Celtic Mist News November 2014

By Deirdre Slevin, Celtic Mist Officer
Celtic Mist has had a very productive Summer season.  In July Celtic Mist completed two week long research trips of passive acoustic monitoring surveys along the north and north west coast, recording whales and dolphins.  Dr. Joanne O’Brien and Dr. Simon Berrow were onboard Celtic Mist as cruise leaders. Celtic Mist departed Greencastle in County Donegal with the research team onboard on the 13th July.  They surveyed inshore waters around the Donegal coast from Greencastle to Killybegs throughout week one.
‘IWDG were targeting bottlenose dolphins with this survey as the waters off the northwest are very important habitats for this highly mobile coastal population. Recent genetic work has established that there are three discrete populations of bottlenose dolphins in Ireland; the Shannon estuary, an offshore population and a coastal population. IWDG have shown that the coastal population uses all Irish coastal waters from the west east, south and north coasts, including Northern Ireland. It is likely that this highly mobile population is actually quite small with maybe just a few hundred individuals. It is essential to understand this population, its habitat use, movements and population dynamics. This is the focus of the IWDG bottlenose dolphin survey off the northwest. Donegal Bay has long been recognised as a site regularly used by this population and recently dolphins have been frequently reported from Lough Swilly. The waters from Erris Head, co Mayo to Slyne Head, Co Galway have recently been proposed as a Special Area of Conservation for this species, only the second one in Ireland, after the Shannon Estuary.’ – Dr. Simon Berrow, IWDG CEO.Throughout the week the team encountered heavy seas and large swells but still succeeded in locating bottlenose dolphins, all of whom were photographed and biopsy samples taken.  Cruise leader Dr. Joanne O’Brien trained IWDG members onboard in acoustic survey techniques and how to analyse photo-id images. The week 2 research team departed Killybegs with Dr. Simon Berrow as their cruise leader, they had a very successful week with Rissos dolphins off Ballyglass in broadhaven bay and took the opportunity to visit the remains of the old whaling station off Iniskea.  Clare Island coastline provided them with the opportunity to quickly slip their mooring to photo ID and biopsy a group of bottlenose dolphins, their target species.  The following day the team located a larger group of around 40 dolphins off Roonagh Quay including young calves which proved an excellent opportunity for photo id images.  Common dolphins, harbour porpoise and a minke whale were also sighted throughout the week before the crew disembarked their vessel Celtic Mist in Galway docks.

Galway members availed of the opportunity to take a day trip out in Galway bay during its stay in the docks before Celtic Mist departed Galway harbour en route to Fenit County Kerry visiting Inis Mór en route. Once Celtic Mist arrived in County Kerry, the fantastic team of IWDG members in Fenit took the opportunity to give her a paint touch up and ensured she was sanded, varnished and sparkling for her annual visit to the Dingle Regatta.  The regatta was a huge success as always and brought many members old and new to visit the vessel and learn about the work of IWDG.

With no time to waste, as soon as the regatta festivities had ended on Sunday,  Celtic Mist was provisioned and prepared for the arrival of the BBC crew, joining us onboard Monday hoping to film humpback whales in Irish waters.

Following months of planning, we managed to get as many ducks lined up as possible to make this happen, our Slea head ‘man on the cliff’ Nick Massett had been monitoring whales in the area for some time, Padraig Whooley sightings coordinator was onboard with his rubber model of a humpback whale, hoping it was not the only humpback we would see that week!  The weather had settled and given us the 3 day window we hoped for, Celtic Mist was in port with our skipper Finbarr ready to go,  so the BBC flights were booked.
Lots of time and effort had been invested into this project by many people so all we could do was hope the whales and weather obliged.  The first day all crew were optimistic and hopeful on departure, as we captured excellent under and above water footage of fungi shortly after departing Dingle but as the sea conditions deteriorated, high hopes started to fade and the crew turned weary.

We spent the first night on Celtic Mists old mooring on Inishvickillane, it was a pretty sight to see Celtic Mist back in her previous home, owned by the Haughey family, at sunset.   Over dinner we discussed best course of action for day 2 which had been forecasted as the best weather day and the pressure was on to find the humpbacks.  All crew on board where nervous  to call which direction we should take the following morning, so the decision following several discussions with Nick Massett and Stephen Comerford, our men on the cliffs, was left up to Padraig IWDG sightings coordinator to make the call, based on his knowledge and experience of the Humpback whales in Irish waters and the paths they were most likely to take…..thankfully he made the right call!  Many thanks to the Haughey family for allowing us to use their mooring overnight.  We enjoyed exchanging stories about Celtic Mist both now with her new owners and back in her days with the Haugheys, while listening to Port na bPucai the legend of the fairies and the song of the whales.  The Milky way shone brightly, so beautiful we were reluctant to retire to our bunks, but we wished upon the shooting stars before preparing for our departure at sunrise in search of Humpback whales!

At dawn the following morning the crew set sail directly south, we sailed towards the Skellig Islands, where we saw our first blow but it was too far in the distance to identify the species or keep track of.  However, not long after passing the Skellig Islands admiring the gannet colonies en route, our education officer Lucy Hunt shouted ‘blow’ followed by ‘humpback’!! There seemed to be at least two humpbacks in the area but one of them obliged us by breaching several times in a row. I was up the mast with one BBC go pro camera, Lucy was on deck with the underwater go-pro on a pole, the filming crew were in awe at what they were recording, our Skipper Finbarr looked a very proud man to be standing at the helm of Celtic Mist watching this magical moment and Pádraig looked relieved he made the right call that day!

The project could not have gone any better and we hope this coverage, which will be on The One Show in January will do us proud and promote the work of IWDG and cetaceans in Irish waters.

Celtic Mist set sail once again early September on its annual MMO/PAM offshore trip.  The crew who went in search of offshore species, blue whales, sperm whales and beaked whales had a challenging week with the weather conditions but still managed to find fin whales, common dolphins, minke whales and pilot whales.

Celtic Mist manager Deirdre Slevin, RTE’s Philip Bromwell and IWDG member and photographer Brendan Quinn took the opportunity to fly with the Irish Air Corps on one of their patrols to photograph and film both Celtic Mist offshore and also large whales that were in the area.  IWDG have a long standing relationship with the Irish Air Corps, who regularily record and photograph cetaceans offshore and report all their sightings to IWDG.   We flew out to 250 miles offshore and photographed a number of fin whales near the tuna fleet before going in search of Celtic Mist which we located about 30 miles NW of the blaskets.  Celtic Mist was on their way back to Dingle after several days in deep waters and were enjoying the sight of lunge feeding fin whales when we flew over them.  Many thanks to Captain Brendan O’Dowd and crew of the CASA who made this fantastic day possible for us. The RTE piece can be viewed here.

Celtic Mist returned to Kilrush, County Clare late September where Dr. Simon Berrow carried out annual student training on the applied marine biological sampling course run for SMART in connection with GMIT.Many thanks to all our voluntary skippers, crew, sponsors and supporters without whom none of this would be possible.If  you would like to become more involved with Celtic Mist please email celticmist@iwdg.ie

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