Thursday 5 April 2012

No Whale Spotting Here!

View eastwards from Galley Head to the whale feeding area

I arrived in West Cork part way through this current spell of fine weather and had already enjoyed a couple of stunning coastal visits at the weekend, when on Tuesday lunchtime, I got wind of something that was to engage me with the sea for at least another 24 hours.

Rumours of humpback whales off the east of Galley Head came through and it was something I just had to check out for myself. Gardening was soon to become a very poor alternative as the afternoons entertainment, and after quickly loading my gear into the car, I set off eastwards from home. Having eluded us on two whale watching trips out of Reen Pier in the past, I was excited that I might finally catch sight of one of these splendid creatures.

Making my way down the narrow winding road onto Galley Head, I encountered a few vehicles which were clearly leaving the viewing spots and I feared the show was over. However, a handful of men were still clustered around a gateway, scopes on tripods, scanning the sea for the tell-tale signs of these whales who had not been known to be in theses waters in April before. As I joined them I casually asked what they had spotted.
"Spotting is what birders get up to, we do none of that, we watch"
I felt rather silly, not only for making such an obvious faux pas but also because I had forgotten to pick up my gloves to protect me from the chill north-west wind blowing off-shore. The land had created a visible band of sheltered water, which in the recent spell of good weather, had encouraged a plankton bloom, which had in turn brought in the sprats which had then brought in the feeding whales.


The seasoned whale observers alongside me were seeing things that I had yet to tune my eye to. Diving gannets were indicative of the common food source and I watched carefully in the hope that what might be thought as a gannet splash might actually be a whale blow. Suddenly I saw a dark shape appear and then disappear into the water. I had had my first sighting of one of the three humpback whales feeding off Dirk Bay. Now I knew what I was looking for, the task was to capture a record of them. Before long another opportunity presented itself and three shots later I had some images that frankly, to the untrained eye, could be just about anything!

It so happened that one of the observers was Padraig Whooley, co-ordinator for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group who assured me that this, believe it or not, is indeed a fluke. Whilst I'm pleased I have proof of the presence of the whales, it's certainly not a noteworthy image apart from using it to reiterate my comment from last week that this is the reality of wildlife photography. There are days when we capture nothing of any worth and Tuesday was one of them - not even a bonus picture on the way home.

So, you can imagine when I overheard Padraig arranging a trip out for the next day on the Holly Jo, with expert whale-finder, and friend, Colin Barnes, I was the first to stand in line to make up the numbers. This was my chance to attempt to bag one of those stunning wildlife shots that would make up for this lean day, and the fact that I'm a very poor sailor didn't even enter my head, well, not until I was back home anyway.

Morning arrived and I had prepared my kit - important things first. Stugeron! Next, checking and making disposable waterproof covers from sandwich bags, then finally my clothes and lunch pack (in cling film as I had used the sandwich bags for more important items!). Poking my head out of my back door confirmed that the north-westerly had certainly become brisk and with it a wind-chill and a roughed up sea. I decided it would be wise to call Colin two hours before travel to know whether to take my 'sailors little assistant', when he beat me to it. Sadly, the trip had been cancelled as it had become too windy. Even the observers up on the head were having difficulty keeping their tripods steady. Naturally I was disappointed as this would also have been an interesting research trip by the IWDG, but I couldn't help feeling a tad relieved that I wouldn't be facing a bobbing boat ride, and the message had arrived in good enough time, thus saving the little tablets for another occasion.

Feeling a little deflated, I began to wonder if they might still be seen from the land. So not one to waste a packed lunch, I jumped in the car and began a journey in and around the little bays and headlands between home and Galley Head, in the hope the whales might just be spotted elsewhere. I arrived to a bleakly empty gateway that had been busy only 24 hours earlier. Although the sky was blue and the sea turquoise it was intensely bitter in the strong NW wind, and which had roughed up the sea even more than the previous day. (They do say photos never lie. Well believe me, the one heading this post is doing just that!) I scanned the sea but with no success, which, conspicuous by their absence, had also been the lot of the morning observers.

Quickly jumping back into the protection of the car, the wind became less bothersome and the sun turned into a welcome heat source behind the glass as I drove back along the coast. Finally, I parked up overlooking Rosscarbery Bay where I consumed my packed lunch, and I enjoyed watching the gannets plunging into the sea - but alas, there were no whales.

This is wildlife photography after all. However, I am here for a week yet, so here's hoping for another phonecall for a chance to go whale watching.

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