BBC return to Ireland to film humpback whales

by Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer

The latest IWDG filming collaboration was completed yesterday 21st August in West Kerry and was the culmination of planning which began as far back as August 2013 with the BBC Natural History Unit, who were commissioned by the “BBC One show to film humpback whales for their popular wildlife slot.  We had previously tried with limited success to film humpbacks in December 2012 in West Cork with Gordan Buchanan for BBC Winterwatch but a combination of poor weather and camera shy humpbacks conspired against us. Thankfully the unit shared our enthusiasm and belief that this story was worth going after again.


Humpback breaching off Co. Kerry 20/08/2014 (c) Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

Presenter Mike Dilger with Padraig Whooley, IWDG (c) Nick Massett

Presenter Mike Dilger with Padraig Whooley, IWDG © Nick Massett

During the negotiations we convinced them that the IWDG’s Celtic Mist would be the ideal filming platform for this 3 day shoot; which proved to be the right call, as she was available and comfortably sleeps 8 people and her generous internal and deck space provide ample room for the assortment of camera equipment a professional film crew work with. A huge effort was put in by Celtic Mist manager Deirdre Slevin who arranged for skipper Finbarr O’ Connell of Fenit to skipper for the duration of the shoot.

The location for humpbacks in summer was always likely to be the Blaskets/Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry,  based on years of sightings data by Nick Massett and a strong run of humpback whale activity since 19th May 2014. A quick plot of all humpback whale sighting records on in 2014 shows the biggest concentration of humpback whale sightings were from West Kerry (70%), so there was little doubt as to where we were going to film. The risk assessment was arduous as the BBC needed to line up a lot of ducks before they’d press the “scramble button”.



#HBIRL23 with Great Skellig, Co. Kerry behind (c) Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

#HBIRL23 with Great Skellig, Co. Kerry behind © Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

So we pencilled in a two week window for mid-August and once we had the weather and sufficient current sightings and a guarantee that the Celtic Mist was available with key personnel in place, it was all systems go. Finbarr and Deirdre brought the boat down from Fenit to Dingle Marina, Nick was firmly glued to his cliff top perch scanning from Slea and Clogher heads, photo ID cameras in West Cork were being primed, crossbows for biopsy were being calibrated in Clare, while the BBC team flew over on Monday into Shannon.  We must also thank the Haughey family for consenting to our using their mooring on Inisvickillaun on Tuesday night and for their hospitality on the Island. In between all this there were endless phone calls and more emails than my spam filter could handle. A lot of time and effort had been invested into this project by a lot of people, and all we could do was hope the whales obliged.

 Another breach by #HBIRL23 20/08/14

Another breach by #HBIRL23 20/08/14 © Pádraig Whooley, IWDG(c) Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

Day one was a day we’d probably all rather forget. After 12 hours visiting all the waypoints where previous sightings suggested humpbacks should be, we didn’t find a single whale. It wasn’t only the humpbacks that were absent, as even the normally abundant minkes were gone too. While the sea conditions were far from perfect with a lively enough sea, it was most unlikely that we’d missed them, as Nick drew a similar blank from his vantage point. The mood at our Inisvickillaun mooring was decidedly glum and in sharp contrast to the high spirits that prevailed as we sailed out of Dingle early that day.  It was beginning to look like some clever re-writes of the script were required as Fungi and a few common dolphins along with the Skellig gannets were being considered by the producer as the key players in the narrative.



Fulmar... © Pádraig Whooley, IWDG(c) Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

But it was for these precise reasons that IWDG were project partners. Let’s face it, any boat or skipper will suffice as a filming platform if you know where whales are and there are lots of them. But when the whales completely disrupt your plans by disappearing then its good to be able to draw on the collective experience that IWDG have gained over many years working with large whales in Irish Southwest waters. Thankfully, we made the right call.

There was no point in spending another day searching an area which was clearly void of whales.  We made a call to move out of the Dingle bay area and head south to the Skelligs as early as possible the following morning and keep pushing south east along the Kerry coast. This decision was based largely on sighting trends over several years that suggest that when humpbacks leave West Kerry, they tend to show up in West Cork not long after. Moored at Inisvickillaun, which is a magical place there was also a sense that Charlie’s spirit was guiding us in a certain direction.  The search was back on.

Tail fluking 20/08/14

Tail fluking 20/08/14 © Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

(c) Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

Once again as we crossed Dingle Bay, we observed not a single whale, although presenter Mike Dilger may have seen two tall blows in quick succession while yours truly went below to the loo for the first time in 15 hours. Amazing how often going to the toilet for 5 minutes can make whales appear!  But once we cleared the Skelligs, passing Puffin Island on our port side, the profile of the water changed for the better. Minke whales started appearing among large aggregations of manx shearwaters and common dolphins. Now this was starting to look more like the conditions we needed and all thoughts of Fungi were soon banished when offshore of Scarriff Island, IWDG Education Officer Lucy Hunt made that familiar call….”BLOW”!  Sure enough, a medium sized whale of stocky frame with a low bushy blow arched its back to reveal the hump of the Big-Winged New Englander.  The rest as they say is history.

Photo ID shot confirming a re-sight of #HBIRL23

Photo ID shot confirming a re-sight of #HBIRL23  © Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

(c) Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

Over the next few hours we filmed this humpback displaying an elaborate behavioural repertoire that we’ve come to expect from this most iconic marine mammal. It breached many times, pec-slapped, tail-fluked and most importantly the photo ID images confirmed this to be #HBIRL23 (image right), a whale that is well known to Nick, as he has documented it on three previous occasions this summer since May 19th around the Blaskets and on four occasions between 28th July and 14th September 2013. So not only did we capture some magical moments with this animal in a stunning location, often breaching and fluking with the Skelligs in the background to our west, but this re-sighting is another important piece of information regarding the movements of humpback whales visiting the Irish Southwest.

Celtic Mist off Kerry Coast 20/08/14

Celtic Mist off Kerry Coast 20/08/14 © Nick Massett

(c) Nick Massett

We hope what we have made available for the BBC NHU and will air later in the year will do justice not only to these fantastic animals, but will also serve to promote the work of the IWDG and the recording schemes which are currently largely unfunded in the Republic. Of course it’s all down to the editing and we have no control over this process, which is why we’d like to use the Celtic Mist for more Irish natural history productions and to actively promote Ireland as a wild destination which boasts some of the finest land and seascapes in the North Atlantic… well as being one of the best destinations in the northern hemisphere to film iconic species such as the humpback whale. IWDG extend a huge thanks to following personnel for making this happen: Finbarr O’ Connell (Skipper), Deirdre Slevin (Celtic Mist manager), Lucy Hunt (IWDG Education Officer, MMO and fine cook), The Haughey Family (Inisvickillaun), Dingle Marina, Nick Massett and Stephen Commerford (land based watches and RIB support). Well done to Jo, Colin and Lara at BBC NHU for having faith in the project and we’ll see you no doubt before too long filming large whales in Irish waters.

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