Tuesday 15 January 2013

A Whale of a Season

Humpback whale off the coast of West Cork

Firstly a quick mention to watch out tonight for Winterwatch 8 pm BBC 2.


Back at the start of December, Gordon Buchanan (of Polar Bear Family and Me. BBC 2) went out on the search for Humpback whales off the coast of South West Ireland. Here you will be able to see how he got on.

2012 has been a phenomenal year for whale activity down in West Cork, beginning with the incredible and unseasonal encounter I was fortunate enough to experience back in April, and when I joined a research trip with the IWDG out in the waters off Toe Head. Skippered by Colin Barnes, we spent an amazing day on board the Holly Jo. Colin, along with the IWDG have since been called on by the BBC several times this last year, to guide the film crews to the action, including this latest trip with Gordon Buchanan.

October had also been an eventful time, with film crews capturing some amazing cetacean activity. This, I believe, is scheduled to be shown next Winter in a BBC programme called Seasons.

Stag Rocks

At the beginning of November, we spent a brilliant afternoon with Colin up on Toe Head, looking out over the sea from Fastnet Rock in the far West, down on The Stag Rocks in front of us and round towards Galley Head to our East. We didn't know where to look first! Gannets were diving in their hundreds, the first indicator that there was masses of food.

Colin had observed that the Sprats and Herring were abundant, which also meant that the whales would be close behind. Sure enough it wasn't long before we were spotting the the tell-tale plumes from the blows as the whales surfaced, and the splash as the flukes hit the water.

Humpback whales, Minke and Fin whales were all easily spotted from the headland, as were the local fishing boats, also cashing in on the fish-rich waters.

Later in November, we all saw 'the' photograph in the papers and on TV, and famously on Have I Got News for You, of the whale breaching next to the boat full of whale-watchers looking the wrong way.

It was on the back of this amazing whale activity that the BBC returned with Gordon for this latest trip out on the Holly Jo. By this time, the whales had moved further East towards Cork, chasing the movement of their food and following the pattern they seem to follow each Winter, when they migrate along the South coast of Ireland up towards the South Eastern waters.

An ex-fisherman himself Colin understands the challenges and opportunities that the fishermen need to take to sustain a living. Equally however, on a conservation level, he has grown exceedingly alarmed of the seemingly indiscriminate 'hoovering-up' of the fish stocks in these particular waters, and which were seen to be plentiful in the eyes of the fishermen. Unfortunately, by taking out the newly re-established Sprats from the bottom of the food chain, it can have a knock-on effect. Both Sprat and Herring stocks were just starting to recover in the area. In turn, this may have drawn the whales back to the West Cork waters following a lean few years for the whale watching industry.

Both fishing and whale watching are legitimate industries in a shared resource, and as such, should work sympathetically alongside each other. If, in the future, we are to continue to enjoy the amazing spectacle of the whales in our local waters, (instead of travelling to America or Iceland) then there must be a much closer co-operation between all of the marine community. We must strive to protect our precious coastlines.

I will follow this with interest.

Humpback whale by the Stag Rocks

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