YOU don’t have to go to the Gulf of Mexico, or hire a private boat, to see some of the earth’s largest sea creatures because West Cork has become a world-class destination for whale watching.
Since the early part of the new millennium enthusiasts from Ireland and around the world have been travelling to the remote southwest tip of Ireland to indulge in the growing activity of boat-based whale and dolphin watching.
For a decade or more, there was a small but dedicated number of tour operators – such as Baltimore’s Nic Slocum of Whale Watch West Cork and Jerry and Rianne Smith of Aquaventures, or indeed Union Hall’s Colin Barnes – but that has increased exponentially with operators springing up all along the West Cork coast from Kinsale to Baltimore.
Last summer’s heatwave saw people taking to the boats and posting hundreds of photographs and videos of whale and dolphin activity off our shores and, as a result, business has boomed.
Blanket advertising of the Wild Atlantic Way has certainly increased the number of tourists coming to West Cork, and when they arrive they don’t have far to look for interesting things to do.
West Cork has a long season for whale watching: from April through to November with different species putting in an appearance at different times.
Minke whales and common dolphins are the first to arrive along our shores. Traditionally, humpback and fin whales show up during the later summer or autumn months as they move inshore to feed on the growing shoals of sprat.
However, over the last five years, humpback sightings have been more frequent during the summer months, and this year the first reported sightings came as early as April.
The sight of a basking shark, minke and fin whale, or even a sunfish, is a rare and wonderful thing, but as Nic Slocum said, the sight of a humpback ‘these charismatic leviathans – which measure 45 foot and weigh 35 tonne – breaching almost clear out of the water would set even the most stoical hearts a-flutter.’
Just recently, the sighting by David Edwards of three killer whales hunting off the coast of Courtmacsherry made for rare and exciting footage. The appearance of Risso’s dolphins, all white and ethereal looking, also off Courtmacsherry peaked people’s interest too.
According to Rianne Smith of Aquaventures, ‘the ideal conditions would be a flat calm sea with force two to three winds because any rougher and it is difficult to differentiate waves from fins, not to mention the comfort of the passengers on board.’
Prices charged for excursions vary from one operator to the next, but for anything from €35 to €50 for three to four hours this is one of the cheapest ways to get on the water and enjoy an experience of a lifetime.
Slap on some sunscreen – but bring a jacket just in case – and a bottle of water and you are all set for an experience that will stay with you long after your holiday is over.
It may take some time for the skipper to travel 10, 15, maybe even 20 miles out to where these whales are for feeding, but the journey is worth it to see dolphins racing alongside the boat, or whales breaching in water that is so sun-kissed it looks like silver.
These marine displays are so fantastic it looks as if they are performing for our pleasure. But be warned: not every trip is 100% successful. There is no such thing as sightings on demand. Here, you are dealing with nature and some trips result in zero wildlife sightings despite the best efforts of the operators.
It is evident that the operators are every bit as keen as the customer to make the trip a memorable occasion. They all go to great lengths to ensure a successful outcome. As part of that, they communicate with commercial fishermen and other leisure users to gain additional reporting and share sightings.
This co-operation is good for business. Tourists – domestic or otherwise – will not just purchase a ticket for the trip, they may stay overnight and that helps with the turnover in local pubs, coffee shops and restaurants. The demand has also led boat owners in the traditional angling and diving charter sector to diversify.
Each trip has its own rewards: sometimes it is as simple as watching gannets dive, or seagulls as they swoop and glide above the slipstream. There’s fun to be had too in looking at seals basking on the rocks or playing ‘whack a mole’ to keep the passengers guessing.
Invariably, it is the sheer exuberance of dolphin activity that thrills people the most – the way the skip and slide and ‘bow-ride’ alongside the vessel.
You can tell they are having fun. As are you.