After persistent winds which battered the south coast over the past month Celtic Mist finally set sail last week on a new adventure. This week marked the start of the Shannon Dolphin Project surveys. These surveys concentrate on collecting data on the Shannon dolphins, a genetically discrete population, resident of the Shannon Estuary.
But first we needed to get there! The team joined the vessel at the start of the survey and immediately began to prepare for what we knew would be an intense sail north to the Shannon. After prepping the boat and getting provisions we sat down and planned for the week with our skipper Liam and survey lead Mags Daly, Shannon Dolphin Project manager. This involved reviewing the route, looking at weather forecasts and setting our scientific objectives for the week. Not only did we want to get to the Shannon dolphins home range, but we also wanted to survey the waters in the south/southwest along the way, collecting data on these productive waters. With southerly winds expected to get stronger over the next couple of days we made the decision to be on the west coast as soon as possible. This meant having an early start. So, after prepping our cabins, we made our way to bed, setting our alarms for an early start.
The next morning, we arose, all a little sleepy but full of anticipation for the week ahead. That day we sailed all the way from Crosshaven to Crookhaven. A solid 14 hours of sailing! Although sightings were a little thin on the ground due in part to the less-than-ideal sea conditions, we sailed past some spectacular coastline. As a fan of lighthouses, it was fantastic to sail past some of Ireland’s best including the Old Head of Kinsale, Galley Head and Fastnet. The weather began to turn through the afternoon. With the southerly winds predicted starting to build and we made our way past Cape Clear, dodging rain showers, and finally anchoring in Crookhaven. The tender quickly launched and picked up our final member of the team who had been sheltering in the local pub.
It was another early start the next morning, but we were greeted by a lovely sunrise, making our wake-up call all that bit easier. Another epic lighthouse was on the agenda that morning as we passed Mizen head. I had only been there by land for the first time the week before and it was incredible to view this spectacular part of Ireland from another viewpoint. Not only were the views amazing, but we encountered a minke whale, which popped up about 20 meters from the boat. The whale, however, lived up to their elusive nature and disappeared quickly in the swell. A significant swell rolled in as we rounded the corner, which lessened as we turned north. We had a couple of pods of common dolphins as we made our way up the coastline, as well as some aggregations of feeding birds, which gave is a clue as to what was ahead….
After a lovely lunch on deck, as the sun continued to shine, we started to make out some islands on the horizon – the Skellig Islands! Seeing the Skellig islands had been on my bucket list since I moved to Ireland last year and they certainly didn’t disappoint! The dramatic and unique islands looked spectacular even as the clouds began to roll in. We were all in awe as we sailed past, completely dwarfed by the magnificent cliffs. As we continued towards the mainland, however, I couldn’t help but notice that the bird life I had read about didn’t seem to be quite as numerous as I had expected. Other members of the team, who had previously been to the islands confirmed by suspicions, noting that they too had also thought that the numbers had reduced. Could this be a result of last year’s bird flu epidemic?
That evening we came alongside the pontoons in Valentia just in time, as the weather finally caught up with us! We huddled downstairs, checking the data and enjoying a warming bowl of pasta. Thankfully the conditions had again improved the next morning, and we sailed out of Valentia with the aim of passing our final headland of the trip, with Sherwick Harbour our destination. We wanted to cover as much of the coastline as possible on the way, so we zig zagged in Dingle Bay taking it in turns to watch out for marine life. It was a quiet morning again, despite the good sea conditions. We made our way around the Dingle peninsula, sailing east of the Blasket Islands, where we had our first Harbour porpoise sighting of the survey. The cliffs on the north side of the peninsula were the biggest surprise of the trip for me – they were huge! We were kept busy surveying these waters as we counted the pots we passed, as well as continuing to look out marine mammals along the 100m contour line. These pots are counted to assess the number of pots along our coastline, so that we can calculate areas which may have a higher risk of entanglement for some of our baleen whale species.
Despite another long day we decided to push onto Brandon Bay, and we were immediately rewarded for our efforts! Just before Brandon Point, we spotted fins coming towards us. Not only was this the first sighting of the Shannon Dolphins, but a neonate was spotted amongst the pod identifiable from the foetal folds, lighter colouration and obvious size difference! More dolphins joined the group, and we observed lots of social behaviour as we frantically got as many photos as we could. There were cameras everywhere, with every part of the boat covered. We had two more sightings as we came into our anchorage that evening. Anchor down, we all excitedly looked through our photos as Mags identified several of the individuals and told us who we had seen. Exhausted, we sat down for another delicious dinner (boat food really is the best!) before heading to our bunks.
After a rolly rolly night on anchor, we were all a little jaded the next morning. But do you know what the cure for that is? More dolphins! We hadn’t even finished breakfast when Mags spotted a dolphin out of the window. We quickly got the anchor up and made our way over to get some images. The rest of the day was spent conducting line transect surveys through Brandon Bay. We spotted four more groups of dolphins, some of which included dolphins from the day before. With the winds building and the sea state worsening we decided to make our way into Fenit Harbour. Just by Fenit lighthouse we spotted more dolphins – the Fenit Three! These dolphins belong to the Moray firth population in Scotland. They originally arrived in the area with other members of the population in 2019. The rest of the group went home, but these individuals stayed, and have been residents in Tralee Bay since. We know one of the individuals as Doyle, who is accompanied by her calf (male). However, the gender of the last individual remained unknown. That was until this encounter…
As we sailed past the lighthouse one of the individuals began to jump, ‘side slapping’ at the bow, and showing the underside of their body. You can decipher the gender of individual dolphins by taking photos of the genital slits, and we took photos and videos frantically, not knowing initially which individual this was. However, Mags quickly identified the dolphin as the unknown member of the group (who has a slight purple tinge) shouting ‘IT’S THE PURPLE ONE!’. An incredibly exciting moment for all of us nerds on board, and one we happily got on video the relive! Later that evening Mags confirmed that the purple one was another female.
On the final day of the survey the weather really came in, but we wanted to get as much data as we possibly could. We therefore decided to still head out but focus on surveying Tralee Bay which was a little more sheltered. We encountered the Fenit Three once more as we made our way out of the harbour. As we began surveying the weather continued to deteriorate and we began to lose hope. However, we were in for another exciting encounter as we spotted fins amongst the showers! This group was much more difficult to photograph due to the heavy showers. We all still managed to get some useful images and Mags recognized animals we hadn’t yet seen, including Minnie, an individual with a flopped over dorsal fin. With all of us soaked to the bone we made our way back into Fenit Harbour, with the Fenit Three treating us to one more encounter. They followed us all the way into the Harbour only leaving the vessel as we passed the Harbour wall. It was the perfect end to the week. That evening we celebrated an epic week with a lovely meal in Fenit, spending the night chatting about the trip and trying to plan for when we could do it all over again!
I want to say a massive thank you to everyone onboard: Liam, Irene, Emma, Bogna, Louise, Susi, and Mags. What an incredible group of inspiring women, as well as our incomparable skipper Liam. It was an absolute pleasure to sail with you all.
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.