Celtic Mist Cruise 4 – Kilrush to Kilrush
by: Peter Brennan
It was a bottlenose bonanza on our latest cruise.
We were scheduled to meet Celtic Mist at Kilrush Marina for the start of the cruise, but the previous group had some Covid issues and had left the boat in Fenit. I got a ride from Dublin with Irene Reidy, the Chief Mate, and Liam Quinn, the Skipper, with the mission to get the boat back to Kilrush to pick up the rest of the crew.
We left the harbour early on the next morning with a thick fog bank covering Tralee Bay. However, it wasn’t long before our first sighting as two adult dolphins and a juvenile came and swam in the bow wake. The fog cleared when we passed Kerry Head, but we could see it was still foggy in Tralee Bay. We entered the Shannon Estuary at about 8:15 am and saw numerous bottlenose dolphins, with several swimming and surfing in the bow wake, jumping and playing around the Celtic Mist! We arrived at the Kilrush lock at midday. Liam, Irene, and I tested for Covid and all came up negative. Yay! We were ready to pick up the rest of the crew!
At Kilrush, we were joined by Siobhan Shell, Frank O’Malley, and Susi Matejka, who also tested for negative Covid. Yay! Again. We did our grocery shopping and had some tea and scones (made by Irene’s Mom, Bernice – Thanks Bernie!), before setting off from Kilrush at 4:00 pm. When we got to the lock, we had to wait while thirteen curraghs, with an accompanying RIB and a large motor boat, exited. After a while, it reminded me of the car at the circus where all the clowns keep coming out. Liam kept us “in neutral” until they were all out, and then we transited the lock and headed back toward Fenit. We saw a few dolphins on the way, but not so many as on the way up, and they did not come and play around the Celtic Mist.
The next day was cooler, with full cloud cover – which actually makes spotting and observing marine mammals easier! After breakfast (again, thanks, Bernie, for the scones) we warped at the pier so we could pull out of the marina in forward, not reverse and Susi gave us a brief lesson on the logger software, which is used to record all the data. That morning we passed between Rough Point and the Maharees, a.k.a. the Seven Hogs, and proceeded west, staying north of Brandon Bay. Hours passed without seeing any sign of whales or dolphins. We were near Brandon Head and just sitting down to lunch when we had our first sighting. I think at first it was five bottlenose dolphins, but soon there were many, many more, coming from all directions. Many of them spent a good while surfing in the bow wake. They were jumping and turning belly up and such. There were some juveniles and calves including at least one who was very, very young – still showing the wrinkle lines from being curled up in the mommy’s womb, known as fetal folds. As we headed into Brandon Bay that group left us, but a short time later another group joined us and picked up where they had left off. They accompanied us all the way to the village of Brandon mooring field.
We had considered spending the night on a mooring in Brandon Bay, but at this point, the weather was getting rough, and we decided to return to Fenit, with another group of dolphins escorting us back toward the Maharees! “The Fenit Three” a.k.a. “The Scottish Dolphins” then escorted us the last mile into the Fenit Harbor Marina. After dinner Susi presented a slide show of photos taken with the Hi-Res cameras on the Celtic Mist, pointing out the identifying marks that help the group’s scientists to track individual dolphins.
The next day, the weather was raw. We left Fenit, heading northwest, passed Rough Head and Inishtookart without seeing the Fenit Three. We then passed Kerry Head in deep fog and swell and made for Loop Head. We proceeded north following the 50-meter contour line. We had heard that Minke whales are often seen along the contour line, but we, unfortunately, did not see any. After hours with no sightings, we finally saw a couple of common dolphins. When we entered the Shannon estuary a few bottlenose dolphins came to check us out, but it was nothing like the day before, which had been action-packed. We anchored for the night off Kilbaha.
The next day we left the Shannon estuary, rounded Loop Head and followed the 50-meter contour line along the coast, on a northeast heading for a good few hours, but did not see minke whales or dolphins. We returned to the Shannon estuary and just after 6 pm that evening two small groups of bottlenose dolphins came and swam with us. Susi said that the photos were taken captured markings that will enable IWDG to identify individuals. We anchored for the night in Carrigaholt Bay, besides Peter Lawless. Just off Carrigaholt Castle.
We followed the 50-meter contour line for six hours on Thursday, from Loop Head to Brandon Point, seeing nary a whale nor a dolphin – until we approached Brandon Bay. Then the dolphins came out. And how! They came from near and far. They came in droves. They actually came in shifts, and it was obvious that they thought surfing in the bow wake of the CM was the best bit of fun since the circus last came to town. They crowded each other out to get the best spot. They jumped, they spun, and they swam upside down.
At one point a very big fellow misjudged his jump and banged his head, hard, on the guard rail on the starboard side. It sounded like the CM had hit another steel-hulled boat. After that, there was a lull for a few moments as if maybe the group’s mother said: “Calm down now everybody. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”
But after a short while, the festivities began anew. The dolphin who had hit the rail resumed jumping, much to our relief. We took thousands of photos that day. There were mothers with calves, juveniles, old folks, and gangs of adolescents. They seemed to be showing off and trying to outdo one another. I’ve seen a lot of dolphins jumping over the ears, living as I do on the Gulf of Mexico, but we saw dolphins jump on that day farther than I had ever seen a dolphin jump before!! Words cannot describe it, so check out the photos and videos. Then again, pictures don’t do it justice. So, your best bet is to decide to participate in one of these surveys yourself!
On the penultimate day, we put diesel in the tanks and left Fenit Harbor. We met “The Fenit Three” almost immediately. Then when we approached Brandon Point the bottlenose dolphins came out to greet us. Maybe even more than on Thursday. We idled for a long time, and they congregated around the CM. They were pretty active; jumping, slapping the water with their tails, jostling one another. They had the feeling of the crowd at a concert waiting for the band to start playing. Eventually, we started moving and it was evident that was what they were all waiting for, as they began to surf in the bow wake. My camera ran out of memory as I took photo after photo. I then relaxed and just enjoyed watching them. We returned to Carrigaholt Bay and anchored for the night.
On the last day we checked out Kildraugan Point and Scattery Island with no sightings, but there were several bottlenose dolphins between Scattery Island and the Moneypoint power plant, and especially around Beale. Not a bad day, but it pales in comparison with Thursday and Friday in Brandon Bay and off Brandon Point. Of course, as everyone knows, dolphins have a special talent for disappearing when you point a camera at them and reappearing when you put the camera away, so it is very nice to take a break from photographing and videoing them, and just enjoy watching them for a bit.
Thanks to all the crew and members who joined us on board! If, like Peter recommends, you would like to join us on a cruise you can find out more about the cruises here.
Celtic Mist Cruise 3 – Sligo to Kilrush
by: Gemma O’Connor
Curious minke accompanies Celtic Mist on our latest cruise.
“How’s this Pat?” I said as I held up my knot for Pat to check, Pat already grinning from ear to ear responded with “It wouldn’t do in a Cathedral”.
Humour, laughs, great food, and a lovely group of people on board got this cruise to Ros an Mhíl in high spirits, despite what the weather was throwing at us. The skipper was Pat Hartigan, Chief mate was Lucia, Marine biologists were Elena and Anna Clare, and seasoned pros were Patricia, Annette, and Robbie. It was my first time sailing on Celtic Mist.
We set sail Monday morning in beautiful sunshine with a plan to sail through the night and reach Inis Bo Finne (Inishbofin) and press on from there to Kilrush before the weather turned nasty. The Sligo coast delivered later that morning. Spotters poised like meerkats with binoculars sighted a few dolphins airborne in the northwest, too far away to ID the species. After a while Robbie spots a minke whale from the stern area.
A little while later I hear a blow behind midships and there’s a minke whale barely 3-4 meters from the side of the Celtic Mist. Whether it was the Celtic Mist itself or the out of tune orchestra of squeals, yays and OMGs coming from everyone on board, this minke decided to check us out for quite a while. The whale repeatedly swum alongside, beside and under the Celtic Mist, sometimes on its side and even upside down at one point.
We then sailed south through the night along the 100m contour which took us well outside the Inis Gé Islands. Although all I could see of Blackrock lighthouse was its light, it was still an impressive yet bittersweet sight as ever, now shining white and not the usual red I see from home. For a while a little phosphorescence sparkled in the water we displaced, and I was still ever hopeful of hearing a blow in the dark, we were in whale territory now after all.
The following morning a few common dolphins graced us by bow riding Celtic Mist. Gannets were noticeably scarce since the start of this trip. The most frequently encountered sea birds by far were Manx Shearwaters, followed by Guillemots, Black guillemots, Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Gannets, Sandwich terns, a Great skua and possibly a single arctic term.
The unidentified tern barely got a look in as a small group of juvenile common dolphins were spotted who appeared to be chasing us from behind like pre-schoolers after an ice-cream truck. They were tiny, adorably tiny, and determined to have a bow ride or two.
Due to the looming bad weather, we pressed on and 37 hours after setting sail we berthed in Cill Rónáin, Inis Mór. Here we met the adorable Nela the sea dog, sailing with her owner Moncho. Our next and last passage was to Ros an Mhíl. Surprisingly no one got seasick during the whole trip! With the Celtic Mist safely secured and our sailing finished for this cruise, we all jumped on the ferry to Inis Oírr for some sight-seeing and craic where skipper Pat spots a new dolphin species, the bottlenose dolphin.
Thanks to Elena García Martíne for the beautiful Minke whale she sketched while onboard and thanks to the lovely bunch of people on cruise three who’ve set the bar high.
Cruise 2: Celtic Mist sailed from Derry to Sligo
by Darragh Furey
After getting onboard this evening in Derry everyone on board was introduced to their roles and what the expectations were from each other. Mick the skipper has explained the cooking and cleaning regime so that everyone can help. We went out for a meal in the local hotel as a get together and to get formally introduced. Due to weather conditions we had to change plans and instead of heading to Inishtrahull, an island to the north of Derry we motored to Greencastle in order to allow the poor weather to pass. Greencastle was a beautiful little seaside town with lots of fishing vessels.
Next leg was Greencastle to Tory. The weather had improved for the morning, but we had a very early start as this was going to be the longest day in terms of sailing from A to B. As the day went on the weather deteriorated somewhat and many of the crew, including myself were feeling somewhat seasick. However, we perked up after seeing a pair of harbour porpoise travelling into the estuary early in the morning as we exited Lough Foyle. We also saw plenty of bird life including gannets, fulmars, common guillemots, black guillemots, manx shearwater and razorbills. The crew were keen to conduct dedicated watches and it the first time assisting on cetacean watches on the water for many onboard. With challenging conditions, the crew held up very well and spirits were high as we reached Tory Island.
For the sail from Tory to Arranmore we had beautiful weather, with much warmer conditions and less swell. There was plenty of birdlife again, but unfortunately no identified sightings. We had a fantastic view of Errigal from the ocean as we anchored up overnight. Everyone was in good spirits as we sat down for dinner with each meal being better than the last. We have been eating very well on this trip and we even had freshly baked brown soda bread loaves made by the skipper provided by the sponsor Fuschia Bakehouse.
We set sail at a relaxed time to head around the Arranmore island the next morning and made our way further south towards the Slieve Leagues in South Donegal. The weather deteriorated again with swell developing and the visibility reducing, but everyone was left in awe of the beautiful sea which are regarded as the tallest in Europe and twice as high as the Cliffs of Mohar. Our passage to Teelin was uneventful but making anchor early allowed Kirstin and I to go ashore and get some things from the shops in the local town. That night we kept spirits up with more board games and card games.
On Friday morning we got chatting to a Frenchman who was polite enough to offer assistance on our outboard engine. Additionally, a local tour guide had spotted some dolphins off the Slieve League, so after setting sail, we made the decision to revisit the cliffs with the hope of catching sight of the pod. Unfortunately, the tip didn’t pay off and no cetaceans were spotted again. However, Mick, the skipper, asks if there is a certain path or direction in which we should travel to try to improve our chances of catching something. So, I suggest we follow the north coast of Donegal Bay to chase a tip of some that Minke whales had been spotted feeding nearby just a few days previous. Hugging the coast, we made it to St. Johns point and the beautiful lighthouse there. After leaving this part of the bay we made our way south towards our anchorage at Mullaghmore. An hour after diverting slightly towards Bundoran town we started to see of some splashing on the horizon, which were suspected to be cetaceans. We began to see more and more frequent dorsal fins rising and diving as we got closer to the activity. It didn’t take long for us to catch up and a small pod of Common Dolphins (two to three adults and one juvenile) became very interested in our propeller! They then started congregating at the bow and playing in our bow wave, a behaviour known as bow-riding. They were a particularly playful and exuberant group who stayed with us for what seemed like hours. We could even hear them clicking and whistling. The pod grew in numbers as more dolphins came over to the bow. At the height of the activity, I estimated that there were 25-30 dolphins around the boat, with 3 juveniles and 2 calves. Photographs were taken in a flurry and plenty of video footage was taken. After a time, the dolphins swam off in different directions to resume their daily lives. After this encounter we sailed straight for Mullaghmore to make anchor. However, as we were setting up anchor for the night, I spotted a bottlenose dolphin feeding further into the bay.
Everyone was still abuzz from yesterday’s encounter as we left in beautiful conditions, with the sun shining for our final leg into Sligo town. Our trip around the headland was pleasant as we reflected on the week and how we had all enjoyed each other’s company. After lunch we were making our way further south along Dots point and Yellow Strand when a very large body was seen lumbering through the water as a pair on minke whales were seen feeding along the shallows of the bay. They were, however, very shy and photos were difficult due to their whereabouts not being revealed until the last second. About an hour later we were making our way slowly towards Rosses point before making our final approach to Sligo town. I had just spotted a few dorsal fins and movement further out in the bay when all of a sudden four or five bottlenose dolphins took an interest in the boat and gave us a fantastic display of breaching, bow riding and leaping out of the water. This pod was small at the start, but again the group grew and at the height of the activity I estimated that 25 animals were present, including two calves. It was interesting to experience their comparative size to the Common dolphin was a fascinating, with the bottlenose dolphins noticeably bigger. Again, the dolphins stuck around for maybe an hour before heading off and getting on with their lives.
Making it into Sligo town was a great end to the week, spending social time with everyone and being able to have such fascinating encounters was such a terrific bonus to the whole trip. Goodbyes were emotional as we all felt we knew each other so well already. The morning was spent cleaning the boat and making sure she was ready to be handed over to the next crew who were taking her down to Kilrush.
Cruise 1: Sunday 22nd May- Saturday 28th May
by Cara Bradley
Sunday 22nd May
Celtic Mist was moored in Derry ready to take on a new crew on its next adventure to the Hebrides. On board we had the Skipper, Pat, first mate, Lucia, biologists; Paula and Cara, along with the crew; Dean, John, Robbie and Uinsionn. After introductions were made, safety briefings completed and the new survey protocol was explained, the crew went out for a welcome tapas meal.
Monday 23rd May
Everyone was up early as we had a long day of sailing ahead. We all had breakfast, took our sea sickness tablets, and packed up ready to set off. It was a few hours of sailing up Lough Foyle before reaching open ocean and we had good view of seals and cormorants.
Once we had left the Lough, conditions stayed calm and bright, and we had not one but two minke whale sightings along the North Coast with one of the minkes surfacing only 50m from the bow of the boat! After 12 hours of sailing, we tied up in Port Ellen that evening. We were very grateful to enjoy some home cooked pasta dishes that Lucia had brought with her.
Tuesday 24th May
It was a favourable day for sailing the next day, but the forecast suggested it wasn’t going to last so we made the decision to head out surveying and return to Port Ellen that evening.
There were reports of a pod of 20 bottlenose dolphins sighted at Port Ellen on the Monday just before we arrived, with other reports saying they were now heading towards the Sound of Jura. Of course, we made the decision to head out and see if we were lucky enough to spot them! (Spoiler, we weren’t).
This came as a surprise after spotting a large area full of bird activity, which would commonly indicate there may be a cetacean or two feeding.
Despite not recording any more sightings, we returned to Port Ellen having witnessed some of the most incredible views sailing has to offer!
Wednesday 25th May
As predicted the condition were less than ideal for sailing on Wednesday. This left us island bound for the day, so we decided to take in all that Islay has to offer… including WHISKY! Following a relaxed morning pottering round the local shops, beaches, and the church yard in Bowmore we ventured into the distillery. After tasting what the distillery had to offer a number of the crew headed back to Port Ellen to experience the Whisky Mile before closing. On the picturesque walk back to the boat we happened upon a 4m prehistoric standing stone.
Thursday 26th May
Another day land bound meant we could travel a little further on Thursday. We went to Port Askaig and boarded the small ferry across to Jura, before exploring the area of Craighouse which has gorgeous views of the Paps of Jura. After lunch a few of the crew went for a quick dip in the sea before we had a nosey round the local shops. When all hope was lost for another sighting any time soon, due to the sea conditions, we were treated to pod of around 10 bottlenose dolphins as we were approaching the ferry terminal for our return crossing. They breached a few times as they travelled up the Sound of Islay. That evening we attended the local trad night in the nearby hotel. Our very own John and Paula were up dancing, with John joining the band on the tin whistle!
Friday 27th May
With the weather still not on our side and the uncertainty of when we could return to Derry, unfortunately, I had to depart via air from Islay to Glasgow and then on to Belfast. The rest of the crew spent the day exploring more of the Island through walks and swims, as well as sorting out bits of the boat for the inevitable choppy sail back.
Saturday 28th May
With Celtic Mist needed back in Derry on the Sunday to welcome a new crew on board, the crew needed to set sail from Islay for the long journey back even if the weather wasn’t ideal.