Minke whales in record aggregations in West Cork

2nd May 2018

In recent weeks we've been receiving sighting reports from skipper Colin Barnes, Cork Whale Watch of quite astonishing numbers of minke whales that have been building steadily during April in the waters offshore of Union Hall & High Island extending east to Galley Head in West Cork.  So we ventured out with Colin on the Holly Jo last Saturday 28th April from Reen Pier in good sea conditions just to see for ourselves, and what we witnessed was remarkable.  Several Kms south of High Island we reached an area dense with lesser sandeels, that contained a minimum of 40 feeding minke whales, and that's being conservative.  Yes, we accept that when you are out on a platform like this, there will always be an element of double counting, but this is compensated by the fact that we are also missing animals in swell and glare etc.  So we have absolutely no reason to doubt Colin's trip estimates which throughout April were quite routinely in the range of 20-40 minke whales per trip.  The following day, Sunday 29th April, produced even calmer seas and Colin estimated even more animals, with a best estimate of 50+ minkes. To be honest when it comes to these numbers, the margin of error is considerable and there could quite easily be multiples more in the area.

High minke whale counts are not without precedent, as our observer out on the West Kerry cliffs over looking the Blasket Islands, Nick Massett, has quite regularly estimated aggregations of 20-35 minkes, again generally between late April and July since 2012; but having discussed these numbers with Nick yesterday, he can't recall ever seeing anything like 50 minkes on a single timed watch or Photo ID trip. It is quite remarkable how the month of April extending into May, which was once considered by us whale watchers to be "low season" for any species, is rapidly becoming one of the busiest times of the year; and it's not just minkes, as Colin's last trip also produced 3-4 humpback whales and 100's of common dolphins. Clearly our whale watching season is being turned on its head.  Is this more evidence of the chaotic nature of climate change or simply a reflection on a local shift in prey distribution?

It doesn't happen very often that minke whales trump humpbacks, but this is surely one such occasion, based on sheer numbers.  It's also important to remember that Colin's trips cover just one small part of the County Cork coastline, probably no more than 20% and so his observations represent a small sample of the total number of minkes currently along the Cork coast. In fact, while we were out with Colin on his patch, the Irish Naval Service vessel L.E. Róisín was further west off Crow Head on the Beara Peninsula, and they counted and reported a further dozen our so minkes on the same morning.  How many more areas are there along the Irish southwest, with such prolific minke whale activity?

Having enjoyed watching the superb underwater footage obtained by Ken O' Sullivan of feeding minkes on his recent two part series "Ireland's Deep Atlantic" which aired on RTE 1, it helps us see Ireland's smallest rorqual whale in a new light, and perhaps serves to remind us that the often over-looked minke whale is still the species we are most likely to see on most watches around the Irish coast and deserves perhaps greater respect. Size isn't everything....sometimes it's more about biomass.

Big thanks to Cork Whale Watch www.corkwhalewatch.com  and Dave Mc Kenna, Irish Naval Service L.E. Róisín for forwarding your sightings to the IWDG.

Minke whale Images and copy by IWDG Sightings Officer, Pádraig Whooley

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