A few weeks ago, after the hoo-ha around the stranded Killer Whale, the IWDG gave me a heads up about a charter boat doing whale watching trips from Dunmore East. So one chill, sunny, breezy Friday afternoon I hopped onto a boat heading out past the Hook lighthouse.
This area is great for spotting whales and dolphins during January and February as they come inshore during the winter after the sprats and the Hook is where they end up before disappearing out to sea again, no-one quite knows where. I often follow the Fin Whales up the coast of Waterford during the winter but only from the shore. I was hoping to get up close.
There were rumours of a Humpback Whale in the area and this was the one I wanted to see. Fin Whales, though they are twice as big, are common and they don’t ‘fluke’ or ‘breach’ or do anything exciting. The Humpback by contrast, star of a million motivational posters, can, when it feels like it, jump around like a frog on a frying pan.
We motored out some miles off the Hook, myself and about seven or eight others, and the skipper began to criss-cross the area. It was a beautiful day and I occupied myself watching the birds, Gannets-always a good sign of whale activity-Razorbills and Gulls.
By the time I heard the shout I had given up on seeing anything and was enjoying the trip but sure enough there was a blow and a quick flash of a black back and fin. I hoped it was a Humpback but when I looked at the photos I got I felt sure it was a Fin Whale. Over the next couple of hours we dodged about looking for another sighting and were rewarded a number of times but it seemed the whale (or rather two whales, I am fairly sure) were intent on evading us.
Having watched groups feeding from land I have noticed they stay in an area and remain visible even when there are boats about so maybe these ones had fed earlier in the day and were just trying to catch an afternoon snoozle (whales sleep by shutting down half their brain).
I did feel a bit conflicted that we were in a boat chasing them. As the whale watching becomes more popular in Ireland we may have to evolve some guidelines for charter tours so we don’t chase them away.
Still it was wonderful to see them up close even if for the most part I was taking photos and couldn’t quite relax into just ‘seeing’ them. I knew that there weren’t any records from the Hook that week and I was still hoping to get the rumoured Humpback on ‘film’.
The photos though couldn’t catch the salty smell and the fresh breeze, the thump and roll of the boat, the jolt of happy surprise at the eruption of a blow, the rainbow of light caught in the spray, the massiveness of the rolling back or the buoyant camaraderie on board as we shared our delight. We searched the seas and pointed when we saw anything, people made room for each other so no-one would miss anything. Often space was vacated for me near the cabin as, with my camera, I had little balance on the rolling sea.
It is something I have noticed, on boats and ferries, even on land, how the appearance of a fin, or a sudden blow will bring people together. Sometimes there is talk, the more knowledgeable are questioned and gladly share what they know but mostly there is delight, social barriers are broken and wide smiles, free for a time of irony, are exchanged.
Only the creatures of the sea seem to evoke this. Maybe it because they live in the mysterious deep blue and seeing them is like a window into another world. They seem free compared to us gravity locked animals of the shore. Only the birds, like the diving Gannets, can sew the two worlds together, their rough, knotted stitches of spray ruching the delicate silk of the sea as they pierce the skin between water and sky.
We put-putted back to Dunmore East past the Hook lighthouse, white stripes pale ochre now, dwarfed by a container ship gleaming gold in the afternoon while behind us a ladder of lavender foam dissolved into the fading day. Cold but happy. For a while anyway.
Boat charter http://www.deepseachartersdunmore.com/ with Brendan Glody