Celtic Mist in the Porcupine Bight III September 2014

By Patrick Lyne, IWDG MMO Officer

This year was somewhat different to previous years.  Weather again promised to be settled to begin with but tuna fishermen reported few or no whales in the eastern Porcupine Seabight.  Two boats had been out and returned the night before we sailed and had seen no large whales in the area.  It seemed incredible that an area so rich in whales in the previous two years could be totally devoid of them now.  So we sailed and struck out for the pre-determined track lines.  Humpbacks had deserted the Blaskets and even common dolphin and minke numbers seemed less than previous years.  But the common dolphin is always present in prodigious numbers of the south west in September and it wasn’t long before we picked up pods of dolphins on September 3rd.  We had decided since we had a good weather window we should make haste to the shelf edge.

Common dolphins

Common Dolphin on the bow of the Celtic Mist September 3rd.

We left Dingle, sailed past the Skelligs and South to Leck Rock a submerged small seamount that had quite a bit of activity around it, before striking out for the shelf edge. We arrived at the first waypoint on September 4th and in excellent conditions worked slowly North. But all day all we had was a single blow in what in 2012 was an area that was boiling with whales and had a more modest number in 2013 and now there were virtually none.  We did have a group of pilot whales at the end of the day but it was extraordinary that there were so few animals in this area.  September 5th continued on the track lines North and had a few sightings but clearly this was an area with few animals.  We decided that since the weather would hold for another day that we would try and catch up with the Spanish tuna fleet about 100km to the North West.  By the morning of the 6th we had arrived at a small group of 16 boats and immediately had a few sightings.  But the weather had deteriorated faster and more than anticipated.  We turned the vessel to the North East to avoid the worst weather.  All pretence of an effort watch had to be cancelled as the weather was not suitable.  On Sunday the 7th we headed back for the Blaskets as the wind started to ease.  While still some 40 miles North West of the Blaskets C253 maritime patrol of the Irish Air Corps flew overhead and informed us there were whales near us.  As the wind was blowing force 5 with choppy seas these had been missed by us.  However the animals proved too fast and elusive for us and when C253 left we turned once again for the Blaskets.  Within minutes 2 fin whales surfaced close to the vessel and we were treated to close up displays of feeding.

Fin whale

Fin whale surfacing beside the Celtic Mist September 7th.

Fin whale

Fin whale feeding on the surface September 7th

We reached  the Blaskets by night and pulled into the shelter of Inishvickillane for the night.  On the morning of September 8th we awoke slowly before making our way back to Dingle.

Cetacean sightings for the trip numbered 33 with 6 species seen.  This would seem respectable in many parts of the world but it is not for the Porcupine Bight.  The number of animals that can be seen here is normally much greater at this time of year and while it is a moveable feast we should be able to explain why numbers and distribution changes from year to year but we can’t.  The number of seismic surveys has increased at this time of year and the affects of these on whale distribution is not known and it may be just that changing weather and currents have made other areas more abundant.  There is a huge requirement for more data on cetaceans in the Porcupine and not just on blue and fin whales which are both classified as endangered.  Other species as well are found here including beaked whales for whom the northern Bight seems to be a hot spot, with 7 sightings in two years.  We need better baseline data from which to measure current abundance and distribution and assess human impacts on these.  While there is some suggestion that the Porcupine Bight is not really of significance for fin and blue whales, data from this year’s seismic surveys which has been made available on the DCENR website, shows this is not the case and that large numbers of animals were present in the Seabight in the autumn, but not where they were previously.


The above table shows there is urgent need to understand the variables affecting fin whale and possibly blue whale distribution in the Porcupine Bight.  Both of these species are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and require protection under OSPAR (Oslo and Paris Conventions) and CMS (Conservation of Migratory Species) conventions to which Ireland is a signatory nation.

We were deeply appreciative of the loan of PAM equipment by Vanishing Point however due to sailing without weight the PAM gear was too high in the water and suffered unduly from wave noise which made the PAM equipment largely unusable.  Unfortunately the IWDG PAM system had been damaged and was unable to be repaired in time for sailing.




Crew of the Celtic Mist from left: Rachel Collingham,Ken O’Sullivan, Patrick Lyne, Niall MacAllister, Lucy Hunt, Gisela Kempken Hetfeld, Margaret Cleary and Noel Linehan

Thanks to all the crew for a safe and successful voyage.

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