the anticipation; watching the water intently, hoping for a glimpse of a whale – all part of the excitement of whale watching.
When someone sees a fin, everyone on board wants to see it. Whales are the largest creatures on Earth, and knowing there is one so close, just below the surface, is an indescribable experience.
To actually see a whale through the water must be a whole other level of awe. I am almost moved to tears by the sight of only a small part of a pilot whale’s back.
Luckily for us, Ireland’s waters are well populated by many species of whales, making Ireland one of the best places in Europe for whale watching. Besides the occasional glimpse of a whale’s dorsal fin, it’s not uncommon for dolphins to whirl near the boat, spinning in a circle and chasing each other at impressive speed. Whether they are playing, fishing or chasing a female, we can only speculate.
We have not always valued and respected whales in this way. In the past, whales formed the basis for a profitable industry here. Between 1908 and 1922, several Irish whaling companies caught blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, sei whales, whales and sperm whales off the Atlantic coast of Ireland.
A single large whale can yield as much as 20 tons of oil. Much of this was used as lamp oil, before the days of petroleum or electricity. Across the Atlantic, so many whales were captured that most populations collapsed completely.
Blue whales and right whales are two species that have been hunted to the brink of extinction. As a result, whaling became unviable and some stocks began to recover somewhat over the course of a hundred years. Others have not recovered, such as the northern right whale, which is still extinct in Irish waters 90 years after whaling ended here.
Internationally, it wasn’t until 1986 that commercial whaling was banned as scientists, campaigners and the International Whaling Commission negotiated this historic conservation victory. Today, Japan, Iceland and Norway nevertheless continue commercial whaling.
Ironically, the revenues from whale watching in Iceland far outweigh the revenues from commercial whaling there. This contradiction has caused tension in Iceland this summer, as many in the Icelandic tourism industry believe that commercial whaling is damaging Iceland’s image as a tourist destination.
In Ireland, whales and their close cousins, dolphins and porpoises (all marine mammals) are protected by both national and international laws. The EU Habitats Directive imposes strict protection of whale feeding and breeding grounds.
Whales are highly prized here, no longer for their meat or oil, but for being the most majestic creatures in the sea. Several academic teams and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group are doing a lot for the conservation of whales and dolphins in Irish waters, helping us better understand the movements of whales in Irish waters so we can better protect these animals.
One of the most interesting things about whales and other marine mammals is that they communicate through sound. Whales are not only the largest animals on Earth, but also the noisiest. Because they have to communicate with each other over great distances, whales emit deep, loud low-frequency calls.
Orcas return to Bray Head, Valentia Island, County Kerry!
Thanks to Nicky Sheehan of Skellig Michael Cruises and Dr.Connie Kelleher for reporting their sightings to us. These observations provide insight into how orcas forage, both in Ireland’s coastal waters and elsewhere. pic.twitter.com/9AdtWrS72P
— Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (@IWDGnews) July 21, 2022
The calls are often elaborate and distinctive depending on the species, just like birdsong, just at a very different frequency. For humpback whales, all the males in a given area sing the same song: an extensive set pattern of calls lasting between 10 and 20 minutes, sometimes repeatedly for up to 24 hours.
In addition to using sounds to communicate and find a mate, whales also use sound to hunt and navigate for food. Because seawater is so much denser than air, sound carries farther and faster underwater.
Visibility is often poor underwater, especially at depth, so sound is also how these animals visualize their environment. The deeper the frequency, the further the sound will travel. Some whale songs can travel hundreds or even thousands of miles across the ocean.
Because whales live in such a sonic world, they are also susceptible to marine noise pollution. When we drill for oil and gas in the ocean, the sounds can be so loud that whales flee in fear, which in turn affects their diets and other behavior.
Many scientists say the seismic drilling for fossil fuels at sea is pushing the whales to their limits as the whales dive deeper, are more stressed and can suffer from oxygen deficiency in their blood as a result. There is increasing evidence that whale strandings are a direct result of noise pollution in the sea.
Military sonars also make huge noises, which both put a lot of strain on the animals and can prevent whales from finding a mate. When populations are still recovering from near-extinction from hunting, successful reproduction is especially necessary if populations are ever to fully recover.
Fin whale, the second largest animal that ever lived on Earth, in all its glory in #WestCork waters yesterday. Dolphins are 2 meters long here, so give an idea of the enormous size of the whale, more than 70 meters long. Great animals! Taken on a trip with @rjacktrag #Cork #Ireland #DJI pic.twitter.com/dBgTBkLafz
— Intothewild Ireland (@intothewild45) August 7, 2022
Even the everyday noise of shipping traffic can be deafening to marine mammals, hindering them in essential daily activities. International freight transport has increased dramatically in recent decades and has a huge impact on ocean life.
More than 25 different species of whales and dolphins live in Irish waters. Humpback whales can sometimes be seen off the Cork and Kerry coasts in August and September, passing surprisingly close to shore as they make their epic migration from the summer feeding grounds in the polar regions to warmer waters near the equator to breed and give birth.
Huge fin whales arrive in Irish waters at the end of summer. Orcas (aka killer whales) are also sometimes seen, including a memorable trip when three of them came up the River Lee from Cork Harbor in 2001.
Whales are truly wonderful animals and Irish waters are one of the most important places in Europe for them. There is also much we need to discover about them, including their role in transporting carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean.
After nearly losing whales to extinction, hopefully the effects of noise pollution in the ocean will be addressed before it’s too late.