Basking sharks, minke whales, Risso's dolphins and puffins
Friday the 13th is usually an inauspicious day for mariners but Friday April 13th, 2012 was probably the best day so far this year for marine wildlife sightings for Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours.
Our first sighting was a close encounter with four basking sharks in Dingle Bay where Nick Masset and Simon Berrow of IWDG were engaged in the tagging programme to try and trace the movements of the basking sharks frequenting the Blasket islands and Dingle Bay. These basking sharks should be with us for the next few weeks as they appear to be feeding on plankton blooms that flourish when the sea water temperature is around the 10-12 degree range. As the second biggest fish in the world after the whale shark they are an important part of the megafauna of the west coast of Ireland.
Nearby we had a sighting of a minke whale and calf and although this species is not the most spectacular of the cetaceans seen around the Blaskets, it is the most frequent and on about 50% of our marine tours we would spot at least one minke whale. They also breach occasionally as evidenced by a rather grainy video we got in 2010 of one breaching a couple of times beside Blasket Princess en route to Great Blasket Island from Dun Chaoin.
Basking shark also breach and today we had one breach a couple of hundred yards off the bow of the boat and seen by some of the people on the flying bridge. It is always unexpected when it happens as when they breach they are rarely visible on the surface as they are at other times when they are feeding with dorsal fin, tail and snout visible.
From this area of high activity we were accompanied by small schools of dolphins all the way to the Great Blasket. We moored off the Tra Ban [White Strand] for a half an hour to watch the approx. 100 grey seals hauled up on the beach, almost at the end of their moulting period and they will spend the rest of the summer around the Blaskets. The rest of the 900 or so that spent the winter here migrate up and down the coast and as far away as Scotland where some of the seals tagged on the Blaskets have been sighted.
Then we headed south of the Great Blasket Island towards Inishvickillaun as some of the visitors on board wanted to see puffins, the ever-popular, iconic bird of the west coast. At Ceann Dubh [Black Head] we spotted a very distinctive fin in the water and the distinct grey and scarred body of a Risso's dolphin. This is quite a rare dolphin in Irish waters, with less sightings per annum than fin whales, but we are lucky that a small family group appears to return to the Blaskets each summer and feed at the edge of the tide and in the small tidal eddies which are frequent around the Blaskets. They make an interesting addition to the mix of common dolphins and less frequent bottlenose dolphins [apart from Fungi the Dingle dolphin] we have in this area with their grey to whitish colouration and scarred appearance. Their pigmentation gets lighter as the animals get older and almost white ones are quite spectacular to watch as they swim underwater. The scratches on the Risso's are quite distinct, making it possible to identify individual animals and the dolphin on the left in the photo above ( taken in 2007 off Inisvickalaun and catalogued in the IWDG website as RDIRL30) made a reappearance very close to our initial encounter with it yesterday. It was also identified quite nearby in 2010 leading to the assumption that there are in fact very few Risso's dolphins in Irish waters and we are very lucky that we live and work in an area they frequent.
Having spent a few minutes watching this family of four Risso's dolphins feeding we headed across the Black Sound, past Cathedral Rocks to Inish na Bro to view the small rafts of puffins bobbing about on the water. They are comical to watch as they sometimes "stand" on the water shaking out their wings and showing off their small white and black waistcoats
On the way back home to Ventry Harbour there were plenty of Manx shearwaters in the Black Sound and further out in Dingle Bay, and from the wheelhouse I spotted an unidentified skua in the distance and something to watch out for in our next trip out and identify and record.
Altogether not a bad day out for Friday the 13th !