Leg 1: Cloudy with a Chance of Humpbacks

10th May 2016

Cloudy with a chance of Humpbacks

What an epic day!  The first day of the Celtic Mist Anniversary Sanctuary Tour has gotten off to an amazing start.  An optimistic crew left Fenit this morning on board the Celtic Mist headed for Inis Mor. As we prepared for our trip the night before, we discussed some areas along the route that had high potential for some sightings.

We knew that as we headed North towards the Shannon estuary we might encounter some common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and minke whales. We were also hoping that we might see Dusty the bottlenose dolphin as we approached Inis Mór.  As it turns out, the first day of the Sanctuary Tour more than exceeded our expectations! 
Our first mission after we had all the sails up and course set for Kilronan, was to roll out the hydrophone and set up the PAM (Passive Acoustic Monitoring) equipment.  The hydrophone consists of a long cable which is towed behind the vessel, and is used for detecting the vocalisations of marine mammals. In order for everyone onboard to be able to hear these, the PAM system was played through speakers in the wheelhouse which gives an extra dimension to the experience.

As we passed Loop Head, we could see a frenzy of activity with gannets diving on shoaling fish (this is always a good place to look for whales and dolphins).   Underneath the diving gannets we could see a number of bottlenose dolphins and a large minke whale. We stayed in the area observing the activity until the gannets dispersed and the minke whale slinked away (as they tend to do!). We continued North, energised by our first sighting and excited for the possibilities that lay ahead. Our hopes turned to Dusty and how she might greet us as we approached Inis Mor.

Unfortunately, Dusty was nowhere to be seen but we were greeted by something that none of us were expecting.  A group of 3 photogenic humpback whales surrounded by approx. 50 common dolphins and at least 1 minke whale were only a couple of kilometres from the island.  

Thanks to some skilful manoeuvring by skipper Padraic, we managed to get in the perfect spot while still remaining at a respectful distance from the animals.  We organised ourselves and set out to get photo-identification shots in the hopes that we could add to the Irish humpback whale catalogue or maybe get a resighting of a previously identified animal (Last year the humpback catalogue doubled to 65 plus from a starting point of 35 individuals).  So far we’ve managed to photograph identifiable markings on two of the three individuals.

IWDG Sightings Officer Pádraig Whooley, has just done a trawl of all validated humpback whale sightings collected since the IWDG started collating cetacean sighting records in 1990, and we can confirm that not only is this the 1st ever confirmed humpback whale sighting for the Aran Islands, but is only the 2nd ever confirmed record for the entire Co. Galway.  This 1st record was as recent as June 9th 2015 off High Island, Near Aughris Head by John Brittain. So this is an important biological record, as it is in an area where sightings of this species have been almost non-existent.  

As of yet, we can't confirm the identity of any of these individuals.  However, these images have now been run through the Irish Humpback whale Photo ID catalogue and have not been matched with the images of tail flukes or dorsal fins with known individuals, previously photographed in Irish waters.  So we can say with reasonable confidence that the two identifiable animals are new to the Irish Humpback whale catalogue. 

We plan to stay in Kilronan tonight, and head out early in the morning to cover the area so we'll keep you posted if we have any more sightings or make any more matches. We’ll be spending a few days in and around the Aran Islands, before heading for Galway on Friday evening, as the next leg of the tour leaves Galway on Sunday the 16th for Killybegs.  If you’re in the Galway area, and would like to come down to Celtic Mist and chat to our members onboard please do! We will be open to visits from members and all interested parties.   At the moment we have one space available for a member on our travels from Galway to Killybegs, (May 16th to 22nd) so if you would be interested in coming along, please email celticmist@iwdg.ie to find out more.

That’s all for now from us, it’s time for bed after a long but exciting day! Keep an eye out for our next blog post and our Facebook and Twitter updates, as we keep you up to date with our adventures.  So far we’ve been eating like kings, thanks to Gary who’s been cooking up a storm down in the galley in between all the action. How very fortunate for us to have a chef on board!  It was a tired but very happy crew that sat down to a lovely home cooked meal this evening, out on deck in the fresh air moored at Kilronan Pier.   

Enda Mc Keogh and Meadhbh Quinn     


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