Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot and it’s Whales

The waters between Loop Head, Co. Clare and Kenmare Bay, Co. Kerry, are highly biodiverse. Identified as an area of interest for Marine Protected Area (MPA) designation by Fair Seas in the recent report ‘Revitalising our Seas’, it is no surprise but still a great honour that the global organisation Mission Blue led by Dr Sylvia Earle have announced that this will be Ireland’s first ‘Hope Spot’.

The name of the new hope spot gives the nod to the iconic Skellig Islands, which is included in the Hope Spot. Although waters included in the Greater Skellig Coast represent only 1.37% of Ireland’s Maritime Area, they are home to some of Ireland’s most important seabird colonies, vital breeding grounds for several species of threatened shark, ray, and skate and important seabed features of conservation importance, such as Maerl and Zostera beds.

The new hope spot is also an important area for cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoise). Analysis of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group sightings database revealed at least 14 different species of cetacean had been recorded within the proposed Greater Skellig Coast hope spot, and detailed analysis of over 100 datasets from 2005-2021 revealed that this site hosts the highest densities of minke whales within the Irish EEZ.

Feeding Minke Whale. Photo Credit Simon Berrow/ IWDG

Minke Whales are Ireland’s smallest baleen species; at 10m in length, they are dwarfed by the mammoth size of fin and blue whales. Often elusive and weary of boats, these fast, powerful swimmers tend to be overlooked due to their less charismatic nature compared to other species like the acrobatic humpback whale. But minke whales can be seen along the Greater Skellig Coast all year-round. The humpback is a migrating visitor our shores and can be sighted from April to November with peak sightings generally occurring in August. Through photo identification, the IWDG confirmed that humpback whales visiting Irish waters breed in the warm waters around the Cabo Verde archipelago off the west coast of Africa.

Breeding whales don’t eat while mating; instead, they rely on blubber (fat) reserves. The waters surrounding the Great Skellig Coast are highly productive, providing the whales with nutrient-rich food, i.e., herring, sprat, and krill, that allows them to build up these fat reserves for their migrating journeys and breeding. Protecting vital feeding grounds is therefore essential to the conservation of this iconic species.

Feeding Humpback whale. Photo Credit Nick Massett

The Great Skellig Coast is also hugely important for several dolphin species, like the robust, powerful, yet agile bottlenose dolphin.

Bottlenose Dolphins. Photo Credit Sibéal Regan

Bottlenose dolphins are a fascinating species with behaviours and even physical characteristics like body size differing between populations. We know there are three distinct populations of bottlenose dolphins in Irish waters through population genetics. The Shannon bottlenose dolphins are particularly dear to my heart as they are the first species, I officially surveyed as an IWDG community scientist using photo identification and acoustics in 2013, under the guidance and mentorship of Dr Joanne O’Brien. The Shannon dolphins are a qualifying interest of the already designated Lower River Shannon SAC, but their home range extends out of the Lower River Shannon and into the adjacent waters around the Loop Head Peninsula Co. Clare and Brandon and Tralee Bays in Co. Kerry. There is no sign of industrialisation around our inshore waters or in the Shannon Estuary slowing down, However, with the announcement of the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot, there is an opportunity for local communities and international audiences to recognise, embrace and conserve this area and its inhabitants preserving its awe-inspiring beauty and significant biological and economic importance.

Written by,

Sibéal Regan

IWDG Education & Outreach Officer