I was asked by the team in Kilrush a week or so ago to draft some copy to wrap up the 2022 field season and my initial thought was…. “that’s a little premature”. While we can probably draw a line on this season for the likes of basking sharks, for other species, the season may be in full flow or even just starting! Overall sighting records for 2022 as of the end September total 1,956, which compares with 2,317 for the same period 2021. This is a 15% reduction, but with three months left in the calendar year, there is still plenty of time left!….a good spell of settled high pressure could go some way towards reducing this deficit.
At time of writing, it looks like basking sharks have had another good year with 164 validated sighting records and counting. This is a small increase on 2021 (up 2%), but importantly reflects a three- year trend showing an increase in sightings of the planet’s second biggest fish since 2020. It’ll be interesting to see if the sighting scheme detects a continuation of this trend in 2023 or whether shark sightings will decline, suggesting another boom-bust cycle like we observed in 2007-2010. We’re still a long way off the 2009 all-time peak in Irish basking shark sightings records (n=240) and a glance at both sets of data mapped highlights one major difference which is that this year, they were largely absent from the Irish Sea/East Coast; the exception being a single record off Rockabill, Co. Dublin on Aug. 7th.
Whale sightings (all species) are it seems down across the board on 2021 figures. When we refer generically to “whales”, we of course mean the mysticetes, the large baleen whales, and our three usual suspects the minke, humpback and fin whales were down 17%, 46% and 53% respectively on the same period in 2021. Indulge me for a moment with being a little parochial but west Cork is probably a good bell weather for what and indeed how these whales are doing, and if the past summer season is anything to go by, then we’d have some concerns! Remarkably, skipper Colin Barnes passed the entire three month summer period June 13th – Sept. 19th without a single humpback whale sighting and it wasn’t for lack of looking!
Despite the humpback season starting as expected in late April in West Cork, with a flurry of returning animals all of whom we recognised from previous years, by May the numbers simply never built. By June the trickle of humpbacks had all but evaporated. Of course, bad news for Cork was always likely to be good news for our neighbours in West Kerry……or was it? While our man up on the Kerry cliffs and out on the water Nick Massett has had a good humpback season, the figures show only a 5% increase in humpback days with sightings around the Dingle Peninsula. So it seems likely that the cohort we’d have expected in places like west Cork likely tracked further up the West Coast, which may be reflected in sightings in Donegal Bay on June 24th and in Broadhaven Bay, Mayo between the 28th to 31st July and off the West Clare coast in late August. Humpbacks it seems are very much on the move.
The decline in fin whale sightings is even more pronounced with just 51 confirmed reports to date, compared with 109 for the same period in 2021, a decline of 53%. Although at least with fin whales, we can still hold on to the possibility that something will be salvaged from the season as we tend to get more sightings of the “Greyhound of the Sea” along the Celtic Sea area during autumn and early winter and at time of writing there now seems to be good numbers of them returning to West Cork.
In fact the timing of IWDG’s second residential weekend Whale Watching course based at CECAS in Leap, Co. Cork this weekend hit the jackpot when our pelagic trip on Sat. 24th on the MV Charrig Mhor encountered between 15-20 fin whales in an area C.14 miles south of Baltimore. For most course participants, this was there first time seeing a fin whale, for some, it was their first of any whale species, and they couldn’t have imagined that by the end of the day, they’d have seen so many of them…..at one point in the busiest sector, we were surrounded by a minimum of eight fin whales, with many others blowing in the middle and far distance. A magical moment and a special thanks to Karen & Brendan Cottrell of Cape Clear Ferries for facilitating us again.
But what of the Odontocetes or toothed whales? There will always be anomalies such as the Dursey Sound Sperm whale in June, that one could reasonably have assumed would become a stranding event, yet didn’t. But the species that attracts more column inches than any other is of course the killer whale (Orca) and 2022 has been a busy year for what is likely to be the remaining pair of bulls from the Scottish West Coast Community Group. John Coe and Aquarius have been photographed on at least three occasions in Counties Kerry (April, July & August), once in Co. Cork (August) and Rathlin in Co. Antrim on Sept 8th. Are we seeing more of this duo in Irish waters?
There have been many sightings of our three main delphinid species, but one that stands out above all others is from Carlingford Lough and before you conclude that I’m referring to “Finn” , the lough’s resident bottlenose dolphin…I’m not. Sighting reports, supported by images from Michael Boyle from Sept. 10th & 25th suggest the lough may now be home, however temporary, to a second dolphin species, as on these dates a young and very active common dolphin has been photographed here. There can’t be too many locations around the globe that can claim two “resident” dolphins, of two different species! However, it’s very unlikely that this pelagic dolphin will take up actual “residence” as such in the Lough as they are not a coastal species and typically prefer deeper waters. So as always we’d ask people from either Louth or Down in the Carlingford area to report any sightings of either bottlenose or common dolphins from the area.
As we move now into Autumn, the shorter days and less reliable weather make whale watching just that little bit more challenging. But great challenges come with great rewards!
By Pádraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Officer