The Amazing Work of the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group

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Fungi might be our most famous dolphin, but Irish seas are teaming with more of his kind. And it’s not just dolphins – whales, too, are regular visitors to Ireland. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group work hard to make sure it stays that way. 

By Elaine Kavanagh.

Irish folklore’s many references to the míol mór (the whale) suggest that these animals have inhabited our seas for thousands of years. Even Saint Brendan, the fearless sixth century traveller, encountered one. The story goes that he landed on an island and lit a fire but when ‘the island’ started to move, Brendan realised it was actually a sleeping whale.

From our sheltered bays to the continental shelf, Irish waters provide a multitude of habitats for cetaceans – that’s the proper term for whales, dolphins and porpoises. According to the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group (IWDG), twenty-six species have been recorded in our seas, including bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, humpbacks and even the mighty blue whale itself.

A Safe Haven For Whales & Dolphins in Ireland

Crucial to the conservation of these animals is Ireland’s status as a whale and dolphin sanctuary, for which we owe thanks to the IWDG. Dr. Simon Berrow is Chief Science Officer, Acting CEO and a founding member of the group. He points out that thanks to conservation efforts and their protected status, whales have been spotted in Clare and Donegal in recent years, as well as their usual haunts in the Southwest.

When Old Moore’s talked to Simon, he was just back from a whale-watching trip off the Kerry coast. To the team’s amazement, two of the four humpbacks they observed were Numbers One and Two – the very first whales catalogued by the group in 1999. Simon was astonished and thrilled to see them still together after all these years. As Eoin O’Mahony, who recorded the first footage all those years ago, said:

“To think that they could have stayed together for 20 years in treacherous waters with busy shipping lanes, sonar blasting, ghost drifting fishing nets and plastic pollution is nothing short of remarkable. It must be the peaceful southern coast and an abundance of food that attracts them year after year.”

Leading By Example

That peaceful southern coast can be attributed to the group’s very first proposal. In 1991, in response to pressure from the IWDG, the Irish government declared all waters within the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (see map below) to be a whale and dolphin sanctuary. Simon gives credit to Charles Haughey, saying it probably wouldn’t have happened had he not been Taoiseach at the time. Haughey had a huge interest in the sea and was known to phone the IWDG with sightings he made himself.

The Real Map of Ireland was developed by the Marine Institute and Geological Survey Ireland. Source: INFOMAR, Government of Ireland

Simon explains that at first, the declaration that Ireland was a sanctuary for whales and dolphins was criticised as an empty gesture, but it set a very important precedent. As time went on, it came to be seen more positively and was even used as leverage by groups around the world lobbying for similar measures. The European Union eventually introduced laws to safeguard cetaceans from hunting or capture.

Research & Conservation

With legal protection well-established, the IWDG can get on with the main focus of its work – furthering conservation efforts and raising public awareness. Ultimately, they want to promote better understanding of cetaceans and their habitats.

Research is crucial to the group’s conservation efforts because it enables them to point to facts when they are seeking funding, support or policy change. IWDG have almost thirty years of data, enabling them to pick out and investigate unusual trends. They also collaborate with universities, governments and research groups.

From May 2015 to November 2016, the group were involved with the ObSERVE Acoustic Project. This government-funded collaborative research project added to our knowledge of whales and dolphins in Ireland by recording the sounds they make underwater. A total of 3.8 million echo location clicks and 375,000 whistles were recorded. The researchers discovered that sperm whales, fin whales, minke whales, elusive beake whales, and endangered blue whales all swim regularly in Irish seas.

Up close with dolphins at Arranmore Bay

According to Simon, research like this tells a powerful story because it’s rooted in empirical evidence. But it’s not all carried out by marine experts – the IWDG are all about getting people involved. Their sightings and strandings database, a cornerstone of their research, has been built up over the past thirty years because people all over Ireland have reported their experiences and told their stories.

Building Stories

These stories are vital in helping the IWDG to raise public awareness. Simon points out that most Irish people love a good yarn, and the group’s three hundred members are no different. Their sightings expand knowledge and build stories. Take Boomerang, for instance, the humpback whale who keeps coming back.

Humpbacks regularly return to the southwest coast, but Boomerang has broken all Irish records. Since 2001, he has been photographed here on forty-nine occasions over fourteen separate years. Unlike the rest of us,  he seems to like the Irish summer – he usually arrives in July or August and stays for a month or two.

The IWDG has built Boomerang’s story from individual pieces of evidence. We now have fascinating nuggets of information about him, plus some intriguing questions. Why, for instance, has he been seen in Cork and Waterford, but never Kerry, an important feeding ground for humpbacks? And why does he prefer the  company of fin whales over his own kind?

Other stories from IWDG members encourage people to take ownership in their own locality. Simon points out that while whale watching trips are amazing, our coast provides countless opportunities to observe cetaceans. The group wants to foster the public’s pride, concern and knowledge of their own area. IWDG member Dixie Collins is a great ambassador for such an ideal; check out his remarkable story.

Whale watching at Pullen Harbour by Padraig Whooley

Stranded Animals

Recording and rescuing stranded animals is an another branch of the IWDG’s work. They have a network of one hundred volunteers who investigate reports from the public. While stranded animals usually die, they can occasionally be refloated. Proper assessment of the situation is vital because if an animal is sick, refloating will just do further harm. But if it’s healthy, it can live for many more years. That’s where the IWDG’s volunteers come in.

Spirtle, a bottlenose dolphin, is a great case in point. She became stranded in Scotland some years ago and was very badly sunburnt. Thankfully, she was successfully refloated and has since turned up in Ireland. She was spotted on the east coast and in 2019, she was seen again in Fenit, Co Kerry, with her mother and several other dolphins. This was an exciting development as it expanded on previously limited knowledge of bottlenose dolphin movements between Ireland and Scotland.

Less Fishing, More Tourism

Simon points out that preservation of fish stocks is vital to the conservation of cetaceans. Herring and spratt are particularly important. In September 2019, the Celtic Sea Herring Fishery closed because the catch was composed of juvenile fish. This is a worrying trend, but Simon welcomed the fishery’s voluntary closure. He thinks that marine tourism has great potential in Ireland and could possibly provide alternative employment for fishermen in a declining industry.

Simon doesn’t become overly attached to individual animals, although he does confess to being constantly amazed by his work. He says he is amazed that animals are spotted time and again, and amazed that just off our coast, humpback whales can be seen swimming with dolphins while seabirds circle overhead. We’re incredibly lucky to have such marvels on our doorstep.

The Celtic Mist with a fin whale. by Nick Massett

Many thanks to Dr. Simon Berrow and the IWDG. Check out their website where you can keep track of the latest news, find out about whale watching events or even choose a name for a whale or dolphin. For a small fee, become an IWDG member and partial owner of the Celtic Mist (kindly donated by the Haughey family) enabling you to avail of fantastic opportunities to get up close and personal with whales and dolphins.

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