Offshore MMO/PAM Research Trip September 2012

By Lucy Hunt, a freelance Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) and environmental consultant with LH Marine.

Sunday 2nd September 2012            

On 2nd of September an eclectic group of marine enthusiasts met at Dingle marina, Co. Kerry, SW Ireland; Patrick Lyne (IWDG MMO co-ordinator and organiser of the Celtic Mist research trip), Niall Mac Allister (Skipper – West Cork Sailing), Deirdre Slevin (IWDG director, Celtic Mist Secretary and avid whale watcher), Stephen Comerford (MMO and marine scientist), Chris Peppiatt (ecologist and environmental consultant), Matti Fritsch (project researcher from the University of Eastern Finland), Christiano Roma (MMO and oceanographer from Brazil) and myself, we had one thing in common; we were all Irish Whale and Dolphin Group volunteers, together we had one purpose; we were going to look and listen for marine mammals off the southwest coast and continental shelf on the newly re-fitted research vessel the Celtic Mist!

IWDG Research Team © Nick Massett

Excitement anticipation and nerves were brewing when we all met at the original Irish home port of the Celtic Mist. Last minute jobs and provisions were completed before a safety briefing onboard, followed by fresh fish and chips in Dingle town and an ice breaker pint of Guinness in Dick Macs old style pub. Our first night sleep on the boat was early to bed and early to rise….

 Monday 3rd September 2012

Leaving Dingle harbour at first light we were greeted by Fungi – ‘the Dingle dolphin’ and an amazing sunrise over the Kerry Mountains and Dingle bay. We were armed with a range of binoculars and camera lenses for visual watches as well as hydrophones and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) software for acoustic detections.

Fungi © Deirdre Slevin 2012

We had heard from local IWDG member and whale watcher Nick Massett that humpbacks were in the area! We were optimistic to find these whales but unfortunately weather conditions closed in, mist descended, the wind picked up and sea state became quite choppy making observing conditions very poor. However it did allow all crew to gain their sea legs on the first day at sea, some slightly green faces and sleepy heads were obvious just after midday. We made a course west of the Blasket islands and were lucky to have three different pods of common dolphins come alongside to bow ride the boat.

We also saw a grey seal and a sunfish at the surface of the water before the weather closed in around us and we made our way back to port early in the evening due to conditions and last minute land jobs needed to be done. A quiet night was spent in the harbour with everyone ready for bed very early after acclimatising to the seas movements and weather conditions.

Common Dolphins Bow Riding Celtic Mist © Niall Mac Allister 2012

Common dolphins © Patrick Lyne

Tuesday 4th September 2012

As we left Dingle Harbour we were again greeted by Fungi and glad to see that the weather was a complete change from the previous day with calm waters and blue skies, perfect observing conditions. As we made our way past the Blasket islands and followed a similar course to the previous day the swell picked up which intermittently obstructed our view.

But we had a great asset on land as Nick Massett was doing visual watches from Clogher and in contact with us letting us know where the action was. And boy was there action!

Flocks of feeding birds were present in the distance north west of the Blaskets and Nick had clocked some large whales in amongst them. As we made our way to the feeding frenzy we had a brief encounter with a bottlenose dolphin and lots of common dolphins came to take a look as we got closer to the diving birds feeding on schools of herring.

When only a few meters from the feeding frenzy of diving gannets it was evident that there was a lot of action under the water too lots of common dolphins were corralling the fish and there were at least three Minke whales in there lunge feeding- a spectacular sight! .

We also saw humpback whale blows amongst another feeding frenzy. That evening we returned to Dingle harbour delighted with our first day of proper observing conditions! We planned for the next day heading out to the continental shelf and got our last full night’s sleep.

Minke Whale Lunge feeding © Lucy Hunt

Wednesday 5th September 2012

In the morning we refuelled and gathered any last minute provisions for our four day trip offshore. Fungi again graced us with his presence as we left the harbour and we tested the new high definition underwater camera we had on-board on him but he seemed a bit camera shy! The weather was beautiful, clear blue skies and very little wind. There was a lot of zooplankton around which would indicate that there was a lot of food for larger animals too and we could see diving birds off Bray Head, Valentia. When we came upon the diving birds we saw minke whales and over a hundred common dolphins also feeding! It was a breath-taking scene with so much feeding activity and the high cliffs of the picturesque Iveragh Peninsula in the background.

A big slow rolling swell entertained us as we headed out past the Skellig Islands enroute to the continental shelf approximately 120 miles southwest of Kerry all the time watching out for some action in the water. We were amazed by the sheer volume of gannets on and around Little Skellig one of the largest gannet colonies in the world, it was like a scene from Mordor in Lord of the Rings!

Little Skellig Gannet Colony © Patrick LynePassing by the Kerry and west Cork coast we had lots of groups of common dolphins come play in the bow wave and we got some nice underwater footage with the HD camera. We also deployed the hydrophones and set up the passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) equipment to listen for marine mammal vocalisations and activity during the night.

Some common dolphins came in to check us out and we were able to listen to their high pitched whistles as they swam and splashed around the boat! During our first dinner at sea we made bets and had banter on what we were going to see and how lucky we would be out on the continental shelf as we watched the red sun descend below the horizon.

Celtic Mist in Sunset © Deirdre Slevin

For the night we were paired up and put on two hour watches to continue on course to be at the shelf by day break. One person was at the helm and the other to operate PAM and listen out for any marine mammals vocalising which would be heard through the hydrophones. Common dolphin whistles were heard throughout the night and they followed the boat for part of the night. For those who slept it was with excitement and anticipation for what the new day would bring at the shelf, hopes were high for some big whales!

Thursday 6th September 2012

Day light brought with it fantastic observing conditions little to no swell, light winds and a very calm sea state. Deirdre and Chris had been on watch for day break and Deirdre had seen some high columnar blows on the horizon and alerted all crew, Niall confirmed the sighting. Stephen made a hopeful jest ‘how about a blue whale before lunch?’ we all had a light-hearted laugh but knew well it was possible, although there has been very few confirmed Blue Whale sightings in Irish Waters previously, the last one in 2008. As we got closer looking on we knew the whales were big, perhaps fin whales, there were two of them, looking through my binoculars as I watched one of their backs roll out of the water, I knew it wasn’t a fin whale there was no large fin to be seen and it was a blue mottled colour, it was also way bigger than any fin whale I had ever seen! I shouted ‘BLUE’, Matti confirmed it, all eyes were peeled; there was not just one but two blue whales (and one other possible blue whale that needs to be confirmed with photo-id).

Two Blue Whales surfacing © Irish Air Corps

They resurfaced numerous times and everyone on-board got a great view of the largest animals on earth! Niall was up the mast looking on in awe at their sheer size estimating at least 25m and following their every move.  Adrenaline was pumping, we were singing inside I had goose bumps and there was no short supply of smiles all-round deck! We were ecstatic! The coastguard airplane flew overhead and when we told them what we were looking at, they also took some pictures of the blue whales and fin whales close by.

Skipper Niall up Mast © Deirdre Slevin

Our cameras were trigger happy and numerous photos were taken to confirm the sighting and show the rest of the world what we had found in Irish waters, all before lunchtime!!

Our first sighting of the day at the continental shelf could not be out done, it had us on a high for the rest of the day and we continued to see lots of blows from fin whales, more possible blue whales and perhaps a sei whale (photo ID needs to be confirmed). The water was teeming out there and at some stages we felt like we were surrounded by whales, it was mind-blowing!

We had over fifty sightings of large baleen whales and one encounter with common dolphins. Some of the fin whales were within one hundred meters and seemed to be following us at times! We also listened on PAM to dolphins whistling, pilot whales and possible beaked whale vocalisations. It was an incredible day and once the sun had set we couldn’t wait to see what day two on the shelf would bring!

Blue whale surfacing © Patrick Lyne

Friday 7th September 2012

Waking early to another beautiful day at sea the observing conditions were perfect, there was little to no wind and the sea was practically glassy. We were encouraged by the previous day’s sightings and optimistic to see more of the 24 known cetacean species found in Irish waters.

Irish Air Corps  © Patrick Lyne                                          Floating Container © Patrick Lyne

                                                                                           Our optimism was rewarded when a group of common dolphins including one small calf came in to play in the bow wave we noticed that one of the dolphins was different; it was lighter on its underside and had a diagnostic black stripe from its eye along its flank, it was a striped dolphin, a species not commonly seen in Irish waters! The day continued as the day before with high blows in the distance and numerous sightings of fin whales, we were also lucky to have ten rissos dolphins come to the boat and swim around us whilst we took pictures and listened to the very high pitched whistles and buurrs on PAM. The Risso’s Dolphins were very playful and some great images were taken of them breaching!

Rissos dolphin breaching © Patrick Lyne

In the afternoon we saw a strange shaped object in the far distance on the horizon, it wasn’t a boat and it was definitely not a whale, we were headed that way and decided to investigate, it looked like a container had fallen from a container ship and as we made our way towards it we made lucrative plans to salvage it and get rich quick! However when we neared it we saw a high blow right next to it from a fin whale and then saw that it was a bulk haul gas container that would have probably fallen from a cargo vessel, we reported it to the coastguard so they could have it picked up, in case it may do damage to any other boats especially at night time.

After seeing many more fin whales and some more common and striped dolphins, five pilot whales arrived on the scene in the late afternoon; they swam around the boat unperturbed as we all watched on in fascination. We were hopeful to see some sperm whales at the shelf where water depths reached 1000m as they can dive down to 3km where they like to feed on large squid. We listened on PAM and could hear one to two sperm whales vocalising, their distinct clicks which they use to echolocate their prey. On long foraging dives they can remain underwater for over two hours, we waited sometime but they did not surface for air, therefore we decided to move on.

We had a further few sightings of fin whales as we made our way back along the shelf edge and then some very high blows were spotted before sunset; we decided to pursue this sighting as it would be our last on the shelf. Lo and behold what did we find only two blue whales, we stayed with them until sunset watching their colossal backs rolling through the water, the huge footprint they left and the fluke that one of them showed before they dived deep, once again I was dancing on deck and we were all appreciating this exclusive encounter in our own ways. These two blue whales may have been the same as the ones that we saw on our first day and we were thrilled that the first and last species we came upon on the Irish continental shelf were blue whales!

Blue whale blow © Lucy Hunt

During our trip the shelf, waters just kept giving and were alive with marine mammals, we felt privileged and proud to have had these wonderful experiences on the maiden research voyage of the RV Celtic Mist. We continued our return course NNW towards land accompanied by the ubiquitous common dolphins at intervals throughout the night.

Saturday 8th September 2012

With first light we could see Mizen Head of West Cork in the distance the weather was still calm but the wind picked up throughout the day making observing conditions mediocre. Despite this we still had eight sightings of groups of common dolphins and also some minke whales.

Minke Whale & Common Dolphin © Deirdre Slevin

The hydrophones were hauled in and PAM equipment packed away. It was nice to see land again and the scenic rugged coastline and islands of south west Ireland. The sails were raised and the south westerly’s took us back to port. We docked in Cahersiveen marina, Co. Kerry for the night and went into the town to listen to some traditional music in the local pubs. We reminisced on the sightings we had and the vocalisations we listened to on the PAM gear, laughing and joking about some of the noises the marine mammals were making and how they were so vocal at some stages. We also acknowledged how fortunate we were to have had so many sightings and had such good weather. The forecast for our trip back to Dingle the next day looked like it may be rough but we knew it was a quick crossing and we all had our sea legs by now.

Sunday 9th September 2012

We left Cahersiveen marina and headed with the strong south westerly’s towards the Blaskets, it was a fresh and a choppy crossing but we were all confident in our ship and our skipper. On passing the Valentia lighthouse we saw our eleventh species of the trip; harbour porpoise and for most of our crossing from the Iveragh peninsula to the Dingle peninsula we had common dolphins alongside. Big dark storm clouds loomed behind us but never caught up as we rocked and rolled along towards Dingle. I sat on the bow of the boat for a while dangling my legs over board and reflected on the awesome trip we were just about to finish appreciating all the encounters and the outstanding hands on experience I had just gained from partaking in this trip. Irish waters surely are one of the best places in the world to see marine mammals with over 150 sightings in one week! Before we had even gotten back to land we were making plans for future research trips to the shelf and beyond, and we joked about turning back out to sea there and then and not going home at all!

Celtic Mist © Patrick Lyne

At the mouth of Dingle harbour reliable Fungi was present to welcome us home from our trip of a lifetime on board the RV Celtic Mist!


R.V. Celtic Mist Photo © Irish Air Corps

Celtic Mist Offshore photographed by Irish AirCorps


A BIRDERS VIEW By Chris Peppiatt

During the IWDG MMO/PAM trip on Celtic Mist (3-9 September) seabirds rightly took a backseat to cetaceans. On the first day out from Dingle the weather started out fine but soon deteriorated to steady rain with poor visibility. Since we were inshore (we took a route around the Blasket Islands), we saw the typical inshore seabirds including Razorbill, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Fulmar, Gannet, Manx Shearwater and a couple of Puffins (the only ones that we saw on the trip). Later on we saw a couple of Pomarine Skua flying together in the steady downpour, along with the odd Great Skua and small numbers of Storm Petrel.

The next day was another one-day trip out from Dingle to the Blasket Islands and back. North-west of the islands we encountered a lot of bird and cetacean activity, with the bait balls rounded up by Common Dolphins and Minke Whales also attracting frenzied Gannet dive-bombing and large swirling flocks of shearwaters.

There were plenty of the common Manx Shearwater, but most of the time it was Sooty Shearwater that was the more numerous, with some single species rafts of perhaps as many as 200 birds.

We also saw several Great Shearwater (a large dark-capped and tailed species), as well as a few more Pomarine Skua and a supporting cast of Great Skua and Storm Petrel.

On Wednesday we left Dingle and passed Bray Head, where we again saw Common Dolphin and Minke Whales gathering together bait balls and thus also saw plenty of Gannet and Manx Shearwater feeding on the fish. We headed over to the Skelligs, sailing around the Great Skellig before heading over to a seamount west of Dursey Island.

There were still large numbers of Gannets at Little Skellig, which was a bit of a surprise as late as September.



We sailed overnight to the shelf edge and the next day was one of great excitement with the Blue Whales being seen, along with numerous Fin Whale sightings. Whatever these large whales were eating, however, it was not shoals of small-medium sized fish close to the surface (Stephen suggested that squid might be a major part of the food chain this far from land) and this meant that the numbers of birds seen were quite few. Of note was a single Grey Phalarope, which was seen on the sea surface quite close to the boat for a short while before it flew off (many people would be surprised to think of a wader that can be seen sitting on the sea many miles from land, but this species and the similar Red-necked Phalarope are mainly pelagic outside the breeding season). We also saw two Sabine’s Gulls together (an adult and an immature), several more Pomarine Skuas (with their deep, heavy chests and spoon-shaped central tail feathers), along with small numbers of auks and Storm Petrels.

The next day (Friday) saw us even further out, over the Porcupine Seabight. The weather the day before had been good, with only light to medium swell, but today it was sunny, close to still, almost without any swell and with a near glassy sea (I even took a rather boring looking photo of some flat, empty sea because I couldn’t believe it could be like this so far from land). Again, there was plenty of cetacean interest (Fin Whales, Striped Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin and Pilot Whale), but few birds.

We did get some very good close view of some more Great Shearwaters, as well as an uncommon blue colour phase Fulmar. Prize bird of the day was a single Wilson’s Petrel, which (rather anticlimactically) just bustled past the boat and carried on out of sight.

This is a rare prize bird of seawatches and occasional pelagic seabird trips off the West coast (trips that are unforgettable because of the stench of the chum and dimethyl sulphide that are used to lure birds in), but (while rarely seen from land) this Antarctic breeder is one of the most abundant bird species on earth.

Later on, a migrant Willow Warbler visited Celtic Mist for a short while before being scared off by the blundering movements of yours truly.

On Saturday we again experienced the exhilarating sight of dolphins, Minke Whales, Gannet and Manx Shearwaters feeding on fish shoals off Mizen Head, but the return phase of the journey was pretty quiet for birds, with nothing new coming to light.

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