The whales are on the move and Cork and Kerry are great places for whale watching
Waiting; Watching the water carefully, hoping to spot a whale – it’s all part of the excitement of whale watching.
When someone spots a fin, everyone on board is eager for a view. Whales are the largest creatures on Earth, and knowing that you are in such close proximity, just below the surface, is an indescribable experience.
In fact, seeing a whale piercing the water must be a whole other level of inspiration. I was moved close to tears at the sight of a small part of the back of a pilot whale.
Luckily for us, Irish waters are well populated with whales of many species, making Ireland one of the best places in Europe for whale watching. Along with the occasional glimpse of a whale’s dorsal fin, it’s not uncommon for pods of dolphins to whirl past the boat, spinning and chasing each other with impressive speed. Whether they are playing, fishing or chasing a female, we can only speculate.
We haven’t always appreciated and respected whales in this way. In the past, whales provided the basis for a profitable industry here. Between 1908 and 1922, several Irish whaling companies caught blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, sei whales, right whales and sperm whales off the Atlantic coast of Ireland.
A single large whale could produce up to 20 tons of oil. Much of it was used as lamp oil, before the days of petroleum or electricity. On the other side of the Atlantic, so many whales have been taken that most populations have completely collapsed.
Blue whales and right whales are two species that have been hunted to the brink of extinction. As a result, the whaling industry is no longer viable and some stocks have, in the hundred years since, begun to recover somewhat. Others have not recovered, such as the northern right whale which, 90 years after whaling stopped here, is still extinct in Irish waters.
Internationally, it took until 1986 for commercial whaling to be banned, with scientists, activists and the International Whaling Commission negotiating this historic conservation victory. Today, Japan, Iceland and Norway nevertheless practice commercial hunting for profit.
In Iceland, ironically, income from whale watching tourism far exceeds income from commercial whaling. This contradiction has caused great tension in Iceland this summer, as many members of Iceland’s tourism industry believe that commercial whaling is damaging Iceland’s image as a tourist destination.
In Ireland, whales and their close cousins, dolphins and porpoises (all marine mammals) are protected by national and international laws. The European Habitats Directive provides for strict protection of whale feeding and breeding grounds.
Whales are highly valued here, no longer for their meat or oil, but because they are the most majestic creatures of the sea. Several academic teams as well as The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group do a lot for whale conservation and dolphins in Irish waters, improving our understanding of the movements of whales in Irish waters to better protect these animals.
One of the most interesting things about whales and other marine mammals is that they communicate through sound. In addition to being the biggest animals on the planet, whales are also the loudest. Having to communicate with each other over great distances, whales emit deep, low-frequency cries.
Killer whales return to Bray Head, Valentia Island, Co. Kerry!
Thanks to Nicky Sheehan of Skellig Michael Cruises and Dr. Connie Kelleher for reporting their sightings to us. These sightings provide insight into how killer whales feed both in Irish coastal waters and elsewhere. pic.twitter.com/9AdtWrS72P
– Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (@IWDGnews) July 21, 2022
The calls are often elaborate and distinctive depending on the species, much like bird song, but on a very different frequency. For humpback whales, all males in a given area sing the same song: an elaborate set of calls that lasts between 10 and 20 minutes, sometimes repeatedly for 24 hours.
In addition to using sound to communicate and find a mate, whales also use sound to hunt for food and to navigate. Because seawater is so much denser than air, sound travels farther and faster underwater.
Visibility is often poor underwater, especially at depth, so sound is also how these animals visualize their surroundings. The deeper the frequency, the farther the sound will travel. Some whale “songs” can travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers across the ocean.
Because whales live in such a sound world, they are also susceptible to noise pollution in the sea. When we drill oil and gas in the ocean, the sounds can be so loud that whales run away in fear, which which affects their eating and other behaviors.
Many scientists say seismic drilling for fossil fuels at sea pushes whales to their limits, as whales dive deeper, are more stressed and can suffer from oxygen depletion in their blood as a result. Evidence is mounting that whale strandings are a direct result of noise pollution in the sea.
Military sonars also make loud noises, which greatly stress animals and can prevent whales from finding a mate. When populations are still recovering from near extinction through hunting, successful breeding is especially imperative if populations are ever to fully recover.
Fin whale, the 2nd largest animal to ever live on the planet, in all its glory in #WestCork waters yesterday. The dolphins here are 2m long, so give an idea of the size of the whale, over 70ft long. Incredible animals! Went on a trip with @rjacktrag #Cork #Ireland #DJI pic.twitter.com/dBgTBkLafz
— Intothewild Ireland (@intothewild45) August 7, 2022
Even the daily noise of marine traffic can be deafening to marine mammals and prevent them from carrying out their essential daily activities. The international transport of goods has increased considerably over the past decades and has a huge impact on the life of the oceans.
Over 25 different species of whales and dolphins are found in Irish waters. In August and September, humpback whales can sometimes be seen off the coasts of Cork and Kerry, passing surprisingly close to shore as they make their epic migration from summer feeding grounds in the polar regions to warmer waters. near the equator for breeding and calving.
Huge fin whales arrive in Irish waters in late summer. Killer whales (also known as killer whales) are occasionally seen too, including a memorable trip when three of them came from Cork Harbor to the River Lee in 2001.
Whales are truly wonderful animals and Irish waters are one of the most important places in Europe for them. We still have a lot to discover about them, including their role in recycling carbon from the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.
Having already nearly lost whales to extinction, we hope the impacts of noise pollution in the ocean will be addressed before it’s too late.