Sightings of rare offshore and Arctic species in Ireland

One of the fringe benefits of being a whale watcher in Ireland, is that we regularly find ourselves with front row seats at some truly memorable events. Some of them, like the Sowerby’s beaked whale last weekend in Wicklow harbour, may be difficult to watch, as the end game invariably plays itself out, before reaching the all too predictable grim conclusion; but such events are no less memorable….if for all the wrong reasons.

Sowerby’s beaked whale, July 4th 2020, Wicklow, © Faith Wilson

It’s important that dedicated groups such as the IWDG exist for a variety of reasons. On a practical level, there is the collective experience from similar “live stranding” situations, over many years, with a variety of species, which enables us provide useful insights into such events and hopefully steer people away from doing the wrong thing.  The wider benefit is in the longevity of the recording schemes, which over the decades have provided us with a body of knowledge, whilst acknowledging significant species and geographical gaps remain.  And while each record in isolation may not amount to whole pile of beans, when added to all previous records, they enable us frame events such as the Wicklow Sowerby’s and help us perhaps understand in some small way the forces that underpin such events.

With our rather limited knowledge of beaked whales, we know that the Wicklow coastline and infact the entire Irish Sea, where the shallow waters rarely exceed depths of > 100mts, represent completely unsuitable habitat for any species in the beaked whale family, who routinely dive to depths of 1,500 to 3,000 mts.  So a data enquiry of any beaked whale Sightings or Strandings from the Irish Sea since the IWDG was established, will produce a result as close to nil as makes no difference.  But our dataset only goes back 30 years, and so we can hardly say it offers us any great insights as to how beaked whales may have used the Irish Sea in the past.  Thankfully however, there have been people interested in recording such local events long before the IWDG existed and hopefully there will continue to be such people, long after we’re gone.

One such historic record going back 132 years is illustrated in this image below, reproduced courtesy of Joseph Kavanagh, from a Wicklow archive, which shows two beaked whales, in this case Northern bottlenose whales, ..… “taken in Wicklow on 1st Sept. 1888, and landed on the lifeboat slip at the east pier”.  It’s unclear from this image as to the circumstances under which these whales were landed.…were they killed in a local opportunistic hunt, or did they live strand and expire of natural causes, as happened last weekend?  We’ll probably never know. But we can say with certainty that if 132 years from now researchers are looking for historic data on Sowerby’s beaked whales in the Irish Sea, they will have access to comprehensive eye witness accounts, articles by IWDG with images and video, validated strandings data, as well as a necropsy report. The contrast between 1888 and 2020 could hardly be greater.

Much of what we record in any given year are the “usual suspects” that turn up when and where we pretty much expect. These sightings and strandings don’t require much in the way of proof and a reasonable description will generally suffice to satisfy the relevant IWDG officer as to the veracity of the report. For instance, on average about 88% of sighting reports can be validated to species level, but we invariably have to allocate about 12% of these to a non-species category, and we do this in order to protect the “good data” which we can stand over.

Minke whale, May 29th, Greystones, Co. Wicklow, © John Kissane

Things get a little more complicated with reports of common species showing up at unusual times or in places which we wouldn’t normally expect, such as dolphins in river systems or whales very close to shore. These require a little more attention to detail, as all bets are off when we get reports of dolphins or porpoises feeding in places like:  the Foyle River in Co. Derry, River Suir in Waterford City, River Shannon, Limerick city, Strangford lough, Co. Down etc. We generally ask for photographic or video evidence in order to validate such records, which nowadays is pretty straight forward, as we’ve all got good at whipping out our smartphones and recording such events.  But then there is a third category, which is alltogether more complicated and this is when we get a report of an extremely rare species, in a very odd location and it’s been seen by an extremely experienced observer, very familiar with cetaceans in his/her own patch, alas, there is no photographic evidence to support the observer’s opinion.

One such occasion was last week on July 2nd off Helvic Head, Co. Waterford and the observer was none other than Andrew Malcolm,  a man who knows his way around a spotting scope and camera and who knows the headlands of the Copper coast like none other.  During this watch Andrew observed both minke whale and basking shark, but then saw a single surface of an ivory white cetacean, the size of a large dolphin, but had no dorsal fin, anywhere! His initial thought was …..”there’s a Risso’s”, but he soon questioned this assumption.  By process of elimination, we are in little doubt other than this was most likely another extra limital sighting of a beluga. Interestingly, the only beluga sighting validated by IWDG was also in July, when on 30th July 2015 a single animal was filmed off Dunseverick harbour, Co. Antrim.  There have been a few other beluga reports such as September 1947 Clare Island, Co. Mayo and June 1988 in Cork harbour, alas these records predate IWDG.

Beluga, Dunseverick, Co. Antrim, 30/07/2015 © Gordon Watson

Ordinarily, news of such an encounter would generally spark massive interest from whale and sea watchers along the south coast, but the dismal weather of the past week put paid to any chance of further sightings. So this mystery animal, will just have to remain one of the 12% that we allocate to a non-species category.  But we tend not to believe in coincidences and I thought it interesting that only the evening before Andrew’s sighting I read of an even more bizarre beluga record from the Pacific, when earlier in the week one was filmed by drone off the coast of San Diego, California.  At 39 degrees latitude our Atlantic equivalent would be the mid Atlantic island of Madeira, which is some 2,280 km further south of the Irish south coast.

We live in strange and interesting times and it has never been more important for organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group to be active in the community, spreading the word and the passion for recording our marine biodiversity.

By Pádraig Whooley

IWDG Sightings Officer

Recent IWDG contribution to This Island Nation discusses getting out and recording whales and dolphins from a clifftop near you (from 07:25)