dick
The Mist departed after the school kids had left and we were in Donegal bay minutes later with Sligo’s steep-sided and flat-topped Benbulben dominating the horizon to the South. The sea was a mottled mix as we passed the famous Slieve League cliffs, noting the various landslides the Atlantic had claimed for itself no doubt after the latest winter storms. Sea conditions were tough with a westerly swell making the Mist hop along and sway all the while we hoped to spot some sign of cetacean life.  After rounding the corner at Malin Beg Head, the Atlantic became very confused with a 2m swell rolling in from the West while the wind blew at us from the North. These conditions took their toll on most of the crew with understandable bouts of seasickness comprising of various stages. When Tory Island loomed into view later in the day, there was a sense of heading home!


Photo credit to Sean O'Callaghan
The King of Tory welcomed us upon our arrival and even came aboard for a time along with three fellow Islanders who helped safely dock the Mist. No blubber was spotted during the days cruise, the varying conditions and confused swell made spotting a Minke whale let alone a Harbour porpoise difficult if not impossible at all. The only marine life that drew out attention occasionally was of the feathered variety, most notably one great skua and various groups of Manx shearwaters.

Tuesday was a shore day on Tory Island and this great opportunity was seized upon by the crew who explored the amazingly jagged island and its varied birdlife, particularly the corncrake in the evening time as it called from its overgrown realm.


Photo credit to Sean O'Callaghan

A spotting scope was brought up along the islands northern cliff tops, but again conditions were difficult with a sea of whitecaps coupled with a fresh northerly wind. The birdlife mostly occupied us but two marine mammals were encountered in the form of the stranded remains of a large grey seal and surprisingly a pup. Wednesday began with showers offered by the owner of the Islands hotel at €3 a head, which were very gratefully accepted! This was followed by with a visit from some of the islands locals and school kids, interestingly, there were more teachers present than students when aboard! Given the smaller group size, they were welcomed aboard for a talk of Irish whales, dolphins and porpoises followed by a tour of the vessel where more cruise posters, ID sheets and even a book was bought!

We departed shortly afterwards bound for Greencastle. A cetacean species was spotted by skipper Garry Davis as the Mist cruised northwards away from Tory.  Unfortunately it was not sighted again but the description of the dorsal fin appeared to indicate it was either a Minke whale or Bottlenose dolphin. The wind was blowing in from the north created a white capped sea before us, but not it was not as uncomfortable as the previous sailing due Mist smashed through the oncoming waves. The sea calmed down around by the country’s most Northern point, Malin Head. Here we hoped to sight the basking sharks the area is famed for or indeed the bottlenose dolphins that appear to also frequent the region quite regularly. The sea was still, with a patchwork of riffling water indicating the strong tide the Mist was working again, alas we weren’t fortunate to sight such animals but some of us had a very brief sighting of an uncharacteristically lone Common dolphin before it duly disappeared once again.

The sails were raised when the wind allowed it, making the Mist quite a sight for anyone onshore. The task of unravelling the sails and making the most of the wind appeared tricky at first but logic prevailed when explained by Garry, the Mist’s skipper.


Photo credit to Brendan Quinn

Moving on, as we moved between the mainland and Inishtrahull Island, Brendan caught sight of a Minke whale that surfaced twice. The animals’ second surface was topped off with a view of the animals’ tailstock indicating it had dived deeper, unfortunately this animals was not sighted again but it was the first whale sighting for many aboard.

Shortly after rounding Malin Head, Northern Ireland loomed into view as we headed towards Greencastle passing Donegal’s serrated yet green cliffs.  Upon docking at Greencastle, the coastguard came down from the nearby station to talk about the regions relevant VHF radio channels and they also mentioned that a “ten foot dolphin” had been reported stranded on a nearby beach. Since I had brought along some of my stranding kit, three of us decided to head down to assess the animal before it got dark. Winding along Greencastle’s coastal walk and crossing its golf course, a leaving cert bonfire was spotted just before the dolphin was located in a hidden cove laden with golden sand nearby.  It was dark by the time we reached it and there was shin high water surrounding the animal. But upon deciding to make the most of the animals fresh condition to collect a skin sample for the Irish cetacean genetic tissue bank housed by the Natural History Museum in Dublin, I took off my shoes/socks and rolled my pants legs all the while looking for any cuts that could facilitate a health risk around a dead mammal, luckily the only two cuts were well above the water depth I’d be wading into. The lights were shined onto the animal while I removed and stored a snippet of skin from behind the dorsal fin on its left side. The sample was then processed into two manageable pieces and preserved within the small ethanol vials provided by the scheme, this part of the process was completed on the table outside the Celtic Mist’s galley after 12am, a far cry from the fine dining that undoubtedly occurred when the previous owners were in charge! Back to the stranding, various post leaving cert students left their bonfire when they saw us at the carcass and enquired about it, prompting an impromptu talk on Irish cetaceans. Brendan also waded into the water so we could measure the dolphin for the stranding database while Mags illuminated the scene with the remaining working flashlight. In doing so I took a proper look at the dolphins head that looked different up close, with a more rounded, bulbous head and four pointed, conical teeth in each of its lower jaws, there were no teeth present in the upper jaw meaning it was a Risso’s dolphin and a young one at that! The long walk to it was well worthwhile, to assess a Donegal stranding of this elusive and amazing species.

With four more days left, we’re looking forward to what might be instore ahead!

Blog by Sean O'Callaghan

Part Two:

On Thursday the Celtic Mist crew assisted Ian Enlander with a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) survey of the Tuns bank which is located at the mouth of Lough Foyle between counties Donegal and Derry.  The aim of which was to determine whether this area was a calving ground for Ireland’s smallest cetaceans.  As we left Greencastle harbour we encountered our first individual, however it disappeared soon after, as is typical of this shy species.  A number of hours passed without any further sightings, however as the day drew to a close three individuals were sighted, all of whom were adults without calves. On Friday the 27th of May we set sail for Rathlin Island via the Giants Causeway.  Viewing this geological wonder from the ocean gave us a deeper appreciation of its sheer scale and majesty. Sea conditions were ideal for observing marine megafauna, and while we encountered several large groups of sea birds who were actively feeding, we were not lucky enough to observe any cetaceans.

We concluded the third leg of the sanctuary tour by sailing around Rathlin Island.  We were delighted by the array of sea birds, which appeared to be dominated by auks.  Among those sighted were the charismatic puffin (Fratercula arctica), and colonies of guillemots (Uria aalge), which numbered into the thousands.  Later in the day, while walking the island, we encountered twenty three grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) basking upon the rocks. While the seals seemed to tolerate people walking along the upper shore, several individuals were unfortunately disturbed by a number of tourists who had ventured out onto the rocks of the lower shore where the seals were resting to get a closer look.

Joining the sanctuary tour was an unforgettable experience and included sightings of four of Ireland’s cetacean species and sixty eight bird species. We received a warm reception from all stops along the tour and met many people who truly appreciate and were eager to learn more about Ireland’s cetaceans.

Blog by Mags Daly