Humpback whale off Achill Island

With all the focus at the end of this year’s 2011/12 large whale season on the Southeast coast, you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no whales anywhere else in Irish waters. Perhaps we (IWDG) are guilty of perpetuating this myth.

On Sat 11th Feb Michael Patten and friends went surfing off Keel beach, Achill Island, Co. Mayo. Out beyond the surf towards the Bill Rock, they observed a large whale surface on at least 4 occasions, that was in the 30-60ft length bracket; clearly too large for a minke whale. Its surface behaviour suggests a species that was creating a lot of disturbance and then several of the surfers saw it clearly lift its tail fluke vertically out of the water, before diving. IWDG, after discussing the encounter with Mark during validation are confident that this is a humpback whale.

It remains something of a mystery as to why sightings of this species remain such relatively rare events along our West and Northwest compared to our South and Southwest coasts. This sighting is only the 5th validated record of a humpback whale from a large area that includes Counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal.

The fact that humpback whales tend to hug the coastline with a preference for inshore waters when feeding, should leave them easier for members of the public to spot. But the low sightings rate and high re-sightings rate of known individuals (n=18) goes some way towards highlighting just how few humpback whales remain in the North Atlantic after centuries of commercial whaling.

For this reason IWDG invest considerable scarce resources in documenting humpback whale sightings. Images sent by members of the public are invaluable in helping us build a picture as to their use of Irish waters. This latest sighting is a timely reminder that species such as humpbacks, can and do, turn up in places that are well outside what we perceive to be the known “hotspots”.

So although each year the IWDG’s Cetacean Sighting scheme makes it quite easy for researchers, wildlife enthusiasts, filmakers, photographers and of course whale watchers to tap into the south coast activity that is rarely out of the media glare, it doesn’t necessarily tell us much beyond what we already know. For this reason we’d encourage more people to start recording cetaceans from their own local patches, by either reporting casual sightings or taking part in the IWDG’s constant effort sighting scheme.

IWDG have been documenting these large whales now for over a decade, and so their distribution along our south coast is quite well known at several sites. But how many other places exist that just might be as good, if not better than the likes of: Slea head, Old Head of Kinsale, Galley Head, Ram head or Hook Head? If we all keep watching in the same places, then we’ll all keep seeing the same things.

These once off, unusual sightings in remote areas off our northwest suggest to this whale watcher anyway, that we may only be scatching at the surface of what is Ireland’s true whale watching potential. But as long as we remain content to “twitch” what others have detected through the hard graft and dedication of regular watches , then this potential may never be realised.

So yes, before you ask, the humpback known to us as HBIRL18 remains off Hook Head, Co. Wexford, and fin whales remain in numbers off Co. Cork and Waterford, but there is something far more tantalising about the prospect of new humpbacks in new areas such as Achill Island.

Keep us posted

Pádraig Whooley

Sightings Co-ordinator