People, nature and volunteerism while sailing ‘The Greater Skellig Coast’

A few years ago the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) embarked on an ambitious expedition from the reassuring and familiar surrounds of the Irish coast to the far off and stark shores of Iceland. I mostly remember the follow up TV documentary made about this epic voyage aboard the Celtic Mist, especially as it featured a friend of mine in the opening shots of the short film. How jealous I was. The reimagined sailboat, a few years previously gifted to the conservation charity from the family of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, looked glorious in its revived colours of blue, orange and hard-worn wooden brown. What an experience and opportunity for those sailing onboard. Sitting on the sofa at home, dreaming I thought to myself, I’d love to do that one day. Well fast forward 5 or 6 years, and from my spare bedroom in co. Tyrone I now work on environmental policy and campaigning. This involves too much screen time, and not enough sea time for my liking.

Therefore, imagine my delight when I was offered the opportunity to join a crew onboard the Celtic Mist for a week of sailing and science off the Kerry coast. The aim was to survey the whales, dolphins and porpoise in and around ‘The Greater Skellig Coast’.

This is the new Mission Blue ‘HopeSpot’ championed by Fair Seas and its partners including IWDG, as one of many global ‘special places that are scientifically identified as critical to the health of the ocean’. Naturally, and without a moment’s hesitation, I replied with an enthusiastic yes, manifesting in an email full of typos in my eagerness. Despite this, they still let me join the 11th leg of ‘The Greater Skellig Coast’ IWDG survey which was to start in the small harbour village of Fenit in Co. Kerry on the 12th August, and arrive into Dingle marina one week later on the 18th.

To say I was like a child at Christmas is to undersell my excitement.  I don’t get to visit the coast as much as I would like these days for one reason and another, either through work or in my home life, so the chance to reconnect with nature by spending a week sailing, surveying, swimming and sleeping at sea was just the tonic I needed after a busy year. My crew mate Adelaide, a fantastic young writer from Wicklow, penned a wonderful account of our week onboard the Celtic Mist (read it here). It captures our time in Fenit, Brandon Bay, Smerwick Harbour and Dingle perfectly, so I won’t attempt to reproduce those moments here.

The one thing I will add though, as someone who was luckily enough to see many marine giants up close on many occasions in the past, is that the size and power of bottlenose dolphins, the curiosity of common dolphins, and the oddness of ocean sunfish at the water’s surface never ceases to amaze me. Nor do I think, or hope they ever will. Safe to say we had a fantastic and successful survey along the Kerry coast, ably captained and guided by skipper Mick, first mate Pearse and resident biologist Hélène.  

And while the list of recorded species sightings was long, notwithstanding the fact we narrowly missed out on spotting a couple of Northern bottlenose whales, I must admit it was the people on-board that impressed me most. As I got to know the names, lives and personalities of my crew mates over pots of tea, pieces of dark chocolate, and freshly baked bread, I learned they hailed from everywhere  from Dun Laoghaire, Wicklow, Galway, Mayo and Roscommon via Cork.

What stood out to me over the course of the week was not only the upbeat, positive and cheerful attitude we all seemed to share, but how many times the word ‘volunteer’ cropped up in our conversations. The levels of volunteerism among the crew were through the roof.

These are people of different generations and backgrounds that through their generous sense of spirit and duty, freely give their time and efforts to help others, and to give back to the communities in which they live. Be it community gardening or cooperative music halls, be it citizen science and conservation, or be it teaching people not only how to sail, but how to sail, cook and maintain and repair boats and ships, I was utterly blown away by the stories and experiences of the people around me.

Where would we be without these dedicated and motivated volunteers up and down the country? What amazing experiences, lessons and social goodness would we miss out on without Ireland’s third sector – the volunteer and community organisation sector. Even the skipper and first mate charged with the crew’s safety and the safe operation of the boat itself were volunteering their time, and have been doing so for decades no less. This is no small thing.

As I returned to work the following Monday after I disembarked the Celtic Mist in Dingle and a new complement of volunteers threw their bags in the bunks, I started to think of the opportunities for coastal communities and the third sector in engaging with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

We will do ourselves a disservice by discounting or undervaluing the social and ecological benefit of passionate and dedicated volunteers on the coast. Their contribution in monitoring, collecting data, or even helping enforce the implementation of MPAs could be significant. 

Most of all however, volunteers are rightly proud of the good work they do, and with pride in a place comes the community driven desire to look after it.  This is the sense of ownership and stewardship I would like to see fostered in all coastal MPA communities in Ireland, and is the reason why in the Fair Seas Key Asks for Ireland’s new MPA legislation, they call for inclusive and participatory stakeholder engagement with coastal communities, organisations, and businesses. IWDG and Fair Seas also spoke to ocean passionate people living and working on the Kerry coast through their ‘Kingdom of Kerry’ short film.

We are fortunate, it seems we already have a wealth of willing volunteers in tow. Now all we need are the new MPA designations.

by Donal Griffin, Marine Policy Officer, Fair Seas

𝑇ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑦𝑒𝑎𝑟𝑠 𝑠𝑢𝑟𝑣𝑒𝑦𝑠 𝑎𝑟𝑒 𝑏𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑟𝑢𝑛 𝑖𝑛 𝑐𝑜𝑙𝑙𝑎𝑏𝑜𝑟𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ Fair Seas. 𝐷𝑢𝑟𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑠𝑒𝑎𝑠𝑜𝑛 𝐶𝑒𝑙𝑡𝑖𝑐 𝑀𝑖𝑠𝑡 𝑤𝑖𝑙𝑙 𝑏𝑒 𝑠𝑢𝑟𝑣𝑒𝑦𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑤𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑠 𝑜𝑓 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑆𝑜𝑢𝑡ℎ𝑤𝑒𝑠𝑡 𝐶𝑜𝑎𝑠𝑡 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝐿𝑜𝑜𝑝 𝐻𝑒𝑎𝑑 𝑡𝑜 𝐾𝑒𝑛𝑚𝑎𝑟𝑒 𝐴𝑟𝑒𝑎𝑠 𝑜𝑓 𝐼𝑛𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑒𝑠𝑡 (𝐴𝑜𝐼) 𝑐𝑜𝑙𝑙𝑒𝑐𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑣𝑖𝑡𝑎𝑙 𝑖𝑛𝑓𝑜𝑟𝑚𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑜𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑚𝑎𝑟𝑖𝑛𝑒 𝑙𝑖𝑓𝑒 𝑖𝑛 𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑤𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑠.

Fair Seas is a group of Ireland’s leading environmental non-governmental organisations and networks seeking to protect, conserve and restore Ireland’s unique marine environment. Our ambition is to see Ireland become a world leader in marine protection, giving our species, habitats and coastal communities the opportunity to thrive.