Celtic Mist goes in search of the bowhead whale

2nd Jun 2016

The Celtic Mist was diverted from its southward cruise plan down the East coast of Northern Ireland following the confirmed sighting report of an immature bowhead whale off of Carlingford Lough on Sunday the 29th of May.  

The vessel departed Carrickfergus Marina in Belfast Lough at approximately 4:30am on Tuesday the 31st of May to reach the location of the historic sighting near the Helly Hunter marker buoy outside Carlingford Lough. The early departure time was to ensure the vessel reached this location during daylight hours, along with maximising the crew’s chances of quickly locating the animal if it was still present .An inshore course was maintained during the journey south, and observers were positioned at either side of the vessel to avoid overlooking the whale if it decided to move northwards in the intervening day since it was sighted.

From Strangford Lough South, the Celtic Mist cruised within 0.5 miles of the coastline where possible to scan inshore.  As given the close proximity of a similar (and potentially the same, but this has not been proven) Bowhead whale was when on present off the coast of Cornwall on the 15th of May. Two observers were positioned facing forwards while another two were positioned on the port and starboard side of the vessels wheelhouse to cover a wide field of view for any sightings.

The Celtic Mist remained largely stationary for a time when she reached the Helly Hunter buoy at the mouth of Carlingford Lough at approximately 13:50pm and the area was scanned by the observers on board. One crew member even climbed the mast to look across an even wider area. Shortly after arriving, and with no sign of the bowhead whale, the Celtic Mist began a transect line course taking her no more than 5 miles offshore before returning inshore at 45˚ angles near the location where the initial sighting had occurred. Half of the transect was completed before the Celtic Mist had to berth within Carlingford Lough that evening with no sightings.

The vessel was visited by two of the men who had spotted the whale originally on Sunday, namely Don Morgan and Patrick Rooney shortly after berthing for the evening in Carlingford. They remarked how the animal was easily approached, slow moving and swimming in a circular manner when observed initially. They did not observe the animal blowing and it was small in size at an estimated 14ft. When the pilot boat the men were working on departed the animal, it was sighted zig zagging in an apparent northward direction.

With this new information on hand the Celtic Mist crew decided on another set of line transects for the following day, Wednesday the 1st June. The vessel departed the Carlingford marina at 9:30am and the transect began where the previous days had finished. Ideal conditions with light winds, no swell and a sea state 2 were present upon beginning the survey. Three observers were present on the starboard and port sides to maximise the area being covered visually while surveying.

This new transect followed a Northwards course towards Ardglass in Co. Down where it would not exceed ranging 3 miles offshore, the vessel maintained it’s speed at 5 knots to ensure that the body of the animal could be more easily picked up given the lack of a blow being produced during the original sighting.

At around 13:00pm the weather conditions began to deteriorate rapidly, as a front moved in from the north bringing with it a 1m swell, strong winds and a sea state ranging from 4 to 5. These conditions inhibited any meaningful survey work for the small whale so the transect was abandoned and the vessel moved towards Dundrum bay to shelter and survey the area.

The conditions improved greatly within Dundrum bay as the swell, wind and sea state eased allowing for a survey of the outer bay to occur, unfortunately the bowhead whale was not observed and the Celtic Mist continued northwards to berth in Ardglass.

The Celtic Mist did one final run down through the area where the bowhead was originally sighted on Thursday the 2nd June. Sea conditions were fair upon the departure from Ardglass but a sizable swell had built up when the vessel reached the Helly Hunter marker buoy at the mouth of Carlingford Lough.  Such conditions made surveying for the small whale very difficult, if not impossible at times. As the Celtic Mist was due down in Co. Dublin on Thursday evening to prepare for the Dublin Port Riverfest due to take place over the June bank holiday, the vessel did not undertake any survey transects and kept a steady course southwards at about 5 miles offshore to reach the Howth marina in Co. Dublin that evening.

Unfortunately the Carlingford Lough Bowhead whale was not located by the Celtic Mist Crew while surveying the area over a three day period.

By Sean O'Callaghan