Leg 4: Ballycastle to Dublin on the Celtic Mist

2nd Jun 2016

Leg Four of the sanctuary cruise commenced in Rathlin on Monday the 30th of May after the crew was changed over on the previous day. The weather conditions were largely calm with a chill in the air and sea fog obscuring our view of the nearby beach. We were awoken by the haunting fog horn call being emitted by a cruise ship lying just outside the marina that subsequently began ferrying its passengers ashore.

Moving southeast we passed Fairheads near vertical cliffs down along its scree strewed base while the mist cleared around us. Not long after we set off, word reached us of the bowhead whale spotted that had been spotted less than a day ago off Carlingford Lough to the south of us. There was a real rush of excitement after hearing this news as it had been fairly bland on the sightings front up until that point with only one brief harbour porpoise sighting by Ryan. I keep a reserved sense of expectation regarding whale sightings and the possibility of locating such individuals and this bowhead was very much within this spectrum.

The most notable changes in this leg compared to the previous one was the increase in ship traffic, mainly ferries heading across the North Channel departing from Larne or Belfast along with the increasing presence of terns flying along the coastline while species of auk diminished in quantity.

A plan of action to reach the south the next morning was drawn up that evening with Belfast’s iconic Harland and Wolff cranes visible down to the southwest while in the Carrickfergus Marina within Belfast Lough.

Photo credit to Sean O'Callaghan

We opted to set off as early as possible to cover the 50 or so miles between us and the whales’ first and last known location off Carlingford Lough near the Helly Hunter navigation buoy. The tides would be against us as we leave the lough and also after we pass the Copeland Islands out into more open water.  We all woke up before 4am and prepared to leave swiftly, even preparing the breakfast on the go in the middle of Belfast Lough to avoid any unnecessary time wastage in our dash to the south! The twilight was receding but the moon still stubbornly lingered above us as the sun emerged slowly when we were away.

Photo credit to Sean O'Callaghan

The plan was to stay relatively close to shore the whole way down south to maximise our chances of connecting with the Arctic A-lister. Two watchers were positioned facing forward towards the bow looking out over the starboard and port sides, while another two were placed further back on the Mist by the wheelhouse scanning out perpendicular to the boat to pick up any signs the front observers may have missed.

From Starlingford Lough down we moved even closer inshore, within 0.5miles at times in keeping with the previous Bowhead sightings this far South off of Cornwall as it may have hug the coastline just like it’s cousin, the North Atlantic Right Whale once did in our waters. Every beach and cove was scanned on our Southward descent, always on the lookout for the bowhead and also and lobster pot marker buoys, whose slack rope could easily become entangled in the Mist’s propeller should she run over one. Dundrum Bay in Co. Down was particularly precarious as the North side of the bay was a minefield of the luminous and often half concealed buoy’s, causing some anxiety to all on board as we weaved our way through them.

We reached the Helly Hunter marker around lunch time, where the bowhead had been on Sunday and scanned the area for a time. Nicole climbed up the main mast to have a wider field of view to no avail. After a time around the buoy, it was decided that a zig zag line transect extending 5 miles offshore before returning inshore while moving north would give us another chance at locating the animal. However after completing a number of these transects, the Mist was brought into the Carlingford Lough Marina that evening to allow all of us to recover from the early start in the morning and the subsequent long cruise down south.

After dinner, we were paid a surprise and welcomed visit by Patrick Rooney and Don Morgan of the Carlingford Lough pilots who were among the lucky three who observed, photographed and filmed the Bowhead on Sunday afternoon.

Photo credit to Garry Davis

They remarked how at first it resembled a basking shark, then a hippo which is an apt description for the species highly curved and narrow rostrum that was on display for the men that faithful afternoon. When asked if a blow had been seen, the resounding answer was now and given the close proximity that the whale was to the pilot boat, it would have been very obvious if it occurred. The whale seemed unbothered by the boat and circled at the surface for a time when the pilot boat was around. The last time the whale was seen, it seemed to be slowly swimming north in a zig zag manner. Both men were repaid for their extraordinary sighting and contribution to Irelands list of recorded mammals with A4 guides to the countries marine megafauna and copies of the whales and dolphins of Ireland book produced by the IWDG (that will have to include the bowhead whale the next time it’s reprinted!).

In light of the information gained by Don and Patrick’s visit the night before, the plan for Wednesday revolved around being relatively close to shore, cruising northwards and looking out for a relatively small animal with no blow. Three observers were based at each side of the vessel while Garry, the skipper manned the helm. To cover all bases a series of transects were completed in ideal weather conditions from the Helly Hunter buoy moving north. When a weather front moved down from the Northeast, the sea ahead of us was streaming with white caps, concealing a sizeable swell and wind to match. When this weather system hit, the transect was abandoned as there was no chance that we’d spot the animal in such turbid conditions so we continued north towards Dundrum bay once again.

Photo credit to Sean O'Callaghan

Surprisingly, the conditions within the bay had improved exponentially, allowing us to undertake another set of transects. The same observation system undertaken earlier in the day was implemented yet again was we renewed our search. Unfortunately we were left disappointed yet again upon leaving the bay, heading further north to berth in Ardglass for the night.

Blog by Sean O Callaghan

Leg 4 part II: Dublin Port Riverfest

After leaving Ardglass on Thursday the 2nd of June the Celtic Mist made its way south to take part in the Dublin Port Riverfest. Conditions were excellent, with good visibility, little cloud cover and a flat calm sea.  A surfacing harbour porpoise was spotted by Emer not long after 11am and would be the only cetacean sighting of the day.  Although the crew did not record anymore whales, dolphins or porpoises, we did absorb Ireland’s rich biodiversity by observing grey and harbour seals and various marine and coastal avian species such as cormorants, shags, guillemots, gannets and manx shearwaters to name a few.

As we made our way down the coast we once again passed the sight where the first bowhead whale in Irish waters was recorded between the Hellyhunter rock and the Haulbowline lighthouse in Carlingford Lough.  However the Arctic species, sighted in the area 4 days prior, was nowhere to be seen so we continued towards Dublin.  At approximately 4.30pm the vessel passed Rockabill, two islands known as important breeding areas for many seabirds, notably the roseate tern for which it is an internationally important site.  Not long after, the Celtic Mist passed Lambay Island, the largest island off the east coast of Ireland and another important seabird colony.  The island is also home to red-necked wallabies native to Australia and Tasmania, one of a number of exotic species introduced to the island by the famous Barings family in the 1950s and 1960s. We also passed through the Rockabill to Dalkey Island special area of conservation (SAC), a key habitat for the harbour porpoise. The species occurs throughout the year at the site and high aggregations have been recorded.  We moored in Howth harbour at 7.00pm after passing Ireland’s eye and settled for the night.

On Friday we left Howth harbour and waited with several tall ships in Dublin Bay to sail up the Liffey for the parade of sail as part of the Dublin Port Riverfest. At 3.00pm the East-Link bridge was raised and the various tall ships were greeted by on looking spectators on the banks of the Liffey. The participating ships were moored at the North Wall Quay for the June bank holiday weekend Dublin Port Riverfest 2016.

On Saturday, Sunday and Monday the Celtic Mist welcomed members of the public to come aboard the vessel to learn about the work of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), the 25th anniversary sanctuary tour and have to a look around the vessel. People of all ages were interested to learn more about the 25 species (including our newest addition, the bowhead whale) of cetacean that inhabit Ireland’s waters.  Some of the visitors were unaware that Ireland’s seas provide a home to so many marine mammals and were eager to enquire about the best places in Ireland to see cetaceans.  This underlines the importance of the IWDG to promote awareness and understanding of our native Irish whales, dolphins and porpoise. The crew on board were delighted to see the enthusiasm shown by interested individuals that had come aboard and were only glad to share information and answer questions.

Over the course of the Dublin Port Riverfest hundreds of people young and old visited the Celtic Mist and many left with a newfound interest in Ireland’s marine megafauna.  Several individuals remarked on the importance of the work that the IWDG carries out in regards to the conservation and research of cetaceans and many new members were recruited.  At 5.00pm on Monday the East-Link bridge was once again raised as many of the participating ships, including the Celtic Mist, sailed back down the Liffey to conclude the Dublin Port Riverfest 2016.

Blog by Ryan McGeady

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