An Enriching Encounter with a ‘Blow In’ to West Cork
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An Enriching Encounter with a ‘Blow In’ to West Cork

I recently spent a day watching magnificent Finn Whales off the coast of West Cork with Colin Barnes, ‘Cork Whale Watch’. What a privilege it was to be in the company of these giants, being the second largest animal on the planet next to the Blue Whale.

As we floated with engines turned off in little or no breeze with the warmth of the sun on our backs there was complete silence, not one of the clients on board uttering a word, such was the anticipation as not one but three huge aquatic submariners swam in unison towards us, in full view, just below the surface.

Their plumes of water vapour billowing four meters into the crystal clear air, as the roar of their blowing breath broke the silence. Remarkably, it seemed that everyone on board had been holding their own breath. As if in a gesture of humble recognition, the audience gasped in unison with their own intake of breath as the three sculpted black giants passed us by.

As the whales traversed across our view their white flanks were clearly visible below the water line and their sheer length and girth was even more impressive. Common dolphins were everywhere, manoeuvring alongside the goliathans, leaping from the surface of the water, dashing and spinning in a magical display of orderly chaos. The dolphins seemed to exude pleasure at working as whale labourers, rounding up the small bait fish into ever tighter balls of panicking silver.

This endeavour by the dolphins looks like a one way partnership, as their handy work is smashed and swallowed by their colossal brethren. But something is working here between these two species, that’s for sure.

For more than an hour we had encounters with six or seven animals with several sightings of Minke whales who appeared to stay on the perimeter of the activity. One other truly impressive sight was a pair of the Finn Whales lunge feeding at the surface, their upper bodies lifting clear of the water. Gallons of sea water spilling back to the ocean as they squeezed their cavernous mouths to capture and swallow their prey. The corrugated ripples of their under jaw clearly visible with white foaming salt water flowing down them. Then in a second the sight is lost as the great weight of the head crashes back below the surface.

This was ‘Blue Planet’ without a TV screen, raw and in the flesh, with the fragrance of whale breath in your nostrils. An experience to be savoured with the joy of knowing you witnessed one of natures true wonders.

Apart from the whales and dolphins the entire vicinity was a throng of sea birds all tuned into getting a part of the feeding. This whale activity creates a unique opportunity to see the widest variety of species, including Manx, Sooty and Great Shearwaters the later being rare and from the southern hemisphere. Also in evidence were Gannets, Kittiwakes, Black Back and Herring Gulls as well as Storm Petrels.

Colin Barnes explained how the feeding pattern of the whales has changed over the years with the local Sprat fishery having been completely wiped out by commercial trawlers. The once prolific shoals of Sprat gone without any quota set by the EU fisheries policy. The bulk sent to make fish meal for fertiliser, which is a criminal waste of local fish resources. Add to that the further loss of the Herring stock, another fodder species previously relied upon by the whales and dolphins and it is a wonder these wonderful mammals are here in West Cork waters at all.

Whilst climate change is having such a negative effect in so many respects across the world, this year the Carbery coast has been gifted shoals of tiny immature Anchovies in huge volume. The shoals moving into the warming northern Atlantic waters off the Stag Sound to Galley Head and beyond to the Old Head of Kinsale. The Anchovy and the effects of global warming have stepped in to replenish the feed stock for and on behalf of these visiting whales. A case of nature making up for human marine destruction.

These intelligent beings have learnt to work with the dolphins who round-up the Anchovy into tight bait balls allowing the Finn Whales to lunge at them, taking their fill. Whilst the Humpback’s encircle the shoals from beneath blowing a net of bubbles, driving them to the surface where they gulp great quantities into their bulging mouths.

If you get the chance to view this spectacle then grab it with both hands, I assure you it will bring the perspective of nature a whole lot closer to your heart. Check out the FB page of Cork Whale Watch.

I use the term ‘perspective of nature’ as I believe this is linked totally to the bedrock of our campaign as to what kind of society do we now choose to live within. ‘Now’ meaning, ‘this is the moment’, it is every ones choice to make and the chance to save our species and every other species or in the long-term we will all be gone. The argument of whether it is already too late is still under question, but in ecological terms the point of no return is but a hairs breath away. Keep these Whales healthy, and we give every other species a chance to survive. Dead ocean, dead planet, dead humanity.

Finn Whales or a Plastics Compounding Factory spewing pollutants – What would you rather view?


Malcolm Thompson