LAST week six fin and 10 minke whales were sighted off the Seven Heads on the West Cork coastline.
The week before, three humpback whales were reported to have been seen off Baltimore, as well as 30 minkes.
Humpbacks are regarded as the “most charismatic of the great whales” and seem to be showing up earlier each year on the west Cork coastline.
The image of a humpback whale’s tail fluke lifted clear of the water became the symbol of the environmental movement to protect them, coupled with the recording from the 1970’s — “The Song of the Humpback Whale” — which revealed to the public their acoustic world.
I was astonished at the huge interest this generated when played on my radio programme, This Island Nation, during a discussion with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, which records and studies whales in our waters.
It has found that, in the past few years, humpbacks have come here in earlier months than previously.
In 2014 the earliest sighting was on May 17 off Galley Head. Last year it was April 5 off Crow Head on the Beara Peninsula, where the earliest sighting this year was made on March 25.
The IWDG has tracked whale movements since it was formed 28 years ago.
It persuaded then Taoiseach Charles Haughey to have the government declare Irish territorial waters a whale and dolphin sanctuary.
The lure of West Cork waters for whales appears to be related to the marine food source available. The popularity of whale-watching has increased. Seeing humpbacks is a great experience. They can be up to16 metres long, up to 50 feet and the sight of ‘fluking’ when they flourish and flap their tails above the surface as they dive is incredible.
While humpbacks return to the Irish coast year-after-year in increasing numbers, the IWDG would like to know where they go when not here. Connecting Irish and Icelandic waters in research, they sent their vessel Celtic Mist — Charlie Haughey’s former yacht donated to the group by his family — to Iceland a few weeks ago.
The country has resumed commercial hunting, with a quota of 191 fin whales to be killed this year. The only export market for fin meat is Japan. But Iceland also catches minkes. the meat of which can only be sold within the country and the market for this is – tourists!
The IWDG’s Chief Scientific officer, Dr Simon Berrow, told me this week when Celtic Mist arrived back in Irish waters: “Most Icelanders are indifferent to whaling. While they ate whale meat when they were young, they didn’t like it. Very few still eat whale meat and many think damages the overseas image of Iceland. Tourists are the biggest market. They go on whale-watching trips which are very popular and the whale watch guides know that many of their clients on these trips intended to eat whale in the restaurants!”
The irony of the human species, supporting campaigns to stop hunting whales, but eating whale meat to “get a taste of Iceland!” It seems, though, that Icelandic whale hunters are experiencing more difficulty in finding whales as they are moving farther offshore.
To meet the demands of tourists, Iceland’s hospitality sector may import whale meat from Norway which also hunts whales.
Maybe the whales are thus finding West Cork waters, where they are protected, more to their liking.
The IWDG has documented 87 individual humpback whales in Irish waters, recognised by unique markings on their tail flukes. Over half have been recorded in more than one year.
Some have been re-sighted, so returning to Irish waters in 12 of the past 17 years!
TOMORROW: Echo Sport Sailing email: tommacsweeneymarine@gmail