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The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has combed through years of accumulated images to make a start on its new photo identification catalogue for fin whales in Irish waters.

And the group is calling on anyone with good-resolution images of the often elusive cetaceans to submit them to the catalogue for appraisal and potential matching.

“It only takes one strong image to reveal an animal’s identity,” IWDG sighting officer Pádraig Whooley says, “and in time this citizen science resource should begin to tell us more about the life histories of the wider cohort that arrive annually along the Irish South Coast most years during May.”

Whooley explains that recording of fin whales in Ireland — historically the more dominant of Ireland’s two large baleen whale species — had taken a backseat to that of the larger, more easily photographed humpback whales which began arriving in greater numbers a decade ago.

Another reason for this shift in emphasis, Whooley says, was the “international significance” of Ireland’s rising numbers of a marine wildlife species, in humpbacks, that has been more susceptible to commercial exploitation.

In recent weeks, however, Whooley says the time was right to revisit the IWDG’s trove of fin whale images which he and Andrew Malcolm have “whittled them down” to a starting set of “53 well-marked individuals, several of whom have been recorded over multiple years”.

“As with the humpback catalogue, these animals have been allocated unique references with associated sightings histories and are stored on a Google drive for ease of matching new images and sharing with colleagues both at home and overseas,” Whooley adds.

It’s hoped to grow this collection with contributions to the public to [email protected] The IWDG asks that submissions be of at least medium to high resolution, sharp and shot within 100 metres of the focal animal. Especially desired are photos that show “a well-marked dorsal fin or linear scars, blemishes, signs of ship-strike injuries, entanglement marks etc” that will ease identification.

“Given the nature of fin whales and what appears to be declining numbers in Irish waters, this catalogue will no doubt throw up many challenges in the years ahead, but we’re confident there will also be some fascinating discoveries that will help inform future management plans for the largest whale in our coastal waters,” Whooley says.

“As with the humpbacks, one of the first questions we’ll be hoping to answer is, where are their breeding grounds? It’s remarkable that thus far this vital piece of ecological information has eluded whale researchers… perhaps the Irish fin whale catalogue will help solve this mystery?”

An abridged version of the fin whale catalogue will be made available on the IWDG website for citizen scientists to try to match any fin whales they’re fortunate to encounter.

Published in Marine Wildlife

Despite lower attendance and a reduced sighting rate, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) says it is “delighted” with the return of its All-Ireland Whale Watch Day last month.

Held on Saturday 20 August during Heritage Week and for the first time since 2019, on account of the COVID pandemic, this year’s event saw an overall decline in attendance (-38% on 2019) and fewer cetacean sightings (33% of sites compared to 58% in 2019).

IWDG sightings officer Pádraig Whooley, who organised the event, suggested that a confluence of factors — from windy conditions on the day to the legacy of the pandemic and even holidays abroad — may have affected the turnout.

In addition, the poor sea state at many watch sites would have affected the sighting rate, with the best results at Clogherhead in Co Louth (two dolphin species and four harbour porpoises) and Howth Head in north Co Dublin (10 harbour porpoises). No whales were recorded at any of the 18 sites.

But some 530 marine wildlife enthusiasts made a day of it around the Irish coast, and Whooley is optimistic about the future of the initiative.

“We hope that among those who attended, there will be some new members and dedicated whale watchers who are willing to volunteer some of their time and energy in furthering our understanding of the whales and dolphins that live in Irish coastal waters,” Whooley said.

“Our challenge, post-pandemic, is to find new and innovative ways to rebuild this important natural history event and so we may explore the potential for moving it to May in 2023 to coincide with Biodiversity Week.”

Published in Marine Wildlife

A pair of killer whales from a unique group have been sighted off the Kerry coast, as Radio Kerry reports.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has identified the two male orcas seen off Bray Head on Valentia Island this week as the last known surviving members of the Scottish West Coast Community Group.

And according to the Mirror, it marks the second sighting for the pair in this area within the last three months.

Studied for years by marine scientists due to isolation their genetic distinctiveness from other orcas in the North Atlantic region, these marine mammals commonly feed in the Hebridean Islands.

But they’ve previously been found as far as Scotland’s east coast, Lough Swilly in Donegal and four years ago off the Blasket Islands, likely in search of food.

Experts have feared for some time that this orca pod has been nearing its end. It last calved more than 30 years ago and has shrunk from around 20 individuals in the 1980s to just two known members, John Coe and Aquarius, as of 2016.

Published in Marine Wildlife

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) is running a series of land-based, guided whale watches in five counties around the island of Ireland this Saturday 21 May.  

Hosted in celebration of Biodiversity Week and to promote the biological recording of marine wildlife like cetaceans and basking sharks in Irish waters, these free events will be led by experienced IWDG personnel and local members who will be on hand to introduce you to the field skills involved in locating, identifying and recording the more frequently seen whale and dolphin species in Irish waters.

No pre-bookings necessary so you can just turn up on the morning with your optics, sense of adventure — and sense of humour!

Whale watches are taking place this Saturday morning in the following locations:

  • Loop Head, Co. Clare, meeting at Lighthouse, leader Mags Daly, tel 083 8401102, email: [email protected]
  • Dun na mBó, Mullett Peninsula, Co Mayo, leader Sean Pierce, tel 086 8368736, email: [email protected]
  • Rathlin Island, Co Antrim, meeting at West Lighthouse, leader Pádraig Whooley, tel 086 3850568, email: [email protected] 
  • Howth Head, Co Dublin, meeting at Balscadden Car Park, little shop (Howth Hub), leader Dave O’Connor, tel 087 6665049, email: [email protected]
  • Cloghna Head, West Cork, meeting at Galley Head View car park, leader Denis O’Regan, tel 083 3369775, email: [email protected]

All five whale watches will take place from 10am to noon so you should arrive at your local meeting point in good time (9.50am) to ensure you don’t miss the welcome, introduction and safety briefing. 

As whale watching requires reasonable weather, watch leaders reserve the right to cancel a local watch in the event of strong winds and/or rain, so our advice as always is to keep a close eye on the local weather forecast. If in any doubt, contact your local watch leader the day before your event (details below) to avoid a wasted journey.

You should dress appropriately for conditions on the day. The IWDG suggests warm and waterproof clothing and sturdy footwear if the forecast is marginal. If the weather is settled, then of course you should apply sunblock and wear a sun hat.

Also please remember to take away your rubbish, as these sites are both scenic and rich in biodiversity. It’s best to leave family pets at home.

Optics are important for land-based whale watching and at a minimum you should bring a pair of binoculars with which you’re familiar, and better again if you have a wildlife spotting scope. A camera with zoom lens is an optional extra, in case animals venture close to the shore.

Watch leaders will have some educational material to hand out and some will have whale artefacts of interest to show participants on the day. 

There will be some IWDG resources and field guides for sale for anyone who’d like to support our charities work and learn more about our recording schemes.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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A whale species never before recorded in Irish waters has been confirmed by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG).

The marine wildlife specimen reported at Glengarriff in West Cork on 1 May — which live-stranded before it was found dead the following day — is that of a dwarf sperm whale, IWDG strandings officer Stephanie Levesque said.

Video footage received of the whale was shared with international experts “who confirmed that in their opinion it was a dwarf sperm whale due to its taller dorsal fin and smaller back”.

Levesque acknowledged concerns over the distress of the animal in the supplied video but said that “there is nothing [anyone] could have done as it was thrashing violently on slippery, seaweed covered rocks … It is extremely important to understand, if you see a stranded animal thrashing violently in this way, as difficult as it is to watch, you must keep your distance.”

The 2.25-metre female whale was with calf when it died, and a post-mortem by Drs Jim Donovan and Mercedes Gomez-Parada at the Cork Regional Vet Lab could not confirm the cause of death.

Examining the carcass of the dwarf sperm whale, a 2.5m pregnant female | Credit: Simon BerrowExamining the carcass of the dwarf sperm whale, a 2.25m pregnant female | Credit: Simon Berrow

“Prey remains, including squid beaks, were found in its stomach which was recovered together with the whole intestine for further analysis,” Levesque added. “The skeleton will be prepared by the IWDG and donated to the National Museum of Ireland (Natural History) to be preserved by the State.”

Meanwhile, genetic testing of a skin sample was performed by Dr Eileen Dillane, a geneticist at UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who identified a 99% match with the genes of dwarf sperm whales from the Western North Atlantic.

The last known record of a dwarf sperm whale in this part of the world was a sighting off Cornwall in the UK in October 2011.

“Whether we might expect more strandings of this ‘warm water’ species in Ireland and the UK following the impacts of climate change remains to be seen, but it is very important to continue to report stranded cetaceans to the IWDG so we can monitor these trends into the future,” Levesque said.

This was the second animal to be examined under the new Deep-Diving and Rare Cetacean Investigation Programme (DDRIP) launched by the IWDG recently.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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Photos taken off the Azores in recent days show that a white humpback whale mother and calf may be among the marine wildlife species’ annual migration to the North Atlantic.

And that means whale watchers in Ireland may have a chance to see this rare occurrence this summer, if we’re lucky.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) said on social media: “They were traveling northwest along the coastline of the island, but she was not certain whether they were heading south or north.

“In that case, we ask all whale watchers to keep their eyes (scopes, cameras) open for them.”

According to Whale Watch Azores, the adult albino humpback seems to be a well-travelled animal, matching a sighting 10 years ago off Svalbard in the far north of Norway – and may also be the same white whale that’s been spotted off Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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More than 100 basking sharks were spotted in the waters off Hook Head in Co Wexford last week as their season for 2022 starts “with a bang”, as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group reports.

A member of the public, Charlie O’Malley observed the massive congregation of the ocean’s second largest fish last Thursday (24 March) just six-to-eight miles southwest of Hook Head.

Not only were they great in number, but in size too — with O’Malley estimating many larger specimens of the marine wildlife giant of over 20ft in length.

“We have no reason to doubt the veracity of this report,” said IWDG sightings officer Pádraig Whooley. “Charlie hails from Achill Island and basking sharks are a species that run in his blood.”

Whooley said this “incredible kick-start” to the 2022 basking shark season follows a “good year” for sightings in 2021, with 161 validated by the IWDG — though the peak was between 2009 and 2011 when an average of more than 200 per annum were validated.

Sightings have also come in from Inis Mór in the Aran Islands and Baltimore in West Cork, and more are expected in the coming weeks — not least because these sharks have been in the news recently owing to their newly gained legal protection under the Wildlife Act, as reported on Afloat.ie.

Listen to to Tom MacSweeney's podcast with IWDG's Simon Berrow and also Charlie O’Malley here

Published in Marine Wildlife
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The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has confirmed the sighting of a common dolphin in the River Liffey at the weekend.

According to TheJournal.ie, the marine mammal was spotted swimming near the Poolbeg power plant on Saturday morning (12 March) before it headed out further into Dublin Bay.

IWDG sightings officer Padraig Whooley told TheJournal.ie: “This is only the second time IWDG has confirmed a sighting of a common dolphin in the Liffey system, so it is an unusual record.”

Previously a common dolphin wowed early morning city-goers when it swam up the Liffey as far as the Loopline Bridge in November 2018, as reported on Afloat.ie.

Published in Marine Wildlife

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) says it’s clarified its opinion on recent whale strandings in Donegal, explaining that the evidence does not suggest an “unusual mortality event” or UME.

It has been feared the strandings of two female sperm whales — at Maghery and on Malin Head respectively — were linked to Russian military exercises in the North Atlantic, as Afloat.ie reported last weekend.

But upon reviewing the data of marine wildlife strandings on the Irish coast between 15 and 21 February, including a female Cuvier’s beaked whale and a female long-finned pilot whale, the IWDG says that the incidents do not deviate from the expected annual stranding figures.

“Before any claims can be made calling this a UME or linking these current deaths to the military testing, additional evidence is needed,” IWDG strandings officer Stephanie Levesque said.

“We must wait to see if any further deep diving species wash up over the next few weeks as these numbers themselves currently are not out of the ordinary.”

However, Levesque added: “Two female sperm whales washed up at the same time is unexpected as most stranded sperm whales in Ireland are mature males.”

Meanwhile, it’s believed that “souvenir hunters” may be responsible for removing jaw bones from the two female whales washed ashore in Donegal.

Levesque told Donegal Live that such practice is common but it’s not known why.

“I don't know who does, but it is something that happens with sperm whales when they strand — the lower jaw is the first thing to go,” she said. “I don’t know if people think they are worth something.”

Donegal Live has more on the story HERE.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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It’s feared that at least one whale stranded in Donegal in recent days may have died as a result of Russian military exercises in the North Atlantic.

According to The Irish Sun, a marine wildlife expert investigating the stranding of a female whale at Maghery on Wednesday (16 February) said it appeared “deflated” and that its internal organs had “liquefied”.

Stephanie Levesque, a strandings officer with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), noted that it is not yet confirmed how recently the animal died but said: “We can’t rule anything out at this point.”

It’s understood that sperm whales, which can dive as much as 800 metres in search of food, can risk their lives by surfacing too fast when disturbed by sonar often employed by military vessels.

But disturbances caused by this week’s double whammy of Storm Dudley and Storm Eunice may have played a significant role.

A second sperm whale found at Malin Head on Thursday (17 February) was also deemed unusual.

Commenting on social media, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA) Ireland said: “What stood out was this animals teeth were very worn! Sperm [whales] are the largest toothed predator in the world.”

Before Russia agreed to move its planned military exercises out of Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan warned that the activity could have “devastating consequences” for marine mammals in the area.

Such concerns prompted the IWDG to back the call from the fishing industry for a moratorium on any and all military exercises within the Irish EEZ.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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