It’s clear that the restrictions we’re all experiencing are limited to our own species and whilst we are all largely in lockdown, the natural world has in recent times perhaps never enjoyed so much space and freedom. There has to be some upside to the pandemic!
During the past 9 weeks from 1st March to date, IWDG have received and validated 175 cetacean and basking shark sighting records, which is an almost 40% reduction in reports for the same period in 2019. This decline is hardly unexpected given the current situation and of course we ask people to continue to adhere to all “stay at home“ requests from our health authorities. But the steady trickle of reports being made by people watching from their own local areas, still gives us useful insights as to what species are occurring where along our coast and for this reason we decided early on during the pandemic to continue processing sightings as they are reported and making them available in real time here on www.iwdg.ie.
So what are the main talking points?
Well, it was evident from as early as late March that large whales were starting to arrive off West Cork as blows off Galley Head and Crow Head, Beara on 31st March and April 1st provided our first early tasters. These were then confirmed on April 11th with a first humpback sighting off Galley Head and our first photo ID images further west off the Deep Hole area on April 24th. So all sightings since have been in this area of West Cork, that was until May 3rd when fisherman Antoin Walsh secured footage of a humpback breaching off Ballycotton in East Cork. So not unlike other years, it seems West Cork is the first feeding stop off….it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes them to push west towards their favourite Kerry haunts.
The other big story that seems to be gaining momentum on social media is the arrival of big numbers of basking sharks, in particular along the Clare coast. To date we have received over 30 basking shark sightings records and although some of these are likely duplicates, it’s clear that we’re looking at 100’s of animals and that the hotspot so far is the Clare/Aran islands area, which comprise 68% of all shark records. Some of these aggregations are really impressive with observers over the weekend estimating perhaps as many as 100 sharks in a relatively small area between Spanish Point and Mal bay. Although such numbers are unusual, they are not without precedent. There are a few records also from Counties Kerry, Galway and Mayo (see map below).
The shark sightings data we’ve received thus far is incomplete as some recorders are holding back their records until after the Covid crises has passed. And as we are still less than mid-way through the shark season, it’s a little premature to be calling this a record year for sharks….better to wait till the end of the season when we can review all the sightings data and reflect on how good a season this has been the planet’s second biggest fish.
The great thing about basking sharks is that when present, they can often be seen at very close quarters off beaches where they can easily trap zooplankton, and so you don’t need to be going out on boats or travelling to distant headlands to view them. As always calm seas are essential to spot them and sunny days are likely to bring their food up to the surface layer, which is when we get to view them.
One final anomaly in the past week was the number of dolphins that were showing up in very unusual inland areas. One such instance that stands out was a group of five common dolphins that were reported to us on six days between the 19th– 28th April in the River Foyle, Derry city, generally around and upstream of the Craigavon Bridge. Staying in Northern Ireland, inner Carlingford Lough was home to a solitary common dolphin that spend four consecutive days between 24th and 27th April around Warenpoint, and no sooner had it disappeared around midday of the 27th than another dolphin was photographed in the Strangford narrows some 35 miles up the coast later that evening. Whether it was the same individual remains unclear, but it does seem like something of a coincidence. Around the same time a dolphin or porpoise was recorded in the River Suir at Mount Congrieve on April 26th, some 20 km from open sea.
We might speculate that these events are down to a short term range expansion by dolphins or porpoises in response to Covid…….while it’s a nice idea, it will ultimately be impossible to prove. Perhaps a simpler explanation, is more people taking the time to watch and observe in a quieter world.
Huge thanks to everyone for reporting your cetacean and basking shark sightings to www.iwdg.ie
The basking shark footage was shown on the main RTE News this evening Monday 4th May and can be seen on their social media platforms. link below:
By Pádraig Whooley,
IWDG Sightings Officer