Wild Atlantic Waves on the Latest Celtic Mist Survey

This weeks blog comes from Sloan Massie. Sloan is the Welfare Officer for IWDG and a veterinarian with a special interest in aquatic animal medicine and pathology. She joined leg 3 of Celtic Mist as a biologist and already cannot wait to jump aboard next year!

Rossaveal to Killybegs 

Crew members : Skipper Pat, First mat Pearse, Marine biologist Hélène, Welfare officer Sloan, Brenn, Derbhile, Katie & Martina

This past week, Celtic Mist sailed into her third leg of the survey season, guided by a fresh ensemble of high-spirited faces. Rough seas had prohibited sailing for the previous week; despite Mother Nature’s best efforts to do the same again, the crew persevered, experiencing the “Wild” Atlantic in all its rugged glory!

Day 1

On Saturday afternoon, our team arrived in Rossaveal Harbour, County Galway. Ros an Mhil means the peninsula of the whale – no better place to kick off the third leg of Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s annual cetacean surveys. After waving goodbye to the last Aran Island ferry of the day, we descended to the local pub for some proper team building. Skipper Pat outlined our tentative plan for the journey ahead, along with important safety briefings. A seasoned sailor with many years in the Irish Coast Guard, and no stranger to Celtic Mist, we knew we were in the best of hands!

Day 2

We awoke at sunrise the following morning, eager to push off in calm waters ahead. As we exited the harbour, our hawk-eyed resident biologist Hélène spotted a grey seal balanced perfectly on a rocky outcropping. The poised pinniped scratched his flipper as we passed, waving us off onto a safe voyage ahead. Not even an hour into our journey, we were joined by three common dolphins at our bow. We all took turns watching them pirouette through the glassy water below us. With our first cetacean sighting already under our belts, excitement was in the salty air!

While continuing out of the bay, we were introduced to a wide array of seabirds who call the Irish coastline their summer home. Striking guillemots and razorbills rested on the calm surface, while vibrant gannets and graceful fulmars soared overhead; we even saw our first Atlantic puffin! Katie, a current Wildlife Biology student at Munster Technological University, was particularly keen to practice her seabird identification and every flutter of feathers put a smile on her face! The whir of bird activity around us excited many others aboard as well, for we knew what often follows frenzies of feeding seabirds – whales!

Our instincts were correct; while observing the bird frenzy, a fleeting glimpse of a dark, arching figure put us all on high alert alongside the deck. Several minutes of intense silence was finally broken by an enthusiastic “Blow!” Pointing fingers guided our eyes to a large, dark shape breaking the grey surface of the morning waves – condensation from a massive exhale still wisping away in the breeze. With a characteristic dorsal fin shaped like the mounds of rolling hills, we had officially seen our first humpback whale sighting of the 2024 Celtic Mist season! Derbhile and our first mate Pearce were particularly enthusiastic – their first humpback whale ever!

Who could this whale be, and have IWDG encountered them before? In order to answer these questions, we needed to obtain what researchers refer to as “the money shot” – a clear photograph of the unique underside of a humpback whale’s flukes. By cataloging humpback whales based on their fluke prints (and even their dorsal fins in some cases!), IWDG have been able to help trace these animals all around the world.

Hélène and I scurried along the desk with heavy telephoto lenses, hoping to position in just the right spot for a picture of the whale’s fluke undersides! After nearly an hour of this incredible encounter, we were satisfied that we would have enough data to make an ID. We left our whale behind and continued north. Several other groups of common dolphins escorted us along the way, and we eventually reached the quiet, deep harbour of Inishbofin. A young local named Dylan helped us secure transportation ashore to the pub, where celebratory humpback pints were had all around!

Day 3

The next morning, we awoke at 8:00am and departed Inishbofin. As any good Irish mam would, Derbhile made sure we always had hot tea and coffee at hand to fuel us! We headed north yet again, taking a special detour past Inishturk – home to our ‘skipper-in-training’ Martina. With the cliffside of the island in view, Martina’s family waved out to us from their yard. This special send off gave us luck, leading us to an exciting basking shark encounter later in the day! As we approached Mayo’s shores in the afternoon, the weather forecast took a turn for the worse; we detoured to Blacksod for the night, thanks to the kindness of many locals there.

Day 4

Forecasts called for strong winds ahead but clear skies; and headed northwest in the morning. Sailing along Iniskeen and the old Norwegian whaling station, using the large island’s shelter from the waves. The islands are home to multiple historic sites including an old Norwegian whaling station; they would have seen many a ship passing by in search of whales, but for very different reasons. Pearce was able to point out every landmark of interest along Mayo’s coastline, notably a few of the most beautiful spots in all of Ireland (and as a Mayo man himself, he is absolutely not biased!). The afternoon was spent in Una’s pub, with an intense game of pool and darts.

Day 5

Unfortunately, the weather forecast was similar the following day, and the decision was made to stay moored in Blacksod. A lazy morning aboard allowed everyone to catch up on sleep from the previous few days. The entire crew gathered around inside to play card games conjured up by Brenn. For this period of time, Blacksod became our home. IWDG’s own stranding officer, Gemma, managed to find time between stranding responses to welcome us ashore. Although we were not the typical ‘live stranding’ she is used to dealing with, Gemma treated us all to hot showers and supper, leaving us rejuvenated for a long sailing day ahead.

Day 6

The marathon to Killybegs started at 4:00am. Once sunrise broke, we were happy to see blue skies once again! Two large skuas escorted us on various points of our journey. We experienced large swells along Mayo’s northern coastline, but that did not stop common dolphins from bow riding alongside us; we even spotted young calves in the mix!

Brenn brought out the whistle and serenaded the depths of Donegal Bay. His multilingualism may have extended to cetaceans, for our last sighting as we came into Killybegs was the sickle-shaped dorsal fin of a minke whale breaking the surface close to our bow. As the setting sun warmed our backs, the rising tide carried us forward through our final stretch, into Killybegs. After covering nearly 400 km of northwest coastline, recording over 30 notable sightings, our journey had come to an end – just in time to make one last cheers at the pub!

Day 7

After a morning of cleaning and packing, it was time for the dreaded goodbyes. As Pearse had so eloquently stated at the start of our journey, our fondest memories of Celtic Mist would not be the wildlife observed (although we had truly memorable sightings!), but instead the people we met and the moments that we shared. Our crew will always remember our humpback whale (quickly identified as individual HBIRL058!), but we will forever be united by our Blacksod safe haven, the competitive games of pool, Inishturk salutes, and the well-endowed harbour porpoise!

𝑇𝑖𝑠 𝑦𝑒𝑎rs s𝑢𝑟𝑣𝑒𝑦𝑠 𝑎𝑟𝑒 𝑏𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑟𝑢𝑛 𝑖𝑛 𝑐𝑜𝑙𝑙𝑎𝑏𝑜𝑟𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ Fair Seas. 𝐷𝑢𝑟𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑡𝑒 𝑠𝑒𝑎𝑠𝑜𝑛, 𝐶𝑒𝑙𝑡𝑖𝑐 𝑀𝑖𝑠𝑡 𝑤𝑖𝑙𝑙 𝑏𝑒 𝑠𝑢𝑟𝑣𝑒𝑦𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑡𝑒 𝑤𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑠 𝑜𝑓 𝑡𝑒 Northwest, from Fenit to Killybegs, 𝑐𝑜𝑙𝑙𝑒𝑐𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑣𝑖𝑡𝑎𝑙 𝑖𝑛𝑓𝑜𝑟𝑚𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑜𝑛 𝑡𝑒 𝑚𝑎𝑟𝑖𝑛𝑒 𝑙𝑖𝑓𝑒 𝑖𝑛 𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑤𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑠.

Sloan Massie

IWDG Welfare Officer