Risso's dolphins and more on the Isle of Man

13th Jul 2016

The 25th Anniversary Sanctuary Tour resumed after a month long break on Friday 8th July with the Celtic Mist setting sail from Poolbeg to Howth.  We would like to extend a huge thank you to Poolbeg Yacht Club and Marina, for their kindness and allowing us to stay for this month with them. 

During the sail we encountered harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) off the nose of Howth.   Along the way we also observed several species of birds including the dynamic gannet (Morus bassanus).  Upon arrival to Howth harbour we were greeted by a harbour porpoise and a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) who displayed his agility by fishing from a mooring line. 

On Saturday, we continued to Drogheda to join in the maritime festival.  The weekend was a great success in raising awareness of the cetaceans in Irish waters and the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group work being carried out.  There were several hundred visitors of all ages over the course of the weekend and from all walks of life.   All were eager to learn more about the IWDG and the Celtic Mist.  Visitors were welcomed on board by Rose Jebb who displayed baleen from a humpback whale (Megaoptera novaeangliae) and a harbour porpoise skull. People were very interested to see vertebrae of the harbour porpoise and the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) which they could then compare to appreciate the size difference between the two species.  Many people we talked to were very surprised by the number of different species of cetaceans that inhabit Irish waters, in particular, the larger baleen whales (blue, fin and humpbacks). Some visitors were so inspired that they have signed up to become IWDG members in order to contribute to our conservation work.

Once the maritime festival concluded, we departed Drogheda and set sail for the Isle of Man. While conditions during the sail were not ideal for cetacean sightings, we still managed four sightings of both harbour porpoise and the charismatic bottlenose dolphin.

As we approached the Isle of Man, our first encounter was appropriately with some manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus). We also encountered clouds of jellyfish, dominated by moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) with the occasional lions-mane (Cyanea capillata)

We had hoped to sight basking sharks while on the Isle of Man. On Tuesday morning we set sail with little hope of finding basking sharks, as the locals had advised us that there had been no sightings for the previous six weeks. But as we travelled south out of Port St Mary, we were delighted when we spotted a pod of eight Risso’s dolphins feeding off the Heart Bank.  This was the first sighting of this species for both of us. One playful individual came up to inspect the boat, rolling over, showing his white underside.  Before departing he gave everyone on board a considered look.  This set the tone for a great day ahead of sightings.

As Risso’s dolphins left us we then encountered a basking shark.  Not only the largest fish in our Irish waters, but the largest fish in the North Atlantic.   This calm and peaceful species came within a metre of us while it fed at the surface, before finally diving out of view.

As we slowly motored west, we chanced upon two feeding adult harbour porpoises accompanied by their calves. They disappeared from view soon after, as is typical with this shy species, but not before showing us their beautiful synchronized dives with their young. On our way back to port, as we travelled through the sound between Calf of Man and the Isle of Man, a group of grey seals could be seen bobbing in the water, observing the boat as it passed through their territory. As we came into port, with the sun setting to top off our incredible day of sighting of the rich diversity of fauna found in the Irish Sea.

Today, the Celtic Mist embarks on the second half of leg five, finishing in Arklow. We will be joining the Sea-Breeze festival on Friday the 15th of July so please come and join us on Saturday the 16th for a tour around the vessel.   The crew on board will be more than happy to answer all and any questions you may have. We look forward to seeing you all there!

Blog by Mags Daly and Rose Jebb